by Wanda Wilk

Originally published on the PMC website on 8 August 2000


In tracing Polish history and music we find that Poland followed Western Europe rather faithfully. With the adoption of Christianity in 966, the various religious orders brought with them the Latin language and Gregorian chant. Music was practiced by women in the convents, as evidenced in the miniature from 1418 showing a group of nuns singing under the direction of their founder and superior, St. Clare. The order of St. Clare had capellas in most of its convents. The nuns also maintained internal ensembles composed of sisters who sang and played on various instruments (violin, bass or organ).

The earliest woman to be noted in Polish music history was a nun from the 15th century, Duchna Jankowska. However, it has not been established whether she was a composer, instrumentalist or only a copyist. The manuscript which had been preserved in the National Library at Warsaw was lost during World War II. Another woman, during the same period ( ca.1400), was a flautist in a royal group of musicians. Records show that two nuns from the order of St. Clare, Zofia Kaniroska (1743) and Teresa Fabianska (1760) composed several masses. Documents from the year 1772 also indicate that the wife of the convent organist, Pilawska, was a member of the Dominican Cappella in Borek Stary in southeastern Poland.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Italian and German artists and musicians were brought in by wealthy families to work side by side with Polish musicians, mainly in court orchestras financed and maintained by the aristocracy. During that time music was treated as a recreational activity designed for women. They were given art and music lessons by the foreign masters to supplement their education. From the 1800’s onward pianists drew their income chiefly from teaching women whose families regarded the ability to play the piano as qualification towards social or matrimonial eligibility, along with singing, drawing, embroidery and elementary French. Aristocratic women not only performed within their own circle of friends, but also composed music for their own entertainment. Some of the most fervent musical activity took place at the great estates of the Czartoryski and Radziwill Princes.

Princess Franciszka Urszula Radziwill wrote comedies interspersed with music. Her arias, dialogues and choral pieces were sung in Polish some thirty years before Poland’s first o pera was written. Princess Izabela Czartoryska (1746-1835) composed a number of songs which were published in Paris in 1780. The Czartoryski family estate at Pulawy became one of the largest music centers in the country during that time.

All the while, in the convents, musical activity was being pursued by the nuns. The music scores preserved in seven books dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, found in the Benedictine monastery in Staniatki, indicate that one of the songs, for three female voices with continuo, was written by Anna Kiernicka in 1754. A little earlier, prior to 1724, another nun, Zuzanna Niewiarowska was active as an organist. In the collection of the National Library in Warsaw there have been some Polonaises and a Divertissement for clavecin preserved, composed by Henrietta Jacobson, who resided in Warsaw in 1778.

Composers of Art Songs

Women played an important role in the development of the Polish art song in the late 18th and the first three decades of the 19th century. In the year 1814 in Warsaw, the Society for Religious and National Music (Towarzystwo Muzyki Religijnej i Narodowej) was formed. Among the active members we find several women: Zofia Zamoyska (1779-1837), Cecilia Beydal (d.1854), Franciszka Kochanowska (1787-1821), Konstancja Narbut, and Laura Potocka. Amid these aristocratic names, t he name of Maria Szymanowska (nee Wolowska) is listed. She was the first Polish woman to pursue a professional career as a concert pianist and the first outstanding Polish woman composer.

As members of the Warsaw Music Society these women, along with leading male musicians, commissioned the most popular poet of the time, Juliusz Ursyn-Niemcewicz, to write a cycle of historical poems which they individually set to music. This cycle, entitled Historical Songs ( Spiewy Historyczne), took 28 years to complete. The motive behind composing music to these historical texts was more of a patriotic duty than a musical endeavor. The idea was not to create musical gems, but to provide a suitable accompaniment to these texts which were considered of utmost national and historical importance. The collection of songs that emerged does not exhibit any elements of Polish folk music. Yet, it must be regarded as the seed to consequent development of the art song in Poland.

Musically, the best in the cycle,written by a woman, are songs composed by Maria Szymanowska, which are by far the most original and individualistic. She composed five of these historical songs, of which three were published and two are still in manuscript form. The originals of the first three may be found in the album Szymanowska prepared for her children, preserved in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow (AKC 1953/1). The other two women composers who contributed to the collection were Cecilia Beydal, whose composition shows some interesting rhythms and independent thought, and Zofia Zamoyska who was important enough to be listed first. Another song by Zofia Zamoyska, Do Zulemy, was published in an album of songs with clavichord accompaniment by various composers, as was then customary. This album is also preserved at the Jagiellonian Library.

An extremely popular form of song composed at this time in Poland and the rest of Europe was the romance. The Polish romances composed by Prince Michael Oginski’s daughter Amelia and by Julia Grodzicka are of somewhat amateurish quality. Amelia Oginska composed her songs in 1825 and they, too, are housed at the Jagiellonian Library.

Maria Szymanowska

In addition to the compositions included in the cycle of Historical Songs, Maria Szymanowska composed a total of twenty songs (see Harley’s article, forthcoming). Two were published in 1822 in the annual Flora in Warsaw. The Mazurek is set to the words of A. Gorecki and Spiewka na powrot wojsk polskich (Song for the return of the Polish armies) to a text by Dmuszewski. She also set the music to four poems by her son-in-law, the great poet Adam Mickiewicz: Alpuhara, Piesn z wiezy, [Song from the tower], Wilia, and Switezianka.

Szymanowska also composed six romances which were published in 1820 by Breitkopf and Hartel. Musically, they are closer to the French romances, and only one resembles the Italian operatic romance. Her melodic line displays some typical characteristics of the pre-romantic art song and her accompaniments clearly show a pianistic talent and style.

In general, the Polish romances revealed a tendency toward the use of foreign texts (primarily French) and in their musical aspects they imitated the foreign examples of the French, Italian or Rococo style. Rarely do we find any Polish national elements-with one exception; Szymanowska employs Polonaise rhythms in two of her songs- the Ballada and Kazimierz Wielki (one of her historical songs). Her romances may be compared favorably with the songs of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Her compositions played an important role in the development of the art song in Poland.

Maria Szymanowska

Szymanowska was, clearly, the outstanding woman musician of the early 19th century in the pre-Chopin era. A concert pianist of international fame and a prolific composer, she wrote over 100 compositions, mostly for the piano. In an article in the October 1960 issue of the Musical Quarterly (“Some Slavic Predecessors of Chopin”) musicologist Jerzy Golos (a Harvard graduate and specialist in the history of the organ in Poland) states that Szymanowska must be acknowledged as an important predecessor of Chopin in the field of the concert etude:

Her achievements in this genre are technical brilliancy and idiomatic keyboard writing, broad cantilenas in soprano and tenor ranges, interesting modulations, wide chord-spacing, exploitation of the most effective registers of the instrument and the most pianistic keys.

Golos compares her Etude in F major to Chopin’s Etude, op. 10, no.8 of the same key, and makes other comparisons between Szymanowska’s works and those of her contemporaries. It is worth noting that Szymanowska was appreciated by her peers. Robert Schumann highly praised her etudes. She was often compared to Hummel with respect to her piano playing, but it has been stressed that her playing was more delicate and airy. Thus, she appears to be Chopin’s forerunner in the field of piano technique, as well as composition. Listen to a fragment of her Nocturne in Bflat major.

Other Composers of the 19th Century

It was in the 19th century that the real race of female composers began and even then opposition to women entering this profession was very great – wrote Louis C. Elson in an article “Woman in Music” for the International Library of Music. Women were also generally having a difficult time getting their music published. This was probably the reason why Heryk Wieniawski’s daughter, Irena (Lady Dean Paul after her marriage), used the male pseudonym of Poldowski. She was the only child of Wieniawski to choose a musical career. Her musical legacy consists mainly of art songs (thirty pieces) composed to texts by Paul Verlaine, Albert Samaine, Jean Dominique and William Blake. They were very popular between 1915 and1935 when all were published by J.W. Chester of London under her pseudonym. Irena Dean Paul (1878-1932) also wrote pieces for piano (a cycle of eight compositions), for violin and piano and for clarinet and piano. Most of her orchestral works (Suite miniature de chansons a danseur, Rhapsody `Pat Malone’s Wake,` Symphony Tenements, Nocturne, Symphonic drama to a libretto by Andreyew, and an unfinished sequel Laughter) were destroyed during WWII. The music critics of her time praised the beauty and originality of her music (Nocturne) and detected influences of Debussy particularly in her art songs.

Before Irena Dean Paul, one Polish pianist seems to have fared better than her contemporaries and even immediate successors. When she was only 18, Tekla Badarzewska-Baranowska (1839-1862) wrote a piece of music for the piano that became so popular that even sixty years after her death, one publishing house in Melbourne, Australia, was still selling 10,000 copies a year. This piece, The Maiden’s Prayer or Virgin’s Prayer was originally published with a French title, La priere d’une vierge, in 1856 in Warsaw. It appeared later in the Paris periodical Revue et Gazette Musicale (1859) which was followed, over the years, by 80 different publications in France, Germany, England, Italy, America and Australia. It has been arranged for piano duet, trumpet, clarinet, flute, guitar, harmonium, and even the zither. Badarzewska’s piece is typical of the salon music that was so popular at the time. Most of the music written by women at that time was for domestic use. These were pieces meant for small gatherings suitable for performance by amateurs. There were, however, a few women who did compose chamber music: Filipina Brzezinska (1800-1886), Maria Borkowicz (b.1886), Halina Krzyzanowska (b.1840) and Eliza Markowska (early 1800s). Some composed for the stage, dramas and comic operas- for instance Julia Grodzicka-Rzewuska (early 1800s), Ludmila Jeske (1849-1898), and Salomea Paris (b.1800) – and one, Wiktoria Kowalewska (early 1800s), wrote a waltz for orchestra.

The 20th century witnessed a remarkable surge of Polish women composers who merit serious attention. One of the internationally known names is that of Wanda Landowska (1979-1959). However, she is better known for her great virtuosity at the harpsichord, and for her knowledge of early keyboard music than for her compositions. She wrote many pieces for solo piano and harpsichord including ten cadences to various concertos by Mozart, Handel and Haydn (all published by Broude Bros. New York). Jan Holcman, in his article entitled “Singing Harpsichord,” said: “Her stylistic cadenzas to Mozart’s concertos are hard to distinguish from Mozart’s own music.” Her most significant piano composition is the set of variations for two pianos entitled Polonia. She also composed pieces for orchestra, choir and orchestra, and string ensemble.

Anna Maria Klechniowska (1888-1973) was of the older generation, who like Bacewicz, studied with Nadia Boulanger. Her most important compositions are piano works for young children and numerous vocal works (the Cantata for children’s choirs, and Songs for children for voice and piano or orchestra). She also wrote three ballets and three orchestral pieces: A Wedding Overture, a symphonic poem about Wawel, The Royal Castle in Cracow; and a symphonic suite The Seasons of the Year.

Grazyna Bacewicz

The greatest of the 20th century women composers, who is also perhaps the greatest woman composer of all time, is Grazyna Bacewicz (1906-1969). She came from a family of artists: her Lithuanian father was a music teacher, her brother Kiejstut became a famous Polish cellist, another brother Witold an eminent Lithuanian composer, and her younger sister, Wanda, is a Polish poet . Grazyna was an accomplished violinist and pianist, giving recitals by the time she was seven years old. In 1934 at her graduation concert, she amazed her audience by her personal performance of her own brilliant violin and piano pieces. She received her musical education in Lodz and in Warsaw, where she studied under Sikorski, Jarzebski and Turczynski, at the time when Karol Szymanowski was director of the music school. Having a brilliant and inquisitive mind, she also studied philosophy before going to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger and violin with Touret and Flesch.

Later, as a composer, she was frequently irked by questions from the press about why there are so few women composers, or whether women are really able to become composers. She was also asked if women composers should marry or have children. Her answer was that “as long as a woman is endowed with this particular talent, then, of course, she could be a composer. Of course, she could marry, have children, travel, and experience all sorts of adventures – on condition that she possessed a certain inner motor which would allow her to do more in a shorter period of time than most men (and women) around her. Without this one should not even try to be a composer!”

She also frequently received correspondence from all over the world addressed to Mr. Bacewicz. She saved these letters. In fact, after a performance of her Piano Concerto in Vienna, a music critic wrote that it was a “known fact that in the shadow of Grazyna Bacewicz stands a man who writes her compositions for her.” When she was asked if there was any particular incentive or stimulus which helped her to compose, like being in love or whatever, she answered: “I don’t know of any. Personally, I have found that being in love disrupted my work.”

She was a prolific composer and as early as 1933 received the First Prize in Paris for her Brass Quintet. During World War II, despite mounting difficulties, Bacewicz composed two symphonies and a number of her chamber works. She has written some of the most beautiful music of this century. One only needs to listen to the rare beauty and elegance of the Andante of her early String Concerto or the Andante of the Viola Concerto and the Grave movement from the 7th String Quartet. Altogether she composed over 200 works.

Basically her music is in a neo-classic style, but she got caught up in the wave of modernism after 1956, when Polish composers became acquainted for the first time with Schoenberg, Berg, Messiaen, Webern, Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen. She widened and modernized her idiom, but she remained true to her former technique and stylistic manner, seeking beauty of sound and perfect formal proportions in all of her music. Listen to a fragment of her Piano Sonata No. 2 (Toccata, Movement III).

In Pensieri Notturni, for chamber orchestra (1961), she produced new orchestral tone colors; in the Sixth String Quartet (1960), she experimented with serial technique. One of her most popular pieces is the Concerto for String Orchestra written in 1948, where she shows clarity and logic of construction, mastery of compositional technique and a virtuoso spirit. She displays this virtuosity in the String Quartets nos.4 and 6, the Piano Quintet, the Violin Concertos and the Cello Concerto.

She has received special recognition for many of her compositions: The Olympic Cantata, String Quartets nos.4 and 5, Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion, the Fourth Violin Sonata,the comic opera — Adventures of King Arthur, the Concert Krakowiak and the Seventh Violin Concerto. In addition to these prize-winning compositions and her other major works, she also wrote many outstanding works for the piano and for teaching purposes.

The Belgian government bestowed a special prize on her in 1965. In Poland she was honored by the City of Warsaw in 1949, 1950 & 1952. She received the Ministry of Culture and Art award in 1955 and 1962; the Association of Polish Composers honored her in 1960. The Polish Government bestowed its highest honor upon her with the Order of Polonia Restituta.

In summarizing Grazyna Bacewicz’s achievements as a composer we find a woman whose unusual talent placed her alongside her male peers. She was able to be a composer, to be happily married, to have a daughter, to tour the world as a successful violin virtuoso, to be a teacher, and an author, and to contribute to the commonwealth of western music with her great creativity in writing symphonic works, and especially to the chamber music of the 20th century with her seven string quartets. Lutoslawski eulogized Bacewicz on Polish radio after her untimely death by giving her credit for the exceptionally high rank enjoyed by Polish modern music in the sphere of western culture.

Other 20th Century Women Composers

If one is to judge the quality of work of a given composer by the number of prizes one receives, then Krystyna Moszumanska-Nazar certainly ranks very high. Born in 1924 in Lwow, she studied composition under Stanislaw Wiechowicz and piano with Jan Hoffman. She is presently Professor of Composition, Theory and Conducting at the Academy of Music in Cracow. Between 1962 and 1971 she was president of the Cracow Section of the Union of Polish Composers; she later became the Rector of the Cracow Academy of Music. Her compositions have been performed in numerous countries throughout the world. In 1979 two of her works, Constellations for piano, and a String Quartet were performed at the Warsaw Autumn International Contemporary Music Festival. Following is a list of some of her compositions: Musica per archi (Gold Medal in Buenos Aires), Hexaedre (Honorable Mention, International Competition of Women Composers, Mannheim), Challenge for baritone and instrumental ensemble with text by Dylan Thomas, Variants for piano and percussion, From End to End for percussion, and Rhapsody for Orchestra. Moszumanska-Nazar’s more recent works return to themes based on the folklore of her home city, part of Soviet Union after WWII, now in the Ukraine.

Among other, 20th century Polish women composers there are two of the older generation who studied privately with Karol Szymanowski: Ilza Sternicka-Niekraszowa and Stefania Lachowska. Ilza Sternicka-Niekraszowa (1898-1932), also a student of Aleksander Glazunow and Roman Statkowski, was a talent of great promise who died prematurely at the age of 34. She left two orchestral pieces, some chamber and piano music, and many vocal works, especially sacred ones. Stefania Lachowska (1898-1966) left several orchestral and chamber works and a cycle of Six Preludes for piano.

Other Polish women composers who were active in the first half of the 20th century are: Leokadia Myszynska-Wojciechowska, Jadwiga Sarnecka, Irena Pfeiffer, Jadwiga Szajna-Lewandowska, and Wladyslawa Markiewiczowna.

Leokadia Myszynska-Wojciechowska (1858-1930) wrote many piano and vocal pieces. She was described by a music critic, one of her contemporaries, as an outstanding talent with serious aspirations. Her most complex, and best piano work is the Variations Serieuses in A major composed in 1902. It received much praise when it was first published for its “rhythmic variety and beautiful melodies with a high degree of emotional impact.” Myszynska received her training from two eminent Polish composers of the 19th century, Zelenski and Noskowski.

Jadwiga Sarnecka (1877-1913) was an outstanding pianist. She left several compositions for piano, among them Four Ballades (distinguished in the Chopin Competition in Lvov, 1910), Variations in E minor, and others.

Irena Pfeiffer, born in 1912, distinguished herself not only as a composer, but also as a choral conductor of international renown. She studied composition under Artur Malawski and conducting with the great Polish conductor, Bierdiajew. She produced a large number of vocal works. Recently she was a composer-in-residence with the Lira Ensemble of Chicago, for whom she wrote a series of choral pieces.

Jadwiga Szajna-Lewandowska (1912-1994) wrote five compositions for orchestra and piano. Funerailles, for instance, was orchestrated for piano, string orchestra, and percussion. Among her chamber compositions is a Capriccio for clarinet and string quartet. She also displayed interest in the ballet form, composing two children’s ballets (Pinnochio, Abduction in Tiutiurlistan) and a 3 -act ballet, Tais (1969). She has written a total of 50 pieces of stage music for puppet and drama theaters. She received state awards for several of her compositions , including: Three Jocular Songs to text by L.J. Kern for two voices, emale choir, string quartet and percussion (1963), Ballet Suite for orchestra (1966), and Gramy w Zielone to a text by W. Broniewski for choir/piano (1970).

Wladyslawa Markiewiczowna (which translates to Lottie Markiewicz, 1900-1982) was a pianist, composer and teacher at the State College of Music in Katowice. She studied c omposition with the noted Polish musicologist and music critic, Zdzislaw Jachimecki in Cracow, and from 1922 to 1927 in Berlin, under Leichtentritt and Eisner. She wrote for the piano, chamber music for woodwind instruments (Suite For Two Pianos and Theme With Variations) and many teaching pieces for piano and wind instruments.

Composers of Music For Children

The following group of women composers has been prominent in the field of music for children. The most outstanding of these teacher-composers is probably Janina Garscia-Gressel (b.1920). Her pieces, in colorful, illustrated edtitions, are often the first music encountered by the youngest aspiring musicians. She’s been a recipient of numerous awards and has contributed, among others, Sonatinas and Variations to the Teaching Library. Most of her musical career has been spent t eaching in Cracow.

Music for children by Janina Garscia, PWM Edition.

Maria Dziewulska (b.1909) composed Inventions (1959) for the use in music schools at the first and second levels, with the purpose of introducing young students to contemporary music. She strived for independent thought in both the melodic forms and technique and aspired to bring about a familiarity with modern sounds and tonal sequences. She received her compositional training under Kazimierz Sikorski at first, and later studied special effects for radio, film and recording in London. She was a respected Professor of Music Theory at the Academy of Music in Warsaw.

Maria Kaczurbina-Zdziechowska (b.1908) received a Minister’s Award in 1953. During a Song Composition competition sponsored by Polish Radio in 1954 she won third prize. Ryta Gnus (b.1881), pianist, teacher and composer, was active in teaching music to children by writing many articles pertaining to methods of teaching. She composed many song-books, songs for voice solo, and arrangements for two, three, and four parts.

Irena Garztecka-Jarzebska (1913-1963) has left, in addition to instructional pieces for various instruments and ensembles, several symphonic works, including a piano and a violin concerto. I addition, she wrote numerous piano pieces, chamber pieces for violin and piano, and some vocal works.

Students of Nadia Boulanger

Among the students flocking to Paris to continue their education In the second half of the 20th century, are such names of Polish women composers as: Joanna Bruzdowicz, Bernadetta Matuszczak, Barbara Niewiadomska, Alina Piechowska, and Marta Ptaszynska.

Joanna Bruzdowicz (b.1943), studied first with Sikorski and later with Boulanger and Messiaen. She is presently residing in Belgium. Bruzdowicz has many works to her credit including two operas, orchestral, chamber, keyboard, vocal, and electronic music. In addition to composing concert music she has written incidental music to several films and TV shows. She also works as a journalist, critic and lecturer on contemporary electroacoustic and Polish music. Copies of some of her manuscripts have been deposited at the PMRC.

Bernadetta Matuszczak (b.1931) also studied under Sikorski, as well as Tadeusz Szeligowski before going to Paris. She won several prizes including : Young Composers Award for Canto Solenne per Strumenti (1965),Grzegorz Fitelberg Composer’s Competition for Septem Tubae (1966), and Jeunesses Musicales Competition for Music da camera (1967). Matuszczak has also written several operas and oratorios, two orchestral pieces, chamber music, and sacred works.

The output of Barbara Niewiadomska (b.1938) is not as large as that of some of her peers. She has composed one orchestral piece Allegro, four chamber works, two piano pieces and several art songs. Alina Piechowska (b.1937) studied pedagogy and composition under Witold Rudzinski in Warsaw before going to Paris in 1971. She worked with the Group of Experimental Music in Bourges and paid homage to Nadia Boulanger in her orchestral piece, Music for Strings. Her other compositions include chamber , vocal and electronic music.

Marta Ptaszynska

Marta Ptaszynska (b.1943), in addition to her studies in Poland and Paris, earned her artist’s diploma degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1974, studying percussion with Cloyd Duff and Richard Weiner, and composition under Donald Erb. As a percussionist, she specializes in the performance of avant-garde works, featuring compositions by Serocki, Stockhausen, and Cage, as well as her own music. She is a prolific composer with the largest number of works written for chamber groups. She has also written ten orchestral works, eleven vocal-instrumental pieces, and four stage works including an opera, Oscar from Alva (1971-1972), which received the Polish Television Award in 1986. In the same year another one of her compositions, Winter’s Tale (Opowiesc Zimowa, 1984) was honored with the second prize at the International Rostrum of Composers organized by UNESCO in Paris. In 1992 she composed the Holocaust Memorial Cantata, commissioned by the Lira Singers of Chicago, which has since had several acclaimed performances and has been recorded by POLYGRAM CD ACCORD. In 1995 she received the Cross of Merit from president Lech Walesa, and in 1996 she was a recipient of the prestigious Jurzykowski Foundation Award in music, which was earlier bestowed upon Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Gorecki.
Graduates of Music Schools in Poland

This last group of composers consists of women who have been mostly educated in Poland by Polish teachers. They are: Agnieszka Duczmal-Jaroszewska, Elzbieta Sikora, Barbara Zakrzewska-Nikiporczyk , Grazyna Pstrokonska-Nawratil and Iwonka Szymanska.

Agnieszka Duczmal-Jaroszewska is a composer but is primarily recognized as an accomplished conductor. During her career she has been the director of the Moniuszko Opera House in Poznan, and the founder and conductor of the chamber ensemble Jeuesses Musicales. At present she leads the internationally known Amadeus Chamber Orchestra based in Poznan. Her compositions have mainly been for the theatre.

Elzbieta Sikora (b.1944) studied sound recording at the Music Academy in Warsaw, before shifting to composition. After graduation (1968) she received a French Government scholarship and moved to Paris, to work on electroacoustic music at the now famous Groupe de Recherches Musicales. She made her debut as a composer in 1971, while she was still a s tudent of composition under Tadeusz Baird and Zbigniew Rudzinski; this debut compositon Intervention, is a musical parable for two percussionists, baritone tuba, and symphony orchestra on tape.

Elzbieta Sikora with her grandmother’s harp.

She received numerous prizes, among others at the Composers Competition in Dresden for her opera Ariadna 1977), at the Experimental Music Competition in Bourges for Waste Land (1982), and Letters to M.(1980), at Young Composers Competition in Warsaw for …according to Pascal (1976)and at the Women Composers Competition in Mannheim for Guernica ( 1975-1979). Her most recent commission was a cantata celebrating the millennium of her native city of Gdansk. At present she is a professor of electronic music at the Music Conservatory in Angouleme.

Barbara Zakrzewska-Nikiporczyk (b.1946) received her music degree from the Academy of Music in Poznan where she studied under Florian Dabrowski. In 1981 she completed courses in sonology at the University of Utrecht. Since 1983 she has held the position of head librarian in charge of special collections at the University of Poznan Library. Zakrzewska-Nikiporczyk has written six orchestral compositions, the latest one being Orazione (1981), numerous chamber and vocal works, the ballet Snow White [Krolewna Sniezka, 1976) and several pieces for piano. Her vocal work A Ave for soprano, male chorus, and chamber orchestra was awarded a prize at the Young Polish Composers Competition in 1970. Her other works have been performed at the Poznan Musical Spring Festival and at the Warsaw Autumn.

Grazyna Pstrokonska-Nawratil (b.1947)received her diploma in composition in Wroclaw in 1971. She is also a musicologist. In 1978 she attended lectures by Oliver Messiaen and Pierre Boulez at the Paris Conservatory and a seminar on the music of Iannis Xenakis. She has received honors at the All-Polish Competition for Composers in 1968 and 1973, in 1975 at the International Competition for Women Composers in Mannheim, and in 1987 at the UNESCO International Composers’ Rostrum in Paris for Icarus (1979). She has written compositions for orchestra, chamber groups, choir, piano and voice, and other instruments. She is a lecturer at the Wroclaw Academy of Music.

Iwonka Szymanska (b.1943) studied first at the Academy of Music in her native Gdansk and later at the Academy of Music in Warsaw with K. Jastrzebska piano)and Witold Rudzinski (composition). She published her first composition in 1965, long before she graduated in 1972. She has composed nine works for orchestra (including three symphonies and two concertos). Aaron Cohen mentions in his Encyclopedia of Women Composers that she created a new musical form, the Sonnet. This title is given to the First and Third Sonnet for orchestra; Sonnet II is for two sopranos, choir and orchestra. She also composed three Sonnets for piano, four String Quartets, as well as a Dyptyk and Tryptyk for large brass band. She has received two prizes: for Two Essays in 1971, and in 1973 for Trylogia (three compositions for large orchestra).


Early on in my research, it became evident that, as in other countries of Western Europe, the role of women in the development of Polish music has been largely neglected. The available records are scant, and yet, from what has been preserved, one may conclude that Polish women were, in fact, composing, practicing and teaching music in the early 15th century. However, societal structures then, and through the following centuries, did not provide either for documentation or preservation of their work.

The earliest women-practitioners of the musical craft were usually members of the religious orders, and their musical output was considered a part of their religious worship. Later, in the 17th and 18th century, when music became a fashionable diversion for the aristocracy and lesser nobility, women’s musical accomplishments were confined to the private sphere of their lives and withheld from publishing or public performance. It is during that time that music became an integral part of women’s education, which, a century later, resulted in many women earning their living by teaching music to others. Over those centuries the musical talents of many women have never been acknowledged or shared with the world. Society thus, has been made poorer for its failure to recognize their talent and creativity.

With the onset of the 20th century Polish women began flocking to musical careers either as instrumentalists or composers. As everywhere else they encountered difficulties in publishing their music and making a living practicing it.

During the course of my research I also found that recordings of the music of Polish women composers are rare and written information in English practically non-existent. Unless some changes take place their music will suffer the same neglect and over-sight in the annals of western culture that has plagued Polish women composers in their native country for years.

Marta Ptaszynska, Wanda Wilk, Judith Rosen, M.A. Harley

Selected Bibliography

  1. Chominski, Jozef. ed. Slownik Muzykow Polskich, vol. I & II. Krakow: PWM 1964.
  2. Cohen, Aaron. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. New York: Books & Music USA, 1987.
  3. Elson, Louis C. Woman in Music. International Library of Music. Vol.IV, Music Literature. New York: The University Society Inc. 1925. 319-640.
  4. Gabrys, Jerzy, Janina Cybulska. Z dziejow polskiej piesni solowej. [From the history of Polish solo song]. Krakow: PWM, 1960. Including: Gabrys, Jerzy. Poczatki polskiej piesni solowej w latach 1800-1830; Cybulska, Janina. Romans wokalny w Polsce w latach 1800-1830.
  5. Golos, Jerzy. “Slavic Predecessors of Chopin.” Musical Quarterly. October 1960.
  6. Grabkowski, Edmund. “‘Poldowski’ – zapomniana kompozytorka, corka Henryka Wieniawskiego.” [P. A Forgotten composer, the daughter of H.W.] Ruch Muzyczny. no.4 Feb.23,1997.
  7. Hanuszewska, Mieczyslawa, Boguslaw Schaffer. Almanach polskich kompozytorow wspolczesnych. [A Dictionary of Polish Contemporary Composers]. Krakow: PWM, 1982.
  8. Harley, Maria Anna . “Notes on Polish women composers.” Bulletin of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in Canada vol. 13 (1996): 36-40. Also published in the IAWM Journal 2 no. 2 (June 1996): 13-15; and on PMRC Home Page (Essays).
  9. Harley, Maria Anna. “Maria Szymanowska’s vocal music (article and an edition of Six Romances)” Entry in Women Composers: Music Through the Ages,vol. 3, eds. Sylvia Glickman and Martha Furman Schleifer (Boston, G. K. Hall, Spring 1997).
  10. Harley, Maria Anna. “Bacewicz, Picasso and the making of Desire.”Forthcoming in the Journal of Musicological Research no. 3, 1997.
  11. International Women’s Year. “Polish Women Composers.” Polish Music/Polnische Musik. 10 no.2(37),1975; Krakow: PWM Edition.
  12. Kisielewski, Stefan. “Grazyna Bacewicz 1913-1969.” Polish Music/Polnische Musik. Krakow: PWM Edition, 10 no.2 (37), 1975.
  13. Marek, Tadeusz. “Maria Szymanowska 1789-1831.” Polish Music/Polnische Musik. Krakow: PWM Edition, 10 no.2 (37), 1975.

Note: This lecture, delivered at the International Congress of Women in Music, held at the University of Southern California, (Los Angeles, 1982) was revised and edited in 1997 by M. Pilatowicz.