book review by Alicja Usarek

Małgorzata Gąsiorowska: Bacewicz
Kraków: PWM Edition, 1999. 505 pp.

The new, extensive “life-and-works” book on Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) is the first truly comprehensive and thorough study of this eminent violinist-composer.[1] The book brings into balance general perspectives and approaches derived from cultural history, aesthetics, performance practice, fine arts, and even dance history (the latter for the discussion of her 1969 ballet Desire). Simultaneously, Gąsiorowska presents the life of Bacewicz in a rich context of contemporary musical culture. The distinguishing feature of the book is its attempt to demonstrate the historical, philosophical and compositional connections between Bacewicz’s oeuvre and the surrounding culture. This goal is accomplished quite successfully and with ample internal (i.e. analytical) and external (i.e. primary sources and documents) evidence.

Gąsiorowska offers her readers a broad coverage of divergent biographical materials, set into a tightly-knit continuum extending across several large chapters. The book includes musical examples, excerpts from numerous letters, parts of interviews, photographs, a substantial number of shorter essays by Bacewicz, fragments of facsimiles, chronological index of works, as well as a bibliography. The concepts of artistic development are presented in a technical and narrative-descriptive fashion, in which the stylistic principles are integrated into the historical account. The text is well researched and scholarly, yet thoroughly accessible.

In both initial chapters, a Prologue and the Beginning, Gąsiorowska introduces the basic cultural context and historical background of Poland as well as the characteristics of the urban elite that the Bacewicz family belonged to; this context casts a light on the atmosphere in which the young violinist grew up. The author surveys the artistic life in Łódź, the home town of the Bacewicz family (the father came from Lithuania, though); she also presents the context for the earliest compositional achievements of the young composer. According to Gąsiorowska, Bacewicz’s attitude towards the musical tradition is characterized by the use of neo-classical (or, more specifically, neo-Baroque) formal gestures (throughout her career) and by her drawing from folk sources which feature chromatic material (especially in the 1940s and 1950s). In the period of assimilation of a modernist musical language and the use of new, 20th-century sonorities (from mid 1950s), Bacewicz radically discarded all traces of a neo-romantic compromise. Liberated from the burden of romanticism, the composer transformed the harmonic structures of the traditional major/minor scale system into a freely formed new chromatic idiom; as a result, she brought the traditional forms into a new musical territory and an original sound world.

The third chapter of the book summarizes Bacewicz’s years of study at the Warsaw University and the Warsaw Conservatory, seen as the period of the most intensive search for new harmonic language. In the fourth chapter the author explores the means by which the early twentieth-century works of Bacewicz enter the domain of neoclassicism – by the early 1930s this aesthetic orientation fully permeated Bacewicz’s music. Gąsiorowska brings to the attention of her readers a strong influence of the neoclassical movement in Paris and spontaneous contacts with an international group of composers as essential factors in the development of Bacewicz’s music in this period. The author then discusses an unique array of “fixed” lyrical gestures and the objective, poetic distance which – taken together – establish Bacewicz’s musical language within the context of traditional forms and genres. In this period, the composer’s style may be characterized by a departure from post-Wagnerian chromaticism towards the new spheres of diatonic interactions between free dissonant counterpoint and harmonic structure. These features expand and enrich Bacewicz’s basic concept of motivic construction.

Each of the following chapters continues to center on Bacewicz’s major compositions while taking into account historical circumstances affecting their genesis. The discussion of The Life and Death Time in Chapter Five accounts for the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent, increasingly repressive political atmosphere that had grave consequences for all Poles, and, obviously, for Polish musical life. Gąsiorowska attempts to demonstrate how the progress of Nazi power in Eastern Europe, following Germany’s unprovoked attack on Poland, results, paradoxically, in an increasing psychological motivation for ever more pervasive manifestations of musical creativity in the artistic life of Poland. Nonetheless, the author states that Bacewicz’s public activity during these dark times was limited to performances (both public and secret), educational meetings in the Underground, and artistic expressions of her strong personal commitment to national losses of an occupied country. Significant pieces from this period, in addition to the Sonata for Solo Violin and the Second String Quartet, were mostly works for piano.

Gąsiorowska entitles Chapters Six and Seven—New Life and Flourishing. While the preceding chapters centered on individual works and specific principles of compositional technique, in these two chapters, Gąsiorowska creates a foundation for further discussion of musical style and language by shifting the focus to major compositions presented in detail. A major part of the composer’s oeuvre is writings for the strings, exemplified in this chapter by her Third String Quartet (1947). According to Adrian Thomas, this quartet is the first of “the cycle of five mature quartets whose dates (1947; 1951; 1955; 1960 and 1965) as clearly as those of any of her compositions mark the turning points in her career. As a corpus of works it is unrivalled in twentieth century Polish music and it is a credible claim that, after Bartók, these five quartets represent one of the century’s most significant contributions to the genre.”[2]

While Thomas’s own study is limited to a part of Bacewicz’s oeuvre (her chamber and orchestral music), Gąsiorowska covers the whole output of the Polish composer. The author never abandons the rich historical context which endows the book with its merits of an in-depth historical study and a source of extensive documentation. The year 1948 is a watershed for Bacewicz’s musical career and a turning point in Gąsiorowska’s narrative: the newly introduced ideological constraints of socialist realism have a great impact on the composer. In the following sections of the monograph, the author provides us with a set of tools to reveal the subtle changes in the sonic language of a composer, whose works manifest a remarkable continuity of style throughout her whole career. Certain pieces are presented in great detail, for instance the material about the Third Violin Concerto includes the composer’s own analysis and description of technical strategies used in this work.

There are four general stylistic categories that interact in Bacewicz’s oeuvre: neo-romantic, folkloric, neo-classical, and sonoristic. Their intersections are essential features in the development of Bacewicz’s compositional expression. In the period from 1940s to 1950s Polish composers, such as Andrzej Panufnik, Kazimierz Serocki, and Grażyna Bacewicz, used an increasing amount of folk material. As a reaction to a “historical imperative” (i.e. the policy of “socialist realism” imposed on all composers urged after 1949 to follow the motto of creating music that would be “national in form and socialist in content”) the inspiration with folklore contributed to the unification of the Polish national style. Bacewicz played a great role in this development. She juxtaposed, and later synthesized, diatonic and non-diatonic folk modes with the language of contemporary music. Paradoxically, this difficult time of ideological constraints, was also a time of national and international recognition for Bacewicz’s talent – the recognition manifested through a range of awards that she received.

In the last chapter, Apogeum, Gąsiorowska again focuses on individual works and their significance in Bacewicz’s stylistic development. A detailed analysis is devoted to Music for Strings, Trumpet and Percussion, a 1958 work in three integrated movements that present the composer’s style in its mature and easily recognizable form. This particular composition, as well as many other works, has been used as the musical layer for many ballets (listed in the monograph).

While discussing the evolution of Bacewicz’s musical language, Gąsiorowska emphasizes the nature of her most important and lasting contribution, i.e. her concern for formal construction and musical architecture, coupled with her ability to establish a new relationship between timbral content and dynamic form. In pieces from Bacewicz’s last period, from 1950 to 1969, Gąsiorowska points out the incorporation of extremely divergent timbral and rhythmic layers into unified structural components. Here, the author indicates the influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music and the emergent trends from the Darmstadt School, assimilated and developed by the Polish school of sonorism. While changing her style and moving away from tonality towards new sonorities and timbral effects, Bacewicz created an impressive array of string quartets and orchestral compositions.

The chapter headings in Gąsiorowska’s book form a clear framework, outlining the main phases in the composer’s life and oeuvre. This broad base for detailed discussion allows one to note the existence of historical, theoretical, and stylistic links throughout the narrative. It is worth mentioning that the selection of titles for the chapters suggests Gąsiorowska’s use of a musical framework for her discussion of Bacewicz’ life and compositional development. Here, the sections of the sonata form, i.e. the exposition-development-recapitulation, correspond to the heading of chapters (Beginning, Development-New Life, and Apogeum). The title of the Prologue suggests its function as an introduction (overture) to the musical form. The parallels with movement titles from Witold Lutosławski’s Funeral Music (1958) are even more striking: “Prologue” – “Metamorphoses” – “Apogeum” – “Epilogue.” These titles relate the life-history back to the outline of a Greek tragedy, with its arch-form of increasing intensity leading to a climax of the drama. The “Epilogue” is missing because Bacewicz’s creative life was interrupted by her sudden death (at the age of 60); she died too soon after reaching the apex of her artistic abilities.

The inclusion of many fragments from Bacewicz’s memoirs make the book truly personal, as the pages of the book come to life with her thoughts and ideas. In a draft answer to an unknown questionnaire, published posthumously in Ruch Muzyczny, Bacewicz provided one of the most important insights that permeates Gąsiorowska’s book: [3]

Each of the Polish composers goes his/her own way. I consider here not only the compositional technique or musical language, but the end result as well. Nonetheless, there is something that bounds all the works by Polish composers – something superior. It is their inner content, of course, the purely musical content. This is why it is correct to talk about the existence of a Polish School. The goal of Polish composers is not to assemble their notes together in an original way, it is not enough to discover the new sound effects. We strive for creating music – even a fragment of music – that would create a live experience for the listener, and not only the experience for us, as we compose.

The composer’s concern for her audiences, her focus on the music being meaningful and comprehensible, is coupled with efforts of her biographer to present the abundance of her musical works and life experiences in a clear and engaging fashion. The success of Gąsiorowska’s text lies not only in its content, but also in the form of presentation of each chapter, with its wide scope and internal coherence. The book provides a valuable documentation of the life and music of Bacewicz; it should be regarded as an outstanding contribution to the realm of Polish musicology. The previous publications in the field of Bacewicz studies pale in comparison with this thoroughly researched and excellent volume.


[1] Books on Bacewicz include: an extensive, popular monograph by Stefan Kisielewski, Grażyna Bacewicz i jej czasy (Cracow: PWM, 1963); a brief, general introduction to the composer by Judith Rosen, Grażyna Bacewicz: Her Life and Works (Polish Music History Series, vol. 2. Los Angeles: Friends of Polish Music, 1984); a study of Bacewicz’s songs issued under a misleading title by Sharon Guertin Shafer, The Contribution of Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) to Polish Music (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992); and a study of a part of Bacewicz’s output by Adrian Thomas, Grażyna Bacewicz: Chamber and Orchestral Music (Polish Music History Series, vol. 3; Los Angeles: Friends of Polish Music, 1985). Other books include a collection of studies on the Bacewicz family, edited by Marta Szoka, Rodzeństwo Bacewiczów(Zeszyt Naukowy Akademii Muzycznej w Łodzi, vol. 24, ed. Marta Szoka. Łódź: Akademia Muzyczna w Łodzi, 1996). [Editor’s note].[Back]

[2] Thomas, op. cit., p. 63-64. [Back]

[3]. Grażyna Bacewicz, “Draft Answers to an Unknown Questionnaire” (in Polish). Wanda Bacewicz, ed. Ruch Muzyczny no. 7 (1969): 4. [Back]

Alicja Usarek is a candidate for the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Violin Performance at the University of Texas at Austin. Her DMA dissertation, on Bela Bartok’s 1907 Violin Concerto, is directed by Prof. Elliott Antokoletz. Usarek’s article “Bela Bartok’s Violin Concerto: In the Spirit of Tristan,” appeared in the International Journal of Musicology vol. 7 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang). She recently presented a paper on Bartok’s “First Violin Concerto” at the American Musicological Society in Kansas City (4-7 November, 1999). Born in Poland, Alicja Usarek completed undergraduate studies as a violinist in Wroclaw. She earned a Master of Music degree at the Cracow Music Academy and received the Diploma in Violin Performance from the Munich Hochschule where she studied with Kurt-Christian Stier. Usarek has enjoyed a rich performing career as a solo recitalist, chamber player and an orchestra musician in Europe and America (Cracow, Vienna, Munich, Ansbach, Venice, San Antonio, Valdosta, Austin). This review is the first published result of her long-lasting interest in Bacewicz’s music, both as performer and a music historian.