Bacewicz, Wilk Prizes, and Polish Music Secrets

Editorial by Maja Trochimczyk

I will not say a word about my compositional technique. In this respect I’m unbreakable. My compositional workshop and the genesis of a work are – for me – something discreet, personal, intimate. I know that contemporary composers, or at least a considerable number of them, take a different stance. They explain, they elucidate what systems they have used, in what way they have arrived at something. I do not do that. I think that, for the listeners, the way by which one arrived at something in the music is unimportant. What matters is the final result, that is the work itself.

This statement, made by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) in an interview recorded by the Polish Radio in 1964,[1] reveals an important personal characteristic of Poland’s most acclaimed woman composer. When asked about her own music, she was reluctant to talk about it and tended to avoid discussing the genesis of her works, or revealing aspects of her compositional technique and her sources of inspiration. Moreover, unlike her younger colleagues Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) and Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), Bacewicz avoided giving interviews and public lectures: only two interviews appeared in print during her lifetime.[2] Her literary publications were limited to Znak Szczególny [Birthmark], a slim volume of autobiographical anecdotes, notable for their tone of self-criticism and wry, ironic humor.[3] Even that volume, though, was published after her death: the majority of Bacewicz’s texts appeared posthumously, in editions prepared and annotated by the “guardian” of her artistic heritage, younger sister, poet and literary editor, Wanda Bacewicz (b. 1911).

While the year 2002 does not mark any particular anniversary associated with Bacewicz’s life, the summer 2002 issue of the Polish Music Journal includes information about Bacewicz’s live and oeuvre: a reprint of a calendar of her life edited by Wanda Bacewicz (first published in 1969) and a reprint of biographical article about her life and work written by a noted American musicologist specializing in women composers, Judith Rosen. First published in 1984, as the second volume of the Polish Music History Series, Rosen’s text provides an overview of Bacewicz’s life and a general characteristic of her music. The current electronic version replaces a long-needed reprint and serves to expand the knowledge about Bacewicz and her oeuvre in the English-speaking world. The main part of Rosen’s 1984 essay remains unchanged; revisions include some new notes, illustrations, and documentary material – i.e. the list of works and the bibliography. The reprints provide a mere introduction to a subject that requires much more extensive research. Further biographical material may be found in several books about Bacewicz, including a monograph of her chamber and orchestral music by Adrian Thomas (1985), a study of her songs by Sharon Shafer (1992), and the yet-untranslated-into-English, magisterial biography published in Poland by Małgorzata Gąsiorowska (1999).[4]

The choice of Bacewicz reprints serves to complement and broaden the 20th-century focus of the current PMJ issue, established by an extensive source-based study by Adrian Thomas, British expert in 20th-century Polish music, “File 750: Composers, Politics and the Festival of Polish Music (1951).” This essay received the 2001 Wilk Prize for Research in Polish Music (professional category). The documents studied by Thomas and held in the Archiwum Akt Nowych [Archive of New Documents] in Warsaw, pertain to the history of commissions and programming of the Festival of Polish Music that took place in 1951, exactly 50 years before Thomas received his prize. Thomas’s investigation into the Stalinist period in Polish musical culture resulted in several other papers and book chapters.[5] The competition Jury considered his article to be of great scholarly and political significance, not only because of its originality of material and approach, but also because of the context provided by the anti-communist myth-making permeating the current political life in Poland.[6]

Thomas conclusively demonstrated the vast areas of moral ambivalence facing the composers who dealt with the inevitability of involvement in the totalitarian system that could be escaped only by leaving the country. While living in Poland, all Polish composers were implicated in the actions of the government; there were no exceptions, no “saints.” Thomas reveals in great detail how they willingly adjusted their aesthetic tenets to the requirements of the official ideology of “socialist realism.” They requested government funding and commissions for various “revolutionary” symphonies and “cantatas about Stalin.” Yet, later on many composers portrayed themselves as innocent of such political involvement: many denied benefitting from governmental support and tended to present themselves as victims of the Stalinist regime. Attempts at discovering and publicizing composers’ involvement in ideological “socialist” music-making in the early 1950s, e.g. Krzysztof Baculewski’s 1985 book, resulted in public controversies and polemics.[7] Yet, the all-pervasive nature of “totalitarianism” in which all the citizens inflict totalitarian control and abuse on all others, is inescapable. It was first noted by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz in a 1918 article about theater and society. Witkiewicz was an officer in Tsarist army and a first-hand witness of the October Revolution; hence he knew well why the society that resulted from this revolution is best described as “the society of ants.”[8] After World War II, Stefan Kisielewski, composer, writer and political columnist – probably inspired by Witkiewicz’s colorful expression – dubbed the socialist system “the insect society” and compared it to a beehive or an ant-hill. In such a society there is no escape from oppression: everyone is oppressed and an oppressor simultaneously.[9]

There are many controversial issues arising from Thomas’s study and the original source-material that it contains. Biographies of Lutosławski and Panufnik will have to be revised to take into account the complicity of both composers, instead of transforming them into dissident heroes. The either/or approach (traitor or hero) does not well represent the complexities of artists’ responses to the state that provides them with the source of income and the only outlet for externalizing their creative energies and hearing their music. Nonetheless, their anger and rejection of the system was internalized and expressed in action: Panufnik left the country permanently right after the 1951 Festival while Lutosławski chose to stay and carefully navigate the treacherous divide of ideological compliance and self-expression. It is hard to say which strategy was more effective: A comparison of the international recognition of their achievements is partly possible on the basis of their bibliographies, so much more abundant for Lutosławski who, like Dmitri Shostakovich, remained in the country of his origin. Emigration results in biographical discontinuity and breaks the connections of a composer with his cultural environment; Panufnik’s emigration, while freeing him from an obligation to write “revolutionary” symphonies, displaced him from the position of the most important and influential composer in Poland.[10] This role was taken over by Lutosławski who became the central figure in Polish music.

The dichotomy of “periphery/center” plays out differently in the case of women composers and musicians. Thanks to the rise of feminism in American musicology, a growing interest surrounds female pianists, composers, and singers. Students and scholars uncover forgotten areas of Polish music history and fill in gaps that reach much further back in time that those of the Stalinist period. The final two articles published in the current PMJ issue focus on two female musicians, one from the 19th century and one from the 17th. The articles share the 2001 Student Prize in the Wilk Prize for Research in Polish Music (Essay Competition). Pianist and musicologist Stanisław Dobrzański dedicated his doctoral thesis to the life and oeuvre of pianist-composer Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), an important predecessor of Chopin. An extensive bibliography compiled by Mr. Dobrzański (University of Connecticut; now assistant professor at Concordia University, Moorhead, Minnesota) suggests that Szymanowska could hardly be called “forgotten” (though this adjective appeared in a title of a biographical study published in the first half of the 20th century).[11] Dobrzański’s article, a chapter from his dissertation, revisits and expands a subject introduced by Jerzy Gołos in 1960, i.e. the influence of Szymanowska’s music on Chopin.[12]

The second Wilk Student Prize ex aequo was awarded to Katarzyna Grochowska (University of Chicago) for a paper cryptically entitled “From Milan to Gdańsk: The Story of a Dedication.” The dedication was addressed to an obscure singer Constantia Czirenberg and published in Milan, in a 1626 volume of motets. According to Grochowska, the link between the Polish singer and the Italian publisher is quite significant: it is the person of the King of Poland and Sweden, Władysław IV. Thus, Grochowska’s research connects Poland with Italy and Sweden and highlights an obscure interrelationship between these European music cultures.

Secrets have a way of revealing themselves: the more intently hidden, the more powerfully they erupt into the public view. Secrets about the King’s involvement with a great singer, secrets about the composers’ involvement with a controlling (while attempting to appear benevolent) totalitarian government, came to light through impartial, scholarly research. Yet, there is no need to cry out with horror that “the King is naked.” The revelations about complexities of biographies, actions, and intentions enrich our understanding of the past, that may now be seen in richer, livelier hues.


[1]. Grażyna Bacewicz, “Wypowiedź dla Polskiego Radia (29.06.1964)” [Statement for the Polish Radio (June 29, 1964)]. Ruch Muzyczny 33 no. 3 (1989): 7-10. [Back]

[2]. Compare the composer’s writings sections in the bibliographies of Panufnik,Lutosławski, and Bacewicz, published in the present volume of the Polish Music Journal. Just two interviews with Bacewicz were published during her lifetime, one in 1960 and one in 1966. [Back]

[3]. Grażyna Bacewicz, Znak szczególny [Birthmark] (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1974). [Back]

[4]. Adrian Thomas, Grażyna Bacewicz: Chamber and Orchestral Music. Polish Music History Series, vol. 3 (Los Angeles: Friends of Polish Music, University of Southern California, 1985); Sharon Geurtin Shafer, The Contribution of Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) to Polish Music (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992); Małgorzata Gąsiorowska, Bacewicz (Cracow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1999). [Back]

[5]. Adrian Thomas, “Your Song is Mine,” The Musical Times 166, no. 1830 (August 1995): 403-09; “The Hidden Composer: Witold Lutosławski and Polish Radio, 1946-1963,” in Witold Lutosławski: człowiek i dzieło w perspektywie kultury muzycznej XX wieku [W. Lutosławski: The man and the oeuvre from the perspective of musical culture of the 20th century] (Poznań: 1999), pp. 211-20); Squaring the Triangle: Traditions and Tyrannies in Twentieth-century Polish Music (London: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, 2000). [Back]

[6]. The jury included: Dr. Martina Homma, Dr. Zofia Chechlińska, Prof. Jeffrey Kallberg, Prof. Zbigniew Skowron, Dr. Elzbieta Witkowska-Zaremba, Dr. Maja Trochimczyk. [Back]

[7]. Baculewski, Krzysztof. Polska twórczość kompozytorska 1945-1984 [Polish compositional output 1945-1984] (Cracow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1987). [Back]

[8]. I thank Prof. Janusz Degler for providing this information and directing me to Witkacy’s 1918 article, reprinted in Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Teatr i inne pisma o teatrze [Theater and other writings about theater], Janusz Degler, ed. (Warszawa: Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1995). It is not currently available in English; though Witkiewicz’s writings may be found in Daniel Charles Gerould, ed. The Witkiewicz Reader (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992). [Back]

[9]. See Stefan Kisielewski, Na czym polega socjalizm? Spostrzeżenia z Warszawy [What is the essence of socialism? Observations from Warsaw]. (London: Odnowa, 1989); Stefan Kisielewski, 100 razy glową w ściany: Felietony z lat 1945-1971 [100 times hitting the wall with the head: Columns from the years 1945-1971] (Warszawa: Iskry, 1996); Stefan Kisielewski, Dzienniki [Journals], (Warszawa: Iskry, 1998, 3rd ed.). [Back]

[10]. Bernard Jacobson advocates the thesis about Panfunik’s displacement by Lutosławski in Polish cultural life in his study of four Polish composers Panufnik, Lutosławski, Górecki, and Penderecki. See Bernard Jacobson, A Polish Renaissance (London: Phaidon, 1996). [Back]

[11]. Józef Mirski, Zapomniana artystka polska [A Forgotten Polish Artist] (Warszawa: Muzyka, 1931). [Back]

[12]. Jerzy Golos, “Some Slavic Predecessors of Chopin.” Musical Quarterly 46 (1960): 437-47. [Back]

Born in Poland, and educated in Poland and Canada, Dr. Trochimczyk serves as Research Assistant Professor and Stefan and Wanda Wilk Director of the Polish Music Center at the Flora L. Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. After receiving two M.A. degrees in Poland (in sound engineering from the F. Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, 1987, and in musicology from the University of Warsaw, 1986) she completed her doctoral dissertation on Space and Spatialization in Contemporary Music at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada (1994) and moved to California in order to dedicate her future to researching and promoting Polish music. Dr. Trochimczyk is the recipient of grants, awards, and fellowships from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships, 1993-1996), the American Council of Learned Societies (2001), the University of Southern California (grants from the Zumberge Fund for New Faculty in 1997, Southern California Studies Center Junior Faculty Award in 1999), Mu Phi Epsilon Professional Music Fraternity (first prize for the doctoral dissertation, 1998), and the Wilk Prize for Research in Polish Music (Professional Prize, 1994).

In her musicological research Trochimczyk has focused on the study of music by Polish composers (Bacewicz, Górecki, Lutosławski) while continuing to pursue her interests in 20th-century music (Bartók, Andriessen, Schafer, Xenakis), spatial music, and constructs of Polish national identity (anthems, immigrant communities and musicians, dance groups). Dr. Trochimczyk has published over forty articles and book chapters in an international array of books and journals, e.g. Journal of Musicological Research, The Musical Quarterly,American Music, The American Journal of Semiotics (US), Contemporary Music Review (UK), Muzyka (Poland), Studia Musicologica (Hungary), Women Composers: Music Through the Ages (USA), Lutosławski Studies (UK), and Crosscurrents and Counterpoints (Sweden). She has also given presentations at over forty musicology and interdisciplinary conferences in six countries. Her book After Chopin: Essays in Polish Music was published in 2000 by the Polish Music Center; a volume of essays about The Music of Louis Andriessen appeared in 2002 (New York: Routledge). In 1987-2000 she was known as Maria Anna Harley and published under that name.