by Judith Rosen [1]


This article is an online reprint of a monograph published in 1983 by the Friends of Polish Music at the University of Southern California. The monograph, the first book in English about the noted Polish composer, emphasizes the importance of her place in contemporary music. It discusses her significance as a composer, whose works not only bridged the gap between neo-romanticism and modernism, but also paved the way for the pursuit of new music by the next generation of composers. During her brief life (1909-1969) she lived through the eras of pre- and post- World War II with the accompanying musical freedoms and restrictions. Her musical gifts, both as composer and performer, and her exceptional strength of character are explored in a discussion of her life. The large quantity and excellence of her compositional output (in spite of the difficult times in which she lived) are highlighted with quotes from well-known personages and interesting anecdotes.

The original monograph included an introduction by Witold Lutosławski as well as extensive lists of compositions and recordings and a selected bibliography. The present edition contains Lutosławski’s introduction, a different selection of illustrations than in the original edition, and an updated bibliography by Maja Trochimczyk and James Harley.


While reflecting upon the creative life of an artist, I often ask myself the following questions: What did he or she come in to this world with, i.e., what has nature endowed them with, and also, did they, by their effort, succeed in developing these inborn talents, taking advantage of them to the fullest, for the benefit of mankind? This last thought deserves special emphasis, because many creative artists treat their inherited talents as if they were their own to dispense for their own personal aims, and not always in the noblest way. As I see it, the talent of an artist is a unique privilege, a distinction. As such, it carries with it commensurate obligations. Thus an artist with any moral sense whatsoever should know that, in developing their talents for the enrichment of mankind, they are only fulfilling their obligations, while that which they create is only in small measure their own merit.

My preceding reflections are the key to my remarks on Grażyna Bacewicz, a distinguished Polish composer of this century, whose premature departure has been an irreconcilable loss. There is no doubt in my mind that the answers to the above questions, as far as Grażyna Bacewicz is concerned, are positive ones. She was born with an incredible wealth of musical talent, which she succeeded to bring to full flourish through an almost fanatical zeal and unwavering faith in her mission. The intensity of her activities was so great that she managed, in a cruelly-shortened life, to give birth to such treasures that any composer of her stature with a considerably longer life span could only envy.

I do not propose to discuss or dwell on the merits of her compositional legacy. To anyone who was close to her creativity, to become acquainted with and to experience her creations, their artistic value is quite evident. To be sure, I have always been of the opinion that a true judgement of the creative ability of a composer does not belong to contemporary reviewers or artists, but to thousands of audiences over many decades, which may be referred to as the “jury of time.” Based on the fact that many of her earliest works are still being performed throughout the world today, one can already predict that her music will stand this test of time. As examples, we can cite the Concerto for String Orchestra, a favorite with this type of ensemble, and her String Quartet No. 3, which is marked by an exceptional polyphonic skill in addition to its masterly idiomatic writing for string quartet.

It does not appear proper to me to judge her works only in the light of the compositional styles and rapidly changing artistic currents of her lifetime. Like so many other composers of larger compositional forms, she was to a great degree independent of the atmosphere surrounding her. Rather, it was her music that helped to create that atmosphere and could be held up as an example to the younger generation of composers.

When I think of Grażyna Bacewicz, I cannot limit myself to her music alone. I was fortunate to belong to that group of people who were bound with her by virtue of professional friendship. Thus I was privileged to know her closely for many years. It allowed me to observe and admire her character first hand – her integrity, honesty, compassion, and her willingness to share and sacrifice for others. This image of her as an artist and human being ought to be an inspiration to the succeeding generations of composers in Poland and throughout the world.

I wish to congratulate the Friends of Polish Music at the University of Southern California and Judith Rosen for their dedication and effort in acquainting the English-speaking world with Grażyna Bacewicz, one of the foremost women composers of all time.

Witold Lutosławski


In each musical era there are those music makers who forge new tools and, bring revolutionary techniques and systems to an ever-expanding exploration of sound (and even silence) which inevitably leads to a new art form. There are also those creators who take these new tools and building on a solid foundation both modify the new and synthesize it with the old to bring their own individual expression into the artistic world. It was as this latter kind of “artisan” that Grażyna Bacewicz established her position in the musical annals of twentieth century Poland.

The emphasis placed on her as the greatest woman composer of her time, the most prolific female composer of all time, “the first lady of music” (as she was labelled by one English critic) has obscured her more important role in the history of western music. As Poland itself bridges the geographical gap between capitalist and socialist countries, Bacewicz along with her closely aligned musical compatriots bridges the gap between the neo-romanticism of Szymanowski and the modernism of Lutosławski. Admired and respected as an equal by her colleagues and adored by her public, she was an integral part of the Polish cultural world and helped to make the music of her country known throughout Europe.

Her life as a composer started when she was thirteen and only ended at her premature death (she was not quite sixty) in 1969. Yet in spite of this comparatively brief creative period, she produced over two hundred compositions including four symphonies, seven violin concertos, seven string quartets, five sonatas for violin and piano, concertos for piano, two pianos, viola and cello plus numerous works for chamber orchestra and for full orchestra. Previous attempts to place Bacewicz’s creative output into a variety of often arbitrary divisions have not been successful because hers was a slow and subtle evolutionary process. There was a consistency and unity in her life’s work, which is best comprehended by following the internal and external events surrounding her life in the order in which she experienced them.

Born on February 5, 1909 in Łódź,[2] Poland to a musically oriented and close-knit family, Bacewicz was encouraged from a very early age to study music; her father was her first teacher. She had an immediate affinity for the violin and played chamber music at home with her two older brothers, Kiejstut and Witold.[3] Wanda, the youngest child is the self-appointed keeper of Grażyna’s legacy. A well-known writer and poet, she has devoted most of her time since her sister’s death to perpetuating Bacewicz’s name and music. She is untiring in responding to requests for information that come from all over the world. Grażyna was especially close to her brother, Kiejstut. She followed him to Warsaw after she graduated from high school in Łódź, and later, as a concert violinist, she premiered many of her own sonatas with Kiejstut at the piano. At the Conservatory in Warsaw she studied violin and piano as a step towards fulfilling her childhood proclamation that she would be a composer. Her very first compositions were a piano prelude and some miniatures for violin and piano.

A well-rounded individual (her interests ranged from literature to world affairs), acquaintances and friends have written about the deep inner strength they felt in her presence. She always felt a need to expand her horizons. An early indication of this was her desire to study philosophy at the University of Warsaw, which she did for the first year and a half of her Conservatory education. A major influence in Bacewicz’s life, one shared with other young Polish composers, was meeting Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) at the Conservatory. Whereas in the past Poles sought the culture and musicality of German training (as did Szymanowski, himself), his own travels and explorations into other European cultures made him urge the Conservatory students to broaden their horizons by leaving Poland. This directive led Bacewicz and others to the École Normale de Musique and Nadia Boulanger. Her Paris studies were made possible by a scholarship from Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), the Polish piano virtuoso, composer, and statesman.

She graduated summa cum laude in 1932, having studied violin with Józef Jarzębski (1878-1955), piano with Józef Turczyński (1884-1953) and composition with Kazimierz Sikorski (b. 1895). For her graduation examinations she composed: a Sinfonietta for orchestra, a Cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, a Violin Sonata and a String Quartet. These compositions were presented at a special concert at the Conservatory. In Paris during 1932 and 1933 she studied the violin with André Touret and composition with Nadia Boulanger. During this time, she composed Sonatina for Piano, Children’s Suite (for the piano) and the Wind Quintet. This Wind Quintet of 1932,[4] a model of neoclassicism, was the first composition to win a first-place prize in a competition for young composers.

She left Paris to concertize as a violinist in Spain and Majorca. Returning to Poland she accepted an offer from Helena Kijeńska (the former head of the music school she had attended as a child) to teach harmony, counterpoint and violin at the conservatory in Łódz. She soon discovered that it interfered with her playing and composing, and she returned to Warsaw within a year. At the end of 1934 Paris again beckoned; this time she returned to study with Carl Flesch, the distinguished violinist. She found him to be a stern, but exacting teacher. Later in life she would compare these lessons to the teaching methods of David Oistrakh. In a written anecdote entitled “King David” she tells of being fascinated by rumors of a “wondrous method developed by Oistrakh.” Inviting herself to a class, she watched as he instructed a young Frenchwoman:[5]

“David inquired about her health, checked to see if her hands were warm and joked for a few minutes…She started to play, and I was waiting for David to interrupt her as Flesch did it constantly. David never did so…When she finished, David complimented her on her improved intonation, rich dynamics, etc. Only when she felt like a true virtuoso, did he begin his critique:[6] “I have noticed a few small imperfections… As he dissected the sonata, his comments would be interspersed by a demonstration of the desired form. What a difference from the difficult Flesch!”

She was privy to this lesson because of her close personal friendship with Oistrakh whom she had known from the days of the first Wieniawski International Violin Competition in 1935. There she had received Honorable Mention to Oistrakh’s second place. (Ginette Neveu had captured the first prize.) Demanding though Flesch might have been, Bacewicz still had time to compose the Partita for Violin and Piano which she had premiered (Jerzy Lefeld accompanying) upon her return to Warsaw in 1935. It met with critical success: “This composer has no need for sensational effects and is to be commended on the beauty and seriousness of the work. There is a sense of youth in the composition while simultaneously there is a high degree of maturity. The musical impressions will overwhelm you and the musical thoughts will absorb you. She has a lot to say, and she already knows how to say it well.”[7]Bacewicz appeared to have found in neoclassicism a basic style and creative aesthetic which suited her musical temperament. From the Wind Quintet through the Overture of 1943, she clarified and expanded these stylistic affinities while perfecting her craft. For example, her 1935 Trio for Oboe, Violin, and Cello (which received a prize in a young composer’s competition) is reminiscent of the earlier Wind Quintet, but contains more interesting, complex polyphonic textures.

In 1936 in an effort to make the Polish Radio Orchestra comparable to the Warsaw Philharmonic, its conductor, Grzegorz Fitelberg, invited the most gifted young instrumentalists to join. Bacewicz accepted the position of principal violinist and toured with them for two years. This not only sharpened her orchestration skills, but provided the opportunity for performances of her own works, such as the Violin Concerto No.1 and the Three Songs for tenor and orchestra (based on a tenth century Arabic text) which were premiered during 1938. While with the orchestra she also wrote Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Allegro for violin and piano, a piano sonata and as a result of her enduring love of chamber music, the String Quartet No.1. Although she had actually written two string quartets before, it was only with this quartet that she was satisfied enough to designate it as the first. The substantial number of compositions written during this time is indicative of the speed with which she worked: “I think to compose one has to work very intensely. One has to pause between composing different works, but interruptions shouldn’t be made when you are in the middle of writing a piece. I’m capable of working on one composition for many hours daily. Usually I take a break in the middle of the day, but even during the break my brain keeps on working. I like to get very, very tired. It’s sometimes then that I suddenly get my best ideas.”[8]

The same year that Bacewicz joined the orchestra she married Andrzej Biernacki, a physician and amateur pianist. He was a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Medicine at the time of his death in 1963. (Their only child, Alina born in 1942, now lives in Warsaw and is an accomplished painter and poet.) In the Spring of that fateful year of 1939 Bacewicz returned to her adored Paris to supervise a special evening of her works which took place at the École Normale de Musique. She returned to Warsaw just two months before the beginning of the war.

As it did for millions of Europeans, the war years of 1939-45 proved difficult for Grażyna Bacewicz and her family. The musical life of Poland was greatly curtailed, but concerts were given, often in private homes or coffee houses. Despite the vicissitudes of these years (including the nursing of her wounded sister and the temporary displacement of the family first to a camp in Pruszków and then to the city of Lublin where they waited out the end of the war), she managed to compose the String Quartet No. 2, the Sonata No.1 for Solo Violin, the Symphony No.1 and the Overture for orchestra. This Overture (1943) had its premiere at the first “Festival of Polish Music” held in Kraków just after the war. It immediately placed her among the best Polish composers of the time.

At the end of 1945 Bacewicz and her family returned to the rubble that had been Warsaw. With renewed strength she approached composing. The Sonata da Camera (her first sonata for violin and piano) and the Violin Concerto No. 2 were completed that year. She also resumed concertizing, and in a noteworthy 1946 event, she played Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoreux at Salle Pleyel in Paris, Paul Kletzki conducting. That same year her Suite for Two Violins was performed at the Salle des Concerts du Conservatoire at a chamber music concert entitled “la Musique Polonaise Sous L’Occupation,” and she played her own Sonata da Camera as well as Szymanowski’s Nocturne and Tarantella. She also began serving on numerous international juries for violin competitions and became a member of the Polish Composers’ Union.[9] Though she personally objected to the categorizing of her music as “neoclassic,” it is difficult to avoid the use of the term in describing her music. Perhaps one reason for her adherence to this basic style can be attributed to the social, cultural and even political climate in which she lived and worked.

The years of 1945-1955 represent a significant and important era in Polish music. As in other European socialist countries, there was a general nationalizing of artistic institutions. The government’s first music publishing house, Polish Music Publishers (Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne – PWM), was established in April 1945. Though there were a few private companies that started publishing after the war, they had their licenses revoked in 1950. These creative barriers arose at a time when the Polish people were trying to overcome the emotional barriers that resulted from the war, particularly the feeling of martyrdom, characteristically associated with survivors of war.

The nationalizing of institutions made what would have been a difficult task in itself – that of bringing Poland’s musical world back to a life of creative freedom-virtually insurmountable. However, this policy – announced in 1948 – did make positive gains in its stated goal of creating a large number of organizations such as philharmonic societies, symphony orchestras and music schools in which to popularize Polish art. It also began the collecting, categorizing and classifying of folklore, which became synonymous with nationalism. There were, however, negative aspects in terms of the thwarting and controlling of artistic creativity. The doctrine of “socialist realism” was used to discriminate against many works of art. Witold Lutosławski’s (b.1913) Symphony No. 1 was the first important work accused of being “formalistic” – government terminology for something opposed to “socialist realism” – and was removed from concert halls for many years. This edict necessitated the incorporation of folk music and themes. In its atmosphere the universal aspiration of composers of post-war Poland was to find “a synthesis between a contemporary musical language and the elements of native tradition within a framework of individual, stylistic categories.”[10] It was inevitable that the Poles were drawn to and borrowed from the music of Bartók.

In spite of the restrictions placed on them some composers – e.g. Lutosławski and Artur Maławski (1904-57) – fought the oppressive doctrines. They defended a more “modern” musical language and incorporated it into their music, paving the way for the younger musicians who later would flourish under new and better conditions. Thus Polish music did develop, though at a much slower pace than it might have in a freer environment. In the decade after the war some works were written without any folk element such as the Overture for Strings by Lutosławski, the Symphony No. 2 (1956) and Piano Trio (1953) by Maławski and the Violin Concerto No.4 by Bacewicz.

Clearly, in spite of the creative and cultural vacuum that existed in Poland during the decade after the War, some composers were able to pursue their inner calling and their craft. Of the excellent works which emerged (though understandably not as radical as the music then being written elsewhere) the compositions of Grażyna Bacewicz were at the forefront. By a quirk of fate – her birth in 1909 – she was 30 years old at the start of the War, and an age that should be a time of flexibility and growth for a composer; by the end of the War, she was 35 years old. Had she lived in a Western European country she could have once again absorbed, synthesized and created. However, she lived in a country that immediately imposed artistic controls. By the end of the period of isolationism, she was a mature 46-year-old woman and artist. Since creativity was in part controlled and stifled by outside circumstances, the fact that she composed with any originality at all at this time becomes proof of her innate musical genius. The quantity of creative output reaffirms her unquestionable drive.

Bacewicz with her daughter, Alina, 1940s.

Two major compositions were written in 1947: The Sonata No.3 for Violin and Piano, first performed by Grażyna and her brother, Kiejstut, and the String Quartet no.3, neoclassical in its perfection of form. In 1948, an especially rich year, she produced her Violin Concerto No.3, the first major composition to show some folk influence; the Olympic Cantata, written for the London Olympics; the Trio for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon; and the most important of her works in the strict neoclasical style, the Concerto for String Orchestra (also referred to as the Concerto for Strings). This work confirmed the success of the earlier Overture and received the “National Prize” in 1950. It was performed for the first time in the United States by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Critic Milton Berliner reported: “Howard Mitchell opened the program with the American premiere of Grażyna Bacewicz’s Concerto Grosso for strings (sic)… Actually, there was nothing feminine about Miss Bacewicz’s piece. It was vigorous, even virile, with (in the first movement) a pulsing, throbbing rhythm and bold thematic material. It was either conservatively modern or radically classical. In any case it was worth listening to…”[11]

In 1949 she produced two major works which met with immediate success: The Piano Concerto, which contains elements of folk music (the finale being an “oberek”),[12] and theSonata No.4 for Violin and Piano which she premiered with Kiejstut. It proved to be another gem in the neoclassical tradition. Reviewer Jules Wolffers wrote: “The Sonata no.4 by Grażyna Bacewicz was performed in the United States for the first time. This piece was the most impressively touching and controversial on the whole program. The composer is a master of melody, which challenges the listener in the way it is expressed.”[13] 1949 concluded with Bacewicz receiving the “Warsaw Prize”, given by the City of Warsaw for both her compositional abilities and her charitable and humanitarian efforts. (During the war years, her home had often been a refuge for the hungry and a sanctuary for the continuation of Polish culture.)

Concertizing and serving on competition juries occupied a great deal of time in the early 1950’s, but not to the neglect of composing. A significant work from this period is the String Quartet No.4 (1951), which received first prize (out of 57 entries) in the International Composers’ Competition in Liège, Belgium. In 1953 it became a required piece for competitors in the International String Quartet Competition in Geneva and continues to be chosen for performance in the United States and abroad. In 1952 she again received the “National Prize”, this time for three works: String Quartet No. 4, Violin Concerto No. 4 and Sonata No. 4 for Violin and Piano. The Symphony no.4, her last effort in this form, was written in 1953. That same year she premiered her Piano Sonata No. 2, which quickly became a favorite work and was added to the repertoire of many international pianists.[14] During that year she also turned to a new creative form and completed her first ballet, The Peasant King, based on a comedy by the seventeenth century writer, Piotr Baryka. Although it was popular enough to have excerpts frequently aired over Polish Radio, Bacewicz was unenthusiastic about this work. In 1954 she wrote the Polish Overture, which virtually closed the period of folk influence in her work and also the Violin Concerto No.5, first performed by Wanda Wiłkomirska and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra.

At the height of this period of great recognition and acclaim, a serious automobile accident threatened not only her career but also her life. The crash, which occurred in early fall of 1954, caused her husband, daughter, sister and mother minor injuries, but Bacewicz suffered a broken pelvis, broken ribs and injuries to her head and face. Her inner strength and courage were revealed in the days following the accident. Friends who went to visit her related this story: “There she was in a darkened hospital ward, fighting for her life, and though she had difficulty talking, she spent the time joking and refusing to discuss the accident or the seriousness of her condition.”[15] After a very long hospitalization, she was finally released and immediately resumed her composing. In 1955 she wrote Partita in two separate versions, one for orchestra first performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic, and one for violin and piano premiered by the composer and her brother.

From about 1953 she began to withdraw from concertizing so as to devote more time to composition. At first she had planned to limit her playing to premieres of her own works, but she constantly made exceptions to this rule. Finally she realized that she would need to make a complete break, and by the end of 1955 her career as a soloist had virtually come to a close. However, she did not end her literary pursuits, which she continued in private. The collection of anecdotes, Znak szczególny [The Birthmark] based on her experiences and travels was published posthumously. A light dramatic sketch, “Jerzyki albo nie jestem ptakiem” [Martins, or I’m not a Bird] was presented on Polish Television in 1968. A couple of novels and numerous short stories remain unpublished.

At the end of June 1956 the stirrings of political and social unrest, which had been evolving over the years, erupted in Poznań. The Polish working class rioted against the Russian regime of political terror and low standards of living, resulting in a more liberal Polish Communist Party rule that allowed increased religious and cultural freedom. The International Festival of Contemporary Music served as a musical symbol of this new freedom. Known all over the world as the “Warsaw Autumn,” the first of these festivals took place in October 1956. The international scope of that event is evidenced by the following list of composers whose works were presented: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, Shostakovich, Honneger and Prokofiev. Poland was represented by Szymanowski, Lutosławski, Malawski, Szabelski, Spisak, and Bacewicz who had three compositions performed (String Quartet No.4, Concerto for String Orchestra and the Overture) – a measure of her preeminent role in Polish music. Her works have been part of this festival ever since.

In the ensuing months as the long period of isolation from Western musical trends came to a close, Poles heard for the very first time, works of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and also Messiaen. Polish composers were inundated with the musical avant-garde. In addition to the composers of the Second Viennese School, soon the music of Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, and even electronic music permeated the Polish psyche. This input was most advantageous to those younger composers who had not yet fully formed their musical style. Mature composers, such as Sikorski or Piotr Perkowski (b. 1901) did not have much interest in the new idiom. For Bacewicz, the gradual evolution of style and technique which had always been her trademark would again undergo subtle changes. Though she did not approve of explaining her own compositional process, she did speak out on her beliefs as they applied to contemporary music:

“The diversification of today’s music and the tempo of its growth is inspiring. This is not only experimentation or an endeavor to find new forms as some are saying. In contemporary music there are some genuine and great composers. The so-called avant-gardists, no doubt, influence mainstream composers who find it attractive. At times, a more traditional composer crosses over to the avant-garde. I disagree with those who maintain that once a composer develops her own style, she should stick to it. I find such an opinion totally alien; it impedes further development and growth. Every composition completed today, will belong to the past tomorrow. A progressive composer should not repeat herself. A composer should not only deepen her creation and improve upon it, but should also expand its scope. I believe that in my music, even though I do not consider myself an innovator, a certain trend of progression is discernible.”[16]>

The first perceptible changes in her artistic craft occur along three paths: 1) departure from tonality; 2) greater attention to instrumental color, and 3) enrichment of rhythmical patterns. These are noticeable in the String Quartet No. 5 (1955), the Violin Concerto No.6 (1957) and particularly in the Symphonic Variations (1957). The Ten Etudes composed in 1956 became very popular with pianists throughout the world. They were played at the second “Warsaw Autumn” in 1958 by Regina Smendzianka, who subsequently recorded them together with other piano works of Bacewicz. This outstanding pianist virtuoso remarked:

“…Her Etudes are masterly and free from any folkloric reminiscences, yet they are full of technical difficulties, providing a fine incentive even to concert pianists. They indicate that Bacewicz, a pianist herself, must have been very accomplished… I also feel that the Small Tryptych, dedicated to me and premiered at Helsinki, will interest many pianists. This piece has some fascinating dynamic and aural effects due to the most interesting use of the sustaining pedal.”[17]

A sense of duty and dedication to fellow artists perpetuated her participation as a juror for the most important violin competitions. Toward the end of 1957 she joined David Oistrakh and Louis Persinger in judging the third Wieniawski International Violin Competition, and in 1958 she journeyed to Moscow to serve at the first Tchaikovsky Competition. Perhaps it was the inundation of violin sounds at this time that sparked the creation of the Sonata No.2 for Violin Solo (1958). A study of the tonal possibilities of the violin, it is an interesting foreshadowing of the String Quartet No.6 of 1960.

A further step in the stylistic development of this composer was realized in Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion (1958). The vigorous rhythms and sharply contrasted themes contained in her earlier work are evident, but here they are imbued with a new boldness and dynamism. Some critics believe it to be her greatest orchestral achievement. It was performed at the “Warsaw Autumn” of 1959 and also received first prize in the orchestral division and third prize over all (from more than sixty entries) at UNESCO’s International Rostrum of Composers (Paris, 1960). The music from this composition has been so popular that through the years it has been used for six different ballets staged by European dance companies.

With the completion of this work Bacewicz entered a contemplative period of re-evaluation and analysis which slowed her usual rapid work pace. She could not ignore the new musical expressions that were taking place around her, yet she was not sure to what extent they could or should be incorporated into her own musical language. Insights into her thinking at this time are revealed first from a letter written to a close friend: “Forgive me, but I have never had such trouble with a composition before, and it may turn out to be either a big… (nothing) or – in fact, there is no “or.” Yes! I am sure, it will turn out to be nothing.”[18] The composition in question was the String Quartet No. 6. While in the process of writing this work, she discussed her dilemma more positively and formally with her old friend, the composer and critic Stefan Kisielewski:

Kisielewski: “Grażyna, what is your reaction to the latest directions in music such as those based on Schoenbergism or the experiments with electronics?”

Bacewicz: “I am very interested, because in music like in everything else, something new must come along from time to time. The technique itself is very important to me because it provides the necessary rigor and formal technique for the composer. Without this base, improvisation could not be created. As a drawback, I find that often the works that have been written all sound quite alike. In the composition I am now writing – the String Quartet No.6 – I want to maintain certain sections in the serial technique, but by the same token I want to give them a different character. I am not interested in pointillism because I believe the roads to be too narrow, but I feel directed by the coloring in sounds and the new rhythms of electronic music.”[19]

The String Quartet No. 6 (1960) became one of her most successful and frequently performed works, and it did possess some new techniques, but the real fruit of her deliberations was Pensieri Notturni (1961) which ushered in the last phase of Bacewicz’s output. It is characterized by an exploration of tone color and a wide variety of harmonic effects and techniques by the string instruments. The Concerto for Orchestra written the next year continued this new direction. It contains vigorously contrasting sections and some innovative motifs, though it is written in a conventional four-movement form. She next wrote and dedicated the Cello Concerto No. 2 (1962) to its inspirer and first performer Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966). It was included in the seventh “Warsaw Autumn” while the Quartet for Four Cellos (1964) was part of the eighth Festival. In her program notes for this performance Bacewicz said:

“I have been thinking of writing a quartet for four cellos for a long time. This was to be different from the Quartet for Four Violins which I composed many years ago and which was more of a teaching piece. In writing for four cellos, I was drawn to the richness of sound that is available to the cello. During the process of creating this piece, I came to the conclusion that four cellos in one ensemble is truly a treasure for the contemporary composer. This concept has forced me to discard certain elements that are very characteristic to the cello, as, for example, a broad cantilena.”[20]

Her usual energies were boundless in 1965, when she composed Musica Sinfonica in Tre Movimenti, String Quartet No.7, Violin Concerto No.7, Piano Quintet No.2, Small Tryptych for piano, Divertimento for string orchestra, Incrustations for piano, Divertimento for string orchestraIncrustations for Horn and Chamber Ensemble and Trio for Oboe, Harp and Percussion. Musica Sinfonica contains sounds which appear to be achieved through aleatoric devices, but in fact it would go against the basic tenets of this composer to leave anything to chance. The smallest details are carefully defined and written into the score.

Bacewicz’s last string quartet, the seventh work in this genre, was internationally acclaimed. Lutosławski said, “The String Quartet No. 7 is new evidence of the use of certain possibilities that have been hidden in this type of ensemble, but which have never been utilized. From the time of Bartók very few composers have written in the same manner as Bacewicz who was able to penetrate the secrets of the string quartet”.[21] Tadeusz Zieliński, a leading Polish critic and musicologist, called this string quartet “a masterpiece of contemporary quartet literature.”[22]

The pace set in 1965 continued into 1966. One week after the French organist Jean Guillou, asked Bacewicz to write a work for him, she finished the short but memorable Esquissefor organ. During that year she also wrote the powerful and dynamic Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra and Contradizione, which contains elements of the Trio for Oboe, Harp, and Percussion. Commissioned by the “Congregation for the Arts” music festival headed by Mario di Bonaventura and premiered at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center in Hanover, New Hampshire, Contradizione was programmed at the eleventh “Warsaw Autumn” and subsequently has been scheduled in throughout the world.

An insight into Bacewicz’s working relationship with professional musicians and the affection held by them can be seen by the comments of Stefan Kamasa for whom she wrote the Viola Concerto:

“I asked Grażyna to write a concerto, a virtuoso work which would explore the noble tone qualities of the much neglected viola. To my intense joy “the first lady of Polish music” agreed immediately. But, unfortunately, the first sketches of my concerto she very naughtily incorporated in her seventh Violin Concerto. I waited for three years and in June 1967 I received a letter in which she said: “There must be a jinx on your concerto. Everything was going smoothly when I suddenly received an urgent offer to write a composition for the opening of the ‘Havana Festival’.[23] I, reluctantly put aside your concerto, though not forever. Besides, I believe, you did not intend to play it before 1969. It will be ready in a year….” As always in the past, Grażyna kept her promise. It was to be her last completed work before her sudden and premature death”[24]

Kamasa played the concerto after Bacewicz’s death with the Warsaw Philharmonic. He also performed it with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and in several cities of the Soviet Union. When he played it during the “Warsaw Autumn” of 1970 (with Sir Charles Groves conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) “There was a standing ovation with many curtain calls.”[25]

During her career her music found means of expression outside the concert stage. She wrote several scores for animated and children’s films and numerous lighter works for radio. A comic opera The Adventures of King Arthur (1959) was commissioned by and written for the Polish Radio and became so popular with audiences that it was produced for television. Having previously written two ballets (The Peasant King and in 1964 a comic ballet Esik in Ostend), she was drawn again to this medium. For six months during 1968 she worked on Desire, a ballet based on Picasso’s play, “Desire Trapped by the Tail.” She wrote enthusiastically about the project: “I’m writing a full-length ballet to honor Picasso with his total knowledge and approval. As a foundation we used his theatrical play, but we depart from it. This rather interesting play is only a pretext – with the composing and staging a whole new work is being created” [26]

Work on the ballet (though very important to her), was constantly interrupted due to a demanding schedule of serving on international competition juries, travelling to performances of her works and teaching a compositional class at the State School of Music (formerly the Warsaw Conservatory), where she had taught since 1966. In December 1968 the ballet was almost finished, but again she was called away from home. This time because of her duties as Vice-President of the Polish Composers’ Union she was obliged to accept the invitation of the Armenian government to visit their country. Before departing she did something she had never done before – she left detailed instructions for the completion of the last four minutes of the work. Whether this act indicated a premonition we will never know, but she would never see the ballet performed. On January 17, 1969 she suddenly and unexpectedly died. Though the ballet was completed according to instructions, the Grand Theatre of Warsaw did not accept the ending, and at its first performance the production ended on the last note that Bacewicz had written. As a testament to her musical capabilities, the ballet did not seem to end abruptly; for in the words of her sister, Wanda: “The order that had always prevailed in her work took the upper hand even in this critical moment. The decision of the Grand Theatre, I felt, was justified. Nothing had to be added to my sister’s music.”[27]

From Sikorski and a saturation in the neoclassical views to Boulanger and the influence of the French school to her involvement with contemporary idioms (even the use of aleatory devices), this sense of order pervaded her work. It served her well; combined with her creative gifts and her accomplishments not only as a virtuoso violinist, but as a well-trained pianist, she was able to write for a large variety of musical forms. Nevertheless, although she “…composed for all varieties of instruments during her career… the major works remain her pieces for strings, whether in solo, chamber, concerto, ensemble, or orchestral genres. It appears that stringed instrumentation is where she placed most of her compositional emphasis, whereas her deployment of brass, wind, and percussion sonorities is more for accompaniment and punctuating effects.”[28] It is this contribution to the string music repertoire, that alone should insure her standing as a composer of exceptional merit.

An appreciation of her as creator and humanitarian is reflected by the immortalizing of her name in Poland. In Warsaw and Gdańsk streets bear her name as do schools in four different cities. Seven statues of great Polish music personalities line the front of Philharmonic hall in the city of Bydgoszcz – one of these is of Grażyna Bacewicz. She is buried in a special section reserved for “deserving ones” in a public cemetery in Warsaw. The overwhelming loss felt by her colleagues as well as by her admiring public was beautifully expressed by the composer Tadeusz Baird, who wrote:

“The richness and vastness of creativity achieved in such a short life never ceases to amaze me. There is no aspect in music that has not been enriched by her decisive, swift, courageous and experienced pen. Like the maestros of the past, Bacewicz was equally at home when creating a monumental cycle of symphonies, miniatures for instruments, chamber music, or music for the stage. The craft of music-making held no secrets for her. An inexhaustible source of inventiveness, technical virtuosity, and a wide breadth of approach suffice for placing the works of her life among those that are most admired. But that is not all. She has been given something more important, more precious found only among the few, a gift of being different and unique.” [29]

It is these gifts which, in an age of quickly fading trends, give one the hope and expectation that Bacewicz’s works will survive to be heard and appreciated by future generations.


[1]. This article was originally published in a book form, as Judith Rosen, Grażyna Bacewicz: Her Life and Works (Los Angeles: Friends of Polish Music, 1984). Vol. 2, Polish Music History Series. ISBN 0-916545-02-4. Since the book is now out of print, the author has graciously agreed to provide this “free” electronic reissue of her text in the Polish Music Journal. The original foreword by Witold Lutosławski is also included in the current issue of the PMJ. The original list of works and bibliography have also been updated and replaced by new ones. All the illustrations in this article are from the collection of the Polish Music Center. The composer’s photographs donated by Wanda Bacewicz. [Back]

[2]. The 1913 birth date previously attributed to her was corrected at the time of her death. A copy of the Certificate of Birth is in this author’s possession. Further, detailed biographical information may be found in the composer’s monograph by Małgorzata Gąsiorowska, Bacewicz. (Cracow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1999. In Polish.[Back]

[3]. Witold died in 1970 in the United States. [Back]

[4]. All noted composition dates are dates of the work’s completion. [Back]

[5]. For their services in translating from the original Polish (both for this quote and other material), I wish to thank Leszek Weres, Wanda Wilk, Hanka Gutkowska and Michael Golabek (in memoriam). [Back]

[6]. Grażyna Bacewicz, Znak Sczególny (The Birthmark) (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1974), pp. 97-99. [Back]

[7]. Felicjan Szopski, The Warsaw Courier, no date. Quoted in Biographical Notes, original typescript in Polish in the possession of Wanda Bacewicz, no date, 27 pp. [Back]

[8]. Stefan Kisielewski, “An interview with Grażyna Bacewicz,” in Z muzycznej międzyepoki [Between Musical Eras]. (Cracow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1965), p. 207. [Back]

[9]. The Union was founded in 1945 a few months after the liberation at the National Congress of Polish Composers which was held in Kraków. It pledged itself to the popularizing of Polish Music domestically and abroad, initiated musical competitions and, in the ensuing years was instrumental in organizing the “Warsaw Autumn” International Festival of Contemporary Music. [Back]

[10]. Stefan Jarociński, Polish Music (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1965), p. 207. [Back]

[11]. Milton Berliner, Washington Daily News (December 31, 1952): p. 19. [Back]

[12]. A Polish dance akin to the mazurka but in a faster tempo. [Back]

[13]. Jules Wolffers, Christian Science Monitor, Boston, February 16, 1953. Cited in Stefan Kisielewski, Grażyna Bacewicz i jej czasy (Grażyna Bacewicz and Her Times) (Kraków: PWM, 1963), p. 55. [Back]

[14]. About ten years ago, an American pianist, Sister Nancy Fierro, wanted to add it to her growing performance list of works by women composers. Not being able to obtain it directly from the Polish publisher, she contacted this author, who through a series of circuitous, but fortunate, events I eventually managed to obtain a copy of the score sent by a student who found it hidden in the storage compartment of a piano bench at the Warsaw Conservatory. In the ensuing years through numerous concerts as well as a recording on the Avant label, Sister Nancy Fierro has helped to popularize this piece in the United States. [Back]

[15]. Kisielewski, Grażyna Bacewicz i jej czasy, p. 34. [Back]

[16]. Wanda Bacewicz, “Desire: A Ballet by Grażyna Bacewicz,” Polish Music No. 2 (1973), pp. 11-12. For a current discussion of this ballet see Maria Anna Harley [Maja Trochimczyk], “Bacewicz, Picasso, and the Making of Desire,” Journal of Musicological Research 16 No. 4 (1997): pp. 243-282. [Back]

[17]. In an otherwise frequently inaccurate chapter on Bacewicz, this quote is taken from: B.M. Maciejewski, Twelve Polish Composers (London: Allegro Press, 1976), pp.73-74. [Back]

[18]. Grażyna Bacewicz, Ruch Muzyczny 4 (1982), p. 5. [Back]

[19]. Kisielewski, Z muzycznej międzyepoki, p. 204. [Back]

[20]. Biographical Notes, p.20. [Back]

[21]. Ibid., pp. 21-22. [Back]

[22]. Ibid., p. 22. [Back]

[23]. In Una Parte commissioned by the International Festival of Contemporary Music, 1967. [Back]

[24]. Maciejewski, p. 75. [Back]

[25]. Ibid., p. 76. [Back]

[26]. Biographical Notes, p. 24. [Back]

[27]. Bacewicz, Polish Music, Number 2 (29), p. 14. [Back]

[28]. Elizabeth Wood, “Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69): Form, Syntax, Style,” in The Musical Woman: An International Perspective 1984 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 119. See this essay for a musicological analysis of Bacewicz’s works, especially the fourth and seventh String Quartets. [Back]

[29]. Ruch Muzyczny No. 7 (1969), p. 6.

Judith Rosen is a researcher and lecturer on the subject of women composers and twentieth century music. For over 30 years she has participated in numerous radio broadcasts and coordinated music festivals which featured women’s works. She has written articles for leading publications, including High Fidelity/Musical America, The Musical Woman (Vol. I and II), The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Second Edition). For her book on the noted Polish composer, Grażyna Bacewicz: Her Life and Works, she received the Amicus Poloniae Award from the government of Poland. She, also, has written liner notes for compact discs featuring the works of this composer.

Ms. Rosen was the founding president of the Board of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. She serves on the Advisory Board of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and she is a consultant to the San Francisco-based Women’s Philharmonic. She is actively involved in the Los Angeles new music community and has hosted a series of musicales in her home featuring local and internationally-known composers and musicians. Ms. Rosen is listed in Who’s Who in American Music and the International Who’s Who in Music.