Grażyna Bacewicz — Image via culture.pl

Introducing Grażyna Bacewicz

If you listen to classical music long enough, you eventually find yourself assembling an idiosyncratic collection of lesser-known composers whose music you admire, oblivious to them though the wider world may be. In my case, one of those composers is Grażyna Bacewicz, whose 1948 Concerto for String Orchestra I was geekily excited to see on the program of this weekend’s concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Born in 1909 in Łódź, Poland, Bacewicz was an accomplished violinist and pianist as well as a composer. Eventually turning exclusively to composition, she completed well over 100 works before her premature death at the age of 59. Outside of her own country, she owes some of her exposure to the advocacy of Polish artists like Krystian Zimerman and Ewa Kupiec, as well as her status as a pioneering female professional composer. But however listeners may come across her music, they will find it well worth their while for reasons more musical than identitarian.

When one gives some attention to Bacewicz’s music, a couple themes emerge. First, at a time when art music and popular music were growing apart, she was clearly interested in creating intelligent, progressive music that could also appeal to an audience of non-specialists. Even her more avant-garde works, like her 1965 Piano Quintet No. 2, are colorful and varied, grounded by flashes of the recognizable, and never mere academic exercises or deliberately obtuse. Meanwhile, even her most populist pieces avoid pandering to kitsch taste.

Second, writing in the middle of a century in which the “new” was perpetually valorized and musical styles rapidly came in and went out of fashion, Bacewicz neither stuck to the familiar nor chased after the latest trend. Over the course of her career, she gradually and cautiously deepened her compositional voice by incorporating newer innovations into her vocabulary. In her own words:

I do not agree with a statement that I hear quite often that if a composer discovered his own musical language he should adhere to this language and write in his own style. Such an approach to this matter is completely foreign to me; it is identical with the resignation from progress, from development. Each work completed today becomes the past yesterday. A progressive composer would not agree to repeat even himself. He has to not only deepen and perfect his achievements, but also broaden them.

This ethos becomes especially clear when listening to her works chronologically. As with many composers, her output can be divided into “periods,” but the transitions between these are never sudden. Instead, her voice develops from piece to piece as she tries new things.

This weekend’s featured piece, the Concerto for String Orchestra, is probably Bacewicz’s most popular. It also seems tailor-made for the kind of energy and incisiveness the SPCO has been bringing to its recent performances. The piece is from what is commonly considered Bacewicz’s “neoclassical” period, and the opening and closing movements are definitely reminiscent of the music Stravinsky was writing under that label at about the same time. But the slow middle movement is more expressionistic in character, bringing out some of the tension hiding beneath the surface of the more buoyant outer movements.

I am pretty confident that a decent number of people will walk away from this weekend’s concerts wanting to hear more of, and learn more about, Grażyna Bacewicz. In the former case, she has been well served on disc by artists like Zimerman, Kupiec, Joanna Kurkowicz, the Lutosławski Quartet, and the New London Orchestra. In the latter case, the Polish Music Center at the University of Southern California has published a shorter bio and a longer journal article about Bacewicz online.

And if you make it to this Friday’s concert, you can count on some more discussion of Bacewicz’s piece and the rest of the program at the pre-concert Fanfare discussion and/or the post-concert club2030 Happy Hour, where I will be awkwardly milling about the crowd as usual.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.