About this Recording
8.572806 - BACEWICZ, G.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 1 - Nos. 1, 3, 6, 7 (Lutosławski Quartet)

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969)
Complete String Quartets • 1


Expressionism. Neoclassicism. Serialism. Sonorism. Important movements in twentieth-century music, and each—in varying degrees and at various times—an aspect of the seven string quartets of Grażyna Bacewicz. Creator of a broad catalogue encompassing symphonies, concertos, songs, ballets, piano pieces, incidental music and numerous works for violin (both with and without piano), Bacewicz continually looked for ways to develop her style. In a 1964 interview, she said, “A progressive composer would not agree to repeat even himself. He has to not only deepen and perfect his achievements, but also broaden them. It seems to me, that for instance in my music, though I do not consider myself an innovator, one can notice a continuous line of development.” Her last five quartets, in particular, trace her commitment to new ideas while maintaining her dedication to form, logic and expression. In a study of the composer published in 1985, musicologist Adrian Thomas maintains that, considered together, they are “unrivalled in twentieth-century Polish music and it is a credible claim that, after Bartók, [they] represent one of the century’s most significant contributions to the genre.”

Bacewicz was born in Łodź, Poland, on 5 May 1909. Urged by her father to play the violin from the age of five, she developed as a child prodigy, playing several concertos with the local orchestra before she was twelve years old. In 1932, she graduated summa cum laude from the Warsaw Conservatory with degrees in both composition and violin performance. She went on to study with Nadia Boulanger at the Ecole Normale in Paris. After a brief stint teaching at the conservatory in Łodź, she settled in Warsaw. In 1936, she accepted the position of principal violinist with the newly formed Polish Radio Orchestra under Grzegorz Fitelberg; she toured with the orchestra for two years.

The war years were difficult for Bacewicz but she persevered in her work as a composer. After the war, she and her contemporaries had to deal with a repressive regime that discouraged experimentation in the arts, but she still managed to create many new works that were exquisitely formed and rigorously constructed. The arrival of the first International Festival of Contemporary Music (known as the “Warsaw Autumn”) in 1956—featuring works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovich, Honegger, Lutosławski and Bacewicz (her String Quartet No 4)—opened the door to a much wider spectrum of contemporary musical ideas.

For Bacewicz, the modernistic trends she gradually adopted during the late 1950s and early 1960s were a means to an end, not a nod to fashion. The twelve-tone technique she employed in her String Quartet No 6 is thus simply an extension of her ongoing commitment to structure and form. Yet she was not always sure of her ideas and confident that she could adapt her technique in a meaningful way. As she was working on the quartet, she wrote to a friend, “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!” The Parrenin Quartet gave the premiere of the piece on 19 September 1960 at the fourth annual “Warsaw Autumn”. Consisting of four movements (slow—fast—slow—fast), the quartet displays a striking stylistic synthesis of contemporary and traditional features.

A tone row appears only in the first movement (the longest of the four), and Bacewicz does not employ it slavishly. She allows herself freedom to develop the music as she pleases. The entire work is characterized by a lightness of texture, rhythmic instability and what one commentator has called “a real orgy of articulatory ideas”. The haunting third movement features scordatura and bariolage effects in the first violin, and the concluding movement—for all its dissonance—is clearly a traditional rondo with irrepressible high spirits inherited from Haydn.

String Quartet No 1 had its premiere in Paris on 26 April 1939 with the Figueroa Quartet. The composer’s manuscript, dating from her student days at the conservatory, is lost; the published score (1998) is based on a copy made by S.B. Dworecki and dated by the composer “Warsaw 1938”. The opening movement is in ternary form. The A section opens with a lyrical motif rife with rising semitones, followed by a more propulsive, rhythmic idea. The B section is marked by compound rhythm; the return of A is varied slightly but still easily recognizable. Much of the repetition is, in fact, more literal than what one would come to expect of Bacewicz as she matured in her stylistic thinking.

The central movement consists of a set of five variations on a Lithuanian folk-song, “Zakwitnij biale jabluszko” (Bacewicz’s father was Lithuanian). Introduced by the first violin (doubled by cello), the theme moves to the second violin for the first variation and the viola for the second. The instruments are initially muted, but play senza sordino from the third variation to the end. The melody returns to the first violin for the final variation.

If folk-song is the inspiration for the second movement, folk-dance infuses the last. It opens and closes with an energetic fugal idea, introduced by viola, followed by second, then first, violin. This is balanced by a more elegant motif characterised by the dotted rhythms in its opening measure.

Bacewicz composed her String Quartet No 3 in Paris while on a concert tour. It was first performed in Krakow on 8 December 1947 by the Krakow Quartet. In the words of Bacewicz’s slightly younger contemporary, Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994), it “is marked by an exceptional polyphonic skill in addition to its masterly idiomatic writing for string quartet”. The opening movement is a subtly wrought sonata-allegro structure. The first thematic group overlays nervous, semiquaver energy with a more lyrical impulse; the second idea, a slow, bittersweet waltz, is less rhythmically active yet no less harmonically astringent. In the central movement, a tonal focus of C major is established by two intensely emotional passages in which double-stops in the three lower instruments create a thick, almost orchestral, texture. Occasional harmonics and portamenti evince Bacewicz’s growing commitment to colouristic touches.

The high-spirited rondo finale, in the words of Adrian Thomas, “wears its eighteenth-century origins lightly”. The opening motif—two rising perfect fourths—playfully generates much contrapuntal activity throughout the movement. Two lyrical, song-like ideas provide contrast during the first episode, as does a folk-like melody featured in the second. Bacewicz has great fun with key relationships in this decidedly neo-classical structure. As the movement nears its end, brief phrases in B major try to wrest the tonal centre away from the F major in which it began, but the home key triumphantly reasserts itself with a final unison statement of the opening motif. An F-major chord with an added sixth drives the quartet to a tongue-in-cheek, carefree ending, reminding us that it was composed, after all, in Paris.

In her String Quartet No 7, composed in 1965, Bacewicz appeared to reach the pinnacle of her commitment to modernism. But the work, for all its progressiveness and potentially off-putting dissonance, is solidly constructed along very traditional lines. The opening movement, in fact, follows sonata form, with an opening theme group (initiated by a percussive saltando idea on viola), a second subject and a development section. In the recapitulation, the second theme appears first and the components of the opening subject play in reverse order, creating a Bartókian arch.

In the sombre second movement, Bacewicz gives most of the more expressive moments to the viola. Other noteworthy features include a passage with rocking fifths in the first violin over a tripping accompaniment (which occurs twice, at different pitch levels), and the clock-like tick of the cello (played col legno) which seems to be marking the passage of time as the movement nears its end. The scintillating finale is, by contrast, playful and mercurial. The principal theme of its rondo structure is an onomatopoeic evocation of mocking laughter; Bacewicz would revisit it in her Concerto for Two Pianos the following year.

Grażyna Bacewicz was committed to exploring new techniques but never lost sight of her own personal voice. As Lutosławski observed, “To judge her works only in light of the compositional styles and rapidly changing artistic currents of her lifetime does not appear to me to be proper. Like so many other composers of larger compositional forms, she was to a great degree independent from 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.”

Frank K. DeWald

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