About this Recording
8.573282 - BACEVI─îIUS, V.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 - Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 / Spring Suite (Alekna, Lithuanian National Symphony, Lyndon-Gee)

Vytautas Bacevičius (1905–1970)
Orchestral Works • 1


The life of Vytautas Bacevičius is defined by exile.

He chose a first form of exile when, in 1926 at the age of twenty-one, he left the Poland of his birth, his mother’s country, abandoning the Polish style of his name, Witold, to accompany his Lithuanian-born father Vincas (Wincenty) to the then-capital of Lithuania, Kaunas. He almost immediately became a key figure in the musical life of this small nation, barely eight years after it was established.

He chose exile again when, in 1927, he began to spend substantial parts of each year in Paris, studying piano with Santiago Riéra at the Russian Conservatoire that had been set up there by Nicolai Tcherepnin; the latter became his composition teacher. In subsequent years, he followed a dual existence between Kaunas and Paris, developing a fine reputation as a pianist, and beginning to imprint himself upon concert programmes with early works such as his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1928), Piano Concerto No. 2 (1933), both subtitled “on Lithuanian themes”; Symphony No. 1 and Poeme electrique for orchestra (1934). His relationship with his sister Grażyna grew closer during these years, as she too studied composition and violin in Paris during the same period; Vytautas often featured her music on his piano recital programmes.

Finally and conclusively, he had exile forced upon him while in the midst of a tour of piano recitals in Buenos Aires, Argentina when the Second World War broke out. Within days, the Nazis had thrust northwards from Poland to invade Lithuania, effectively obliterating the country. Bacevičius’s passport was soon rendered worthless, and he found himself a stateless person; a situation that, if anything, worsened when Soviet control of his homeland superseded at the end of the war. By September 1940, he had succeeded in obtaining papers to allow him to settle in New York, finding work there and at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Although he visited Paris in 1961, reuniting there with his two sisters for a few weeks, he was never again to see either Poland or the country for which he yearned as a native, Lithuania. He died on 15 January 1970, at the Queens Jewish Hospital, New York, and is buried in the Cypress Hills cemetery in Queens. ¹ He had never loved America; from a vast correspondence, merely the letters that survive total 1,600, written on an almost daily basis to his sisters and to various friends in Poland and Lithuania. They offer a vivid record of his inability, unwillingness even, to lay down new roots in this alien land.

Vytautas Bacevičius was born in Łódż, Poland on 9 September 1905, the second child of a Polish mother, Maria Modlińska (1871–1958) and her slightly younger Lithuanian husband Vincas (1875–1952), his name inherited from his paternal grandfather, Witold Stanisław – Vytautas Stanislovas in Lithuanian (St Stanislaus is the patron saint of Lithuania). In February 1909, his younger sister Grażyna, also destined to become a composer, was born, with a last sibling Wanda to follow in August 1911. His elder brother Kiejstut, born a year earlier in 1904, was a successful concert pianist, too; while Wanda became a journalist and published twelve volumes of poetry.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and until the second world war, Łódż was a major cultural and University centre, a status that it has vigorously recovered today. A generation before Bacevičius, the great Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) was born in Łódż; it is also the birthplace of Roman Polanski (*1933–), the conductor Paul Kletzki (1900–1973), the architect Daniel Libeskind (*1946–), and a distinguished roster of writers, mathematicians, and physicists, including some who worked on the Manhattan Project. Bacevičius’s mother Maria Modlińska was descended from an aristocratic family of architects, who settled in Łódż rather than Warsaw precisely because it was such a forward-looking centre for the arts.

Bacevičius’s pedigree as pianist was impeccable. His primary teacher in his teenage years at the Conservatory in Łódż had been Józef Turczyński, a student of Anna Yesipova and Ferruccio Busoni, thus making him a “descendant” of Liszt; while Santiago Riéra, his professor in Paris, had enjoyed an illustrious career as virtuoso, upon which he was launched by Georges Mathias, one of the brightest pupils of Frédéric Chopin. ² Bacevičius’s piano recitals in Paris in his mid-twenties attracted admiring, if small audiences, not least because of his forward-looking programming. For instance, at the Salle Gaveau on 23 November 1931, he performed a programme of Scriabin—a selection of Etudes and Poemes and the Tenth Sonata—Albéniz, Szymanowski, Prokofiev’s Fifth Sonata, five of his own works, four of them, like the Scriabin, entitled Poeme, and ended with Ravel’s Toccata. He frequently played Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, de Falla, Granados, Čiurlionis, and the Petite Suite of Alexander Tcherepnin, son of his teacher, holding up Debussy in particular as a “kindred spirit” and as particularly demanding. In a review in Le Menestrel a week after his recital of 14 December 1928, the critic Joseph Baruzi wrote:

“I wasn’t disappointed. It doesn’t mean that we can [yet] regard Bacevičius as a pianist who had completely mastered his technique: most of his interpretations of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt were marked by some kind of stiffness and weakness. Nevertheless, he played six preludes by Debussy and two poems by Scriabin (Masque and Etrangete) with much exaltation and, in some places, energy; besides, he introduced a very expressive piece Katarinka by J. Gruodis.” ³

Clearly, his youthful “weakness” in the classics had been mastered by the time Bacevičius was playing regularly at Carnegie Hall in the 1950s, for the American reviewers repeatedly praised him for his lightness of playing and called him “a genuine specialist of spiritualised interpretation.” 4 One anonymous critic wrote of him in the New York Herald Tribune in 1956 that he played with “steel fingers” but “enveloped Chopin’s lullaby with the soft breathing of spring.” 5

His pianistic gifts and standing achieved during his Paris years were such that he was invited to sit as a jury member with his compatriot Arthur Rubinstein, with Emil Sauer, François Casadesus, Walter Gieseking, Carlo Zecchi and others for the 1938 Ysaÿe competition. The laureates launched on their careers that year were no less than Emil Gilels and Jakob Flier.

But the key remark of Joseph Baruzi’s prescient review of December 1928 must surely have been:

“However, what I seem to recognise in him as a pianist is a really talented composer.” 6

For, from his very earliest years in Łódż, Bacevičius was intent upon acquiring skills and a presence as a composer. His earliest “romantic” efforts as a teenager rapidly evolved once he reached Kaunas, and he was almost immediately assessed as a talent to reckon with by colleagues such as Jeronimas Kačinkas, initially on the basis of works that extolled the value of a Lithuanian folk music heritage. His Parisian experiences rapidly made themselves felt, however, and—stimulated by Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Rugby, by Mosolov’s Zavod (The Iron Foundry), and by a Prokofiev whose recitals and whose highly personal brand of polytonality he had much admired—his brief orchestral work Poeme electrique, premièred in Kaunas in January 1934, became a landmark in Lithuanian music of the time. 7

Clearly, his pianistic immersion in Scriabin’s music had risen to the surface of his own creative impulse as early as 1926 and 1927, in three Poemes for solo piano entitled successively “Contemplation”, “mystique” and “astral”; followed in 1928 by an unperformed orchestral work for an unprecedented 188 instruments—one of several incarnations of his recurrent idea for a Poeme cosmique. These early works already convey resonances of Scriabin’s Universe Symphony, the first part of the latter’s Preparation for the Final Mystery.

Crystallizing gradually over the next twenty years, Bacevičius arrived at his concept of a “cosmic music”, perceiving his artistic heritage in common with the asthetic of Scriabin, Bartók, Jolivet, Varese and latterly Stockhausen. There is no evidence one way or the other whether Bacevičius ever met Varese while he lived in New York; his somewhat self-effacing nature, under-confident bordering on paranoid, would tend to suggest that he almost certainly did not. During his Paris visit of late 1961 he heard Messiaen at the Trinité, but rather than waiting to introduce himself, he sent a note and did not follow up. At the same time, his inner self-confidence knew no bounds, crystallizing at the time he wrote his Symphony No. 6 ‘Cosmic’ in this declaration in a letter to his sister Grażyna:

“What I am trying to create is a new theory of musical creation, based on the philosophy of [American occultist] Claude Bragdon, who maintains that music is the most important element of the existence of the Universum. … The Thought or the Light of Wisdom is the product of the perpetual vibration of the universe, which, in turn, is responsible for the magnetism that maintains the balance (both material and spiritual;) of the Universum. … Music, the symbol of supreme Thought strives towards the core and the source of existence, of the Universum. ” 8

Three years later, he was even clearer about his creative methodologies and objectives:

“From now on I’m going to write pure and atonal music. I’m going to draw all my ideas from my own Universe and filter them through my own mentality guided by my own knowledge. Since I hate mathematical puzzles, systems and techniques, I reject and have no intention of borrowing from others; my logic will be naturally based on the strictest discipline, which will take into account all conditions necessary to create purely atonal music—not serial, however, since my music will be virtually unrepeatable, yet with much stress on structures rhythmiques. … I hope you believe me, [Grażyna], that I need no intuition to enter my extra-material Universe, its purely abstract spheres, higher and higher into the light, the apex of perfection.” 9

His existence in the now hated north-eastern corner of the United States became ever more withdrawn and iconoclastic even as he continued, of desperate necessity, giving piano lessons.

“… for all Americans, culture equals the luxury appliances in their kitchens, the air-conditioner, refrigerators, cars, excellent roads, colour TVs etc. 10 In their stupid reasoning, this is followed by science and art and spiritual culture, and you could never convince them that science and the fine arts could be superior in countries ‘behind us’ in terms of civilization.” 11

Despite his negativity about the world around him, his productivity as a composer continued to blossom; much of his solo piano music was published by Mercury Music Corporation in 1967, and in 1969 he even received an ASCAP award.

But he had paid the costs himself of Mercury’s publication of his works to the imprint’s owner, Rabbi Milton Feist, which is probably the circumstance behind his outburst in yet another letter:

“In America, you buy friendship with money, and disinterested friendship in the European style is unthinkable.” 12

He was doubtless thinking back to the sense of promise and opportunity he had experienced in 1938, when the prestigious publisher Universal Edition of Vienna—publishers of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Bartók—had brought out his Deux grotesques and Premier mot. 13 His existence in America was that of a lonely and increasingly socially isolated man; never married, culturally alienated, ever more nostalgic for the Europe he had lost, close only in his epistolary relationships with his brother and sisters; his orchestral music unperformed and ignored. Yet he kept on writing, and the conviction of his artistic vision is all the more remarkable given his hostility to the American musical environment and his isolation from all that he felt had formed him as a young man.

All three of the works on this recording were written in the United States. The Piano Concerto No. 3 dates from his earlier years in the country (1946–49), when he was still optimistic about his prospects, and when his ears were still very firmly in Europe. Thus, it has powerful echoes of the “French” idiom of works such as the Troisieme and Quatrieme Mot, of Vision, written in Kaunas, and of the Second Symphony ‘della Guerra’, composed while he was trapped in Buenos Aires. Following a rather conventional “martial” opening, we hear a lyrical, chromatic oboe theme; it will be with this contrasting second subject that the piano opens its argument, continuing with a transposed version of the same music at the second solo entry. Then later, the piano soloist explores a third theme, also lyrical and cantabile (marked Moderato), that is never shared in exact form with the orchestra. There is a sense until the very concluding pages that piano and orchestra are less interlocutors and collaborators than somewhat estranged observers of each other. In a similar way, the staccato themes of the rondo Finale are related in type of movement, rather than in dialogue with each other. The piano soloist does not concede his independence even at the closing pages of the work. Several thematic elements of these two outer movements are adapted from the Three Moments, Op. 41 for solo piano (New York 1946); the exemplary work of what Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz terms the composer’s “neoclassical period”. 14 The two faster movements are separated by a musing Adagio misterioso that beautifully illustrates the gentle, lyrically based atonality of Bacevičius’s early style. Its highly decorated chromaticisms never quite draw it out from a firm foundation around the F tonality with which it opens and closes.

The 1958 Spring Suite (Pavasario Siuita) marks a period of aspiration to a substantially more complex, contrapuntally dense style. It is based upon a solo piano composition of the same name of seven years earlier, but considerably enriched by contrapuntal additions far beyond the reach of two hands. It immediately precedes the composition in 1959 of Poeme cosmique for solo piano (published by Mercury), and the Symphony No. 6 ‘Cosmic’, and is in many respects a study for these pioneering works. Two well-hidden quotations from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps are integrated with rustic Lithuanian folk melodies. The overall impression of the work is one of bubbling, seething energy.

In Bacevičius’s work chronology, the composition of Piano Concerto No. 4 (1962), subtitled (in an echo of Karol Szymanowski) Symphonie Concertante, is sandwiched between two of the composer’s most important achievements: the Symphony No. 6 ‘Cosmic’ of 1960, and Graphique, a symphonic poem of 1964. 15 Thus, it is a vital work for the understanding of his “cosmic” period, and is in stark contrast with the “French” lyricism of the third concerto. By “cosmic”, Bacevičius intends the inner world of the non-verbal soul, the limitless imagination of the human mind liberated from corporeal concerns:

“… I searched for new creative and asthetic ideas in my own [Universe]; in this I was much helped by my subconscious, which is an inexhaustible treasure and source of previously undiscovered ideas and creative elements of abstract and tonal music.” 16

In this, he is no more “eccentric” than Varese, who declared,

“I want to dwell in the material itself, to be … part of the acoustic vibration.” 17

The first movement of the Symphonie Concertante adheres to Bacevičius’s favourite Rondo-form, as follows:

Introduction—a b a1 b1 c d a2 e a3—cadenza—f a4 g (cadenza for percussion) d—coda

Intervallically, he focuses upon a wedge shape: c—f—c#—f#—d; upon two interlocking fifths: f—c—g / c#—f#—b; and upon the whole-tone scale. 18

Both this extensive first movement and the Finale, Allegro agitato, are restless music, characterised by dialogue fragments of a couple of measures thrown backwards and forwards; the third movement includes literal quotes of passages from the first. As in the Third Concerto, it is in the slow movement that we are most tangibly confronted with the composer’s dream-world, here tapering out in an inconclusive cello solo.

Bacevičius‘s music deserves a place in the wider repertoire, not only as a shining representative of his small nation’s determined place in the world, but also for moments of melting lyrical beauty and fascinating harmonic originality that draw one to repeated hearings of his work.

© Christopher Lyndon-Gee

¹ Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz, Vytautas Bacevičius i jego idee muzyki kosmicznej, Kraków 2001, 159

² Edmundas Gedgaudas, Vytautas Bacevičius the Pianist, in Rūta Stanevičiūtė & Veronika Janatjeva, Eds., Vytautas Bacevičius in Context, Vilnius 2009, 31

³ Joseph Baruzi, in Le Menestrel, no. 51, 21 December 1928, p. 545; cit. in Vita Gruodytė, Vytautas Bacevičius in the Context of Interwar Paris; in Stanevičiūtė & Janatjeva Eds. op. cit. Vilnius 2009, 63

4 Edmundas Gedgaudas, Vytautas Bacevičius the Pianist; in Stanevičiūtė & Janatjeva Eds. op. cit. Vilnius 2009, 34

5 Gedgaudas, ibid., 34

6 Baruzi, op. cit. , in ibid., 63

7 Ona Narbutienė, Vytautas Bacevičius, in Vytautas Bacevičius: A Return of the Restless Artist—A centennial celebration of Vytautas Bacevičius; programme book of the Vytautas Bacevičius Music Festival, Vilnius, September 16—October 29, 2005, English translation Veronika Janatjeva, 29

8 From a letter of 13 March 1960 to his sister Grażyna; cit in Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz, Vytautas Bacevičius’s Creative Evolution: Towards Cosmic Music; in Rūta Stanevičiūtė-Goštautienė & Audronė Žiūraitytė, Eds., Constructing Modernity and Reconstructing Nationality: Lithuanian Music in the Twentieth Century, Vilnius 2004, 33

9 From a letter of 18 March 1963 to his sister Grażyna; cit in Krzysztof Droba, Vytautas Bacevičius in America, or, An Artist in the Cage; in Stanevičiūtė & Janatjeva Eds. op. cit. Vilnius 2009, 132

10 How well do these observations resonate with Henry Miller’s The Airconditioned Nightmare (New York 1945), written soon after the latter’s own return from the ten years he lived in Paris and a year in Greece; coincidentally, a chapter of Miller’s book gives a profile of Varese.

11 From a letter of 9 June 1966 to his sister Wanda; cit in Krzysztof Droba, op, cit,; in Stanevičiūtė & Janatjeva Eds. ibid.. Vilnius 2009, 123

12 From a letter of 3 June 1966 to his sister Wanda; cit in Krzysztof Droba, op, cit,; in Stanevičiūtė & Janatjeva Eds. ibid.. Vilnius 2009, 123

13 Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz, Vytautas Bacevičius i jego idee muzyki kosmicznej, Kraków 2001, 161

14 Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz, Vytautas Bacevičius i jego idee muzyki kosmicznej, Kraków 2001, 52–57

15 Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz, Vytautas Bacevičius i jego idee muzyki kosmicznej, Kraków 2001, 163

16 Vytautas Bacevičius, Sześć tygodni życia realnego we śnie (‘Six weeks of real life in a dream‘) [written in Polish, 1963], The Vytautas Bacevičius Archive. LLMA (Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas—Lithuanian Archives of Literature and Art, Vilnius); cit. in Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz, Vytautas Bacevičius’s Cosmology of Tones and the Expression of Structure; in Stanevičiūtė & Janatjeva Eds. op. cit. Vilnius 2009, 39

17 Gunther Schuller, Conversation with Varese, in Res facta No. 1, 1967, 13

18 I am indebted to Małgorzata Janicka-Słysz, op. cit. Kraków 2001, 66, for the outlines of these analyses.

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