Remembered for her progressive style, fearless musicianship, and commendable performance techniques, Grażyna Bacewicz is still one of the most successful female composers that Poland has produced. Her body of work is so exciting, and this blog focuses on her life, legacy, and work for solo violin: Polish Caprice.
Born in Łódź, Poland in 1909, Grażyna Bacewicz was introduced to music by her father and brother, who were both musicians and composers. Wanting to continue her musical education, Bacewicz enrolled at the Helena Kijenska-Dobikiewiczowa’s Musical Conservatory in 1919. Whilst there, she received training on the piano, violin, and music theory. When the Bacewicz family moved to Warsaw in 1923, a year later Bacewicz secured a place at the prestigious Warsaw Conservatory, where she studied composition with Kazimierz Sikorski, piano with Józef Turczyński, and violin with Józef Jarzębski. Although starting with three disciplines, Bacewicz graduated with diplomas in violin and composition, and had dropped piano halfway through her course. After graduating in 1932, Bacewicz secured a grant in the same year to study composition at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris (1932-1933). Whilst there, Bacewicz studied under the great Nadia Boulanger, as well as receiving private violin lessons with Henri Touret. Bacewicz then returned to Paris a year later in 1934, to study under Hungarian violinist, Carl Flesch.
As well as being a well-acclaimed composer, Bacewicz was also a virtuoso on the violin. 1935 saw her first solo success on the violin, where she won the Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Warsaw. Between 1936 and 1938, Bacewicz also played first violin with the Warsaw Polish Radio Orchestra. Throughout her life, Bacewicz remained very involved with violin performance, whether that be ensemble playing, solo recitals, or giving private violin lessons at European Conservatories. Throughout her performance career, Bacewicz travelled across Europe, and played recitals in Belgium, France, Hungary, and the USSR.
Bacewicz gave a large proportion of her life to teaching new generations music, more specifically violin, music theory, and composition. 1945 saw her appointed as a lecturer of music theory, and as a violin teacher at the National Conservatory (now known as the Academy of Music), in Poland. From 1966 to her death in 1969, she worked at the National Higher School of Music in Warsaw, where she led the composition course, and was soon made a professor in 1967. Bacewicz was also a definitive figure on jury panels for violin and composition competitions, as well as serving as vice-chair of the Polish Composers’ Union from 1955-1957, and then again between 1960-1969.
Bacewicz is chiefly remembered, however, for her body of compositions, which are still popular today. Her composition archives was recognized and honoured many times, which included her winning many composition competitions. Her Quintet for Wind Instruments (1932) won 1st Prize at the 1933 Aide aux femmes de professions libres competition in Paris. Her Piano Concerto (1949) won 2nd prize (with no first prize being awarded) at the the Polish Composers’ Union Fryderyk Chopin Composition Competition in 1951. These are mere examples, as Bacewicz won a large amount of awards for works, which also includes the Belgian Government Award and Gold Medal for her Violin Concerto No. 7 (1965).
Hailing from a country where women musicians are heavily underrepresented, it seems that Bacewicz made her mark successfully, as her legacy lives on today. Her compositions range through many genres, although as a violinist herself, Bacewicz composed more music for strings and solo violin, including her Polish Caprice, which was composed in 1949.
Caprice, or Capriccio (Polish: Kaprysy), is usually defined as a single movement piece, that has a free structure, which may contain one, or many different sections within. This made this kind of composition liberal in its style, and Bacewicz utilised this form on many different occasions. Bacewicz composed three solo violin Caprices in 1949, 1952, and 1968. Folk melodies were incredibly popular with European composers during Bacewicz’s lifetime, so it is to no surprise that Polish Caprice is laden with Polish folk melodies.
Polish Caprice is only a short work, lasting around two minutes, but it is full of dynamic twists and turns, which is perhaps why is is still a popular recital piece in the modern day. Bacewicz experiments with tonality, using major-minor tonality throughout, which resonates with Polish folk music, which often uses major-minor modes throughout.
Beginning with a slow E minor recitative-like introduction, this melodic line leads into a brighter E major dance section, marked ‘Allegro’. You could say this work is in ternary form, as you have clearly defined sections that line up with ABA’ format. Five different keys are heard throughout this work, which adds to the dramaturgy of the piece. The acceleration at the end of Polish Caprice is dramatic, exciting and sounds very virtuosic. The structure of this work has been likened to that of the Kujawiak folk dance, which originates from Poland. The Kujawiak folk dance starts slow, has a faster middle section, and then accelerates at the end, thus one could certainly suggest that Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice has taken some sort of inspiration from this type of folk dance.
After her death in 1969, Grażyna Bacewicz is still celebrated as a composer, performer and educator in the modern day, with many of her works being performed in concert halls, examinations, and in recital programmes. Her progressive style of writing is one of the most exciting traits of her music, and Polish Caprice is no exception to this. A ground-breaking Polish composer, who has made herself an unbreakable legacy.
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns has recently graduated from The University of Sheffield, after studying for a Bmus in Music, and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 Classical Music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Come along to one of the Illuminate concerts to hear Polish Caprice performed by our fantastic violinist Sabina Virtosu!
Dr Helen Thomas