Music Monday: Bacewicz Violin Concerto No. 4

[Welcome to Music Mondays, the post series where I share pieces of music I really like with a smattering of biography and context about their creators!]

Being the indecisive sort that I am, I spent a lot of time thinking about what piece I wanted to use to kick off this series. There's an awful lot of great music out there, and I obviously can't feature all of it all at once. I don't have any logical justification for what I ultimately went with; the thought just occurred to me as I was tossing around possibilities, and I couldn't think of a reason not to go this route.

And so, gentle readers, allow me to introduce Grażyna Bacewicz, a Polish composer born in 1909. As with many other composers, Bacewicz received extensive musical training from a very young age, including lessons on violin and piano in addition to composition. She seems to have taken less to piano than to the other two, and didn't study it (as far as I can tell) after graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory. Violin was another story altogether; she had a respectable career playing the instrument, including a two-year stint as the concertmaster for the Polish Radio Orchestra. (Her tenure ended in 1938; I can't find detailed records online (at least not without more searching than I'm willing to do), but I suspect the PRO did not fare well with the outbreak of World War Two.) During the war, she continued to play as a violinist, giving secret underground concerts that often included her own music. She only stopped playing in 1954, after injuries she sustained in a car accident made it physically impossible for her to continue.

Compositionally, then, it's hardly surprising that many of her works feature the violin, tho she also wrote plenty of pieces that didn't. Her style changed considerably over the course of her career, so her early works can sound very different from her later ones. Many of her early works  reflect a late-Romantic sense of musical nationalism, suffusing a basic Austrio-Germanic musical stock with various Polish idiosyncrasies. Some of the resulting works are quite lovely, but they're a far cry from where she ultimately wound up. (In this, her trajectory is not that different from Bartók's.) She continued to develop harmonically thruout the 30s and 40s, but the biggest changes to her style came with the rise of the avant-garde in the 1950s. She dabbled in various experimental compositional techniques, and ultimately devised her own method of "patchworking", which often involved borrowing heavily from her earlier works. Her very latest works show some hints of turning back towards a more melodic, folk-inflected style, but her death in 1969 means we'll never know what would have come of that.

Even tho I generally think of the violin concerto category as kind of overstocked and over-represented in the public consciousness, hers really are quite good, so have a listen to her fourth, which she wrote in 1951, before her shift into avant-garde-influenced experimentation.

We begin with a rousing orchestral introduction, which gradually ebbs away into a gentler music to set the stage for the soloist's first entrance. A short cadenza ensues, but the orchestra sneaks back in shortly thereafter, in a rather less imposing mood. There's some delightfully bouncy writing for the soloist and the wind section, and a few orchestral interludes that are downright sultry, but the opening fanfare returns periodically to keep things from getting too cheerful. A little more than six minutes in, we get to the real cadenza, an extensive fantasy on the movement's themes, at times pleading, pensive, skittish, and lyrical. The orchestra re-enters tentatively at first, but quickly builds back up to a vigorous finale.

In the second movement, we get an extended rhapsody, the emotional heart of the work. It's tortuous going at times, and the soloist and the orchestra sometimes seem to be working at odds instead of towards a common goal, but it builds up to a ferocious climax and then fades into what does seem to be a place of genuine contentment.

Cue the finale. A breakneck romp full of jaunty tunes and virtuosic acrobatics for everyone, this movement is full of playful harmonic feints — the music makes as if to go one place, but winds up landing just a little off from where you thought it was going. There are calmer interludes that let you catch your breath, and some of them edge pretty far into somber territory, but the giddy dance is never too far away and swoops in before things fall hopelessly into despair.