GRAZYNA BACEWICZ – The Progression of a Composer – SQs 1 & 4

Grazyna Bacewicz [1910-1969] was a Polish female composer, who wrote seven string quartets from 1938-1965. I thought I would discuss an early and middle quartet, namely Nos. 1 and 4.

SQ No. 1 is in three movements, as are all of her early works. The first movement wanders through some simple motifs for a while before it breaks into an allegro tempo. It settles into this with some slightly atonal melodies. I hear a bit of Dvorak here (again) and the music settles into a satisfying passage. The tempo strengthens and new motifs are introduced; the music is moving forward and finds itself in an eminently satisfying passage. It backs off the dynamics but increases the tempo, becoming quite busy. After a pause, the opening returns until some pizzicato allows for variation in the thematic material. Towards the end of the movement, there are some attractive quiet periods, finishing on the seemingly obligatory flourish.

The next movement has a beautiful introductory statement. This is why I listen to string quartets. They can take me to places that no other music can. This charming passage reminds me of earlier times. After a time, a new melody is presented; it is very subtle.  The tempo picks up again, the cello asserts a strong melody, and then the violins return. There is a hint of a plaintive melody as the movement winds down and fades out on a long note. What a pleasant piece!

The final movement starts at a rollicking tempo. The violins skip across the ensemble and keep up the positive mood. As with many European string quartets of this era, there are folk-like melodies to be found here. The two violins continue their conversation to a conclusion.

SQ No. 4 opens in a sombre mood, with the cello taking the lead. The tempo quickens and the music becomes quite busy for a moment. Then comes the recapitulation, followed by a new theme. This is at a moderate tempo and leads to a shift in the mood. The piece drops back to the opening mood and introduces a prolonged period of delicate ambience. This is a charming passage, music of its time.  The tempo takes over again, but not for long, as the introversion returns. The winding down to the conclusion is particularly felicitous. This is simple, thoughtful music. The volume never rises above moderate, yet there are incisive passages.

The second movement is again slow and quite alluring. It has a very tender forward pulse, with small peaks in the melody. It sounds Modern but the composer uses mesmeric notes rather than dissonance. Out of this a melodic theme emerges.  A new section brings a new violin melody and it finally breaks into gentle abstraction; this is a most engaging passage. It finishes on a long violin note and a cello ‘pop’ to conclude.

The final allegro movement is folk-like and very rhythmic. A second theme is introduced and sustained by the violins. The movement turns into a cornucopia of folk-like themes that eventually race to the conclusion.

After SQ No. 4, the composer becomes increasingly modern. There is still some fine music there but it seems to me to be a case of modernity for its own sake. The change is not overbearing but should be noted by anyone interested in Bacewicz’s string quartets.

All of her quartets are freely available. There is a complete Chandos 2-CD set, performed by the Silesian Quartet, at Amazon UK and also two separate Naxos CDs. It can be found on Spotify and pretty much all of the quartets are available on YouTube and earsense.

Listenabilty: This is not romantic music, but mildly modern.


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