Grażyna Bacewicz: Overture for Symphonic Orchestra
She is perhaps still one of the most successful female composers that Poland has ever produced, Grażyna Bacewicz’s legacy lives on strong today. Remembered for her progressive compositonal style, her work is often recorded and performed in modern concert halls. Her 1943 orchestral work Overture for Symphonic Orchestra is a prime example of her keen eye for orchestration and her fiery compositional style.
Born in Łódź, Poland in 1909, Bacewicz was introduced to music at a young age by her father. She furthered her musical studies by enrolling at the Warsaw Conservatory, where she majored in piano, violin and composition. Afterwards she travelled to Paris, where she furthered her compositional studies with Nadia Boulanger. Bacewicz’s output was prolific for her time, with her composing four symphonies, seven violin concertos (plus concertos for cello, piano and viola), seven string quartets, chamber music, vocal music, piano music and two ballets. Her skills were utilised by a range of different ensembles and musicians.
Bacewicz’s style of composing is often referred to as neoclassical, although she was often vocal about how she did not want to be put in a ‘genre box.’ Bacewicz was able explore serialism and other avant-garde techniques after the Polish political landscape began to change after 1956. Unlike her contemporaries, Bacewicz did not veer far from her pre-war style of composing after 1956. What is most surprising is that her works are only really being found and celebrated in the modern day in other countries.
Overture for Symphonic Orchestra was composed in 1943, with its original title simply being Overture 1943. Clocking in at around six minutes in length, this overture is curious in both form and orchestration. The fast-paced opening shows off Bacewicz’s superb perpetual motion writing, with the strings driving the tempo. This is then interjected by the brass, who penetrate the strings with short descending staccato stabs. Tension begins to build again across the orchestra, which leads to a horn and flute interlude.
The tempo slows down remarkably for the second section of the overture. Now marked Andante, this new section is introduced and principally led by the upper woodwinds. Bacewicz’s unusual orchestration here is one of the highlights of this section. Her timbre blending between cellos, horns and woodwinds creates a wonderful palette of colour. The delicate use of what is essentially a wind sextet with string accompaniment, gives this slow section a unique twist.
After these first two sections, one may be lead to believe that we could be in some sort of variation of sonata form. However, this is not the case. The music quickly plunges back into the chaotic energy from the beginning of the overture. Interestingly, the melodic development that Bacewicz achieves in the Andante section is never heard again in the rest of the overture. Instead what she does is builds upon the music from the opening Allegro section.
The use of trumpets and horns to break the perpetual motion to proclaim a fanfare is highly effective. For the rest of the work the aim seems to be to build up the unrelenting energy that the opening had, which leads us to the powerful end of the overture. The celebratory feel to the work is heard through the colourful use of brass and percussion, which aid in building tension, as well as keeping the work driving forward. The steady build in the last minute of the work culminates in a powerful final chord that swells and then a final stab at the end concludes this exciting work.
Overture for Symphonic Orchestra is neatly characterised by its clear collection of melodies, and its simple and celebratory themes. Although the orchestration and form is rather unconventional, it only adds to the charm of the work. This overture would certainly be a fiery and exciting way to open any concert.
Ⓒ Alex Burns