Grażyna Bacewicz: Overture (Uwertura)

Program note written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Grażyna Bacewicz is evidence that talent, training, a substantial body of work, and even recognition and awards during one’s life do not guarantee a consistent place among frequently-performed composers. Born in Poland, she was educated at the Warsaw Conservatory as a violinist, and then went to Paris, where in the mid 1930s she studied composition with the famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. She spent the second half of her career in the Soviet sphere, which in theory promoted total gender equality, and she gained international exposure with performances and prizes in the United States and Western Europe. And yet she mostly disappeared from concert programs until recently. If there’s a bright spot to end this story, it’s that we now have a chance to hear excellent music from the recent past almost as if brand new.

Bacewicz wrote her Overture (Uwertura in Polish) in Warsaw in 1943 under German occupation. It was not premiered until September 1945, in a very different world. On August 1, 1944, the underground Polish Home Army began to strike Nazi positions in Warsaw. Encouraged by Moscow Radio, and expecting imminent support from the Red Army, tens of thousands of citizens took up arms. But anti-communist factions in the resistance posed a threat to Soviet postwar plans, so the Red Army halted on the outskirts of Warsaw, allowing the Germans to kill 250,000 more people and raze the city. “Suffice to say that Warsaw is no more,” Bacewicz wrote to her brother the following year, three months after Germany’s surrender. “The city is gone for but a few houses … there is no railway station there, not a single bridge, nothing but heaps of ruins.” In the same letter, she noted that she’d saved all her compositions “apart from Overture, which I’ve recently reconstructed.” She published it in 1947.

The six-minute piece begins with timpani and a scrubby romp in the strings. It’s a typical Bacewicz effect—dissonant and noisy in the details, but cogent and lively in shape and attitude. A more lyrical middle section features the flute, recalling her French training. The end is an exhilarating, optimistic, and brilliantly orchestrated rush.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.