(Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, glockenspiel, strings)

Grażyna Bacewicz

(Born in Łódź, Poland in 1909; died in Warsaw in 1969)


Polish violin virtuoso, teacher, and composer Grażyna Bacewicz was born into a musical family that cherished the arts. Her first teacher was her father, and by the age of 13, Bacewicz was composing. Despite the gender conventions of the day, Bacewicz was determined to be a professional composer, and in fact, felt that it was her destiny. After she graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory, the great Polish piano virtuoso and statesman, Ignacy Jan Paderewski arranged a scholarship in 1932 for Bacewicz to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Thereafter, Bacewicz returned to Poland where she remained during her country’s terrible years of WWII and the ensuing Russian occupation. Although her reputation was huge in Poland, few in the West knew much of her until the Iron Curtain fell. It seems that only recently is Bacewicz being given her due outside of Eastern Europe.

In her short but prolific 59 years of life, she created well over two hundred compositions, most notably: seven string quartets, five sonatas for violin and piano, 12 concertos (seven of them for violin), four symphonies, plus dozens of works for chamber and full orchestra. And this output was no small feat during the troubled times of the early 20th Century. Two world wars would interrupt her life, and other tragedies, including a terrible car accident resulting in a lengthy hospital recovery in 1959 that plagued her health through her last decade.

Bacewicz’s works are often exuberantly positive, rhythmically frolicsome, and filled with a kind-of intelligent merriment that belies the tragedies in the world around her and in her own life. Such is the case with her Overture, written in 1943, firmly in the middle of a Poland gone horribly tragic in WWII. During that time, while Bacewicz nursed her war-wounded sister, and as the rest of her family was moved into a concentration camp in Pruszków, Bacewicz composed several exceptional works, including her Overture. It had its premiere almost immediately after the end of the war, in 1945, and it won her a solid place among Polish composers.

Bacewicz crafted her dazzling Overture in three sections, with two hyper-energetic outer sections enveloping a lyrical, almost elegiac, central section. The outer sections are giddy with energy, filled with driving rhythms and excitement. Each seems a near perpetual-motion machine, as the orchestra only occasionally halts for a breath. The middle section, however, is the opposite: It creates a perfect balance for its bookends, but perhaps more importantly, brings us a moment of necessary reflection and lack of jubilance – after all, in 1943, Bacewicz was composing during some of the darkest days that the world has ever been through.

The instrument pairings are consistent throughout the quick sections, and they are, almost, delightfully backwards with regard to convention. The timpani, which traditionally accompanies brass instruments, here is often paired with the strings – the opening bars of the Overture are the first example of this, as the timpani and strings have vivid call-and-response. In contrast, the woodwinds and brass, individually, are often their own voices, making conversation with each other and with the strings/percussion. Listen for the jangling of various motives throughout the whole work – Bacewicz has these motives whirl between various instrumental groups like manic, jumping mice. By the last fifty bars or so, too, the entire orchestra is called to play with almost overwhelming energy and virtuosity. After the very last bars flee past us, you may have to pry your grip loose from your armrests to applaud.

A note: Many musicians have remarked on the opening motive played in the timpani (and subsequently by many of the other instruments throughout the Overture): three short, repeated notes descending to a fourth (longer) note. The resemblance to Beethoven’s opening motive in his Fifth Symphony is strong. Additionally, however, the Morse Code “rhythm” for the letter ‘V’ is this same sequence: “· · · –” which stood for ‘Victory’ for the Allied nations in WWII. Musicologists have reflected on whether this was Bacewicz’s message to her Resistance compatriots against the invading Nazi’s, but we should remember that the Poland-occupying Third Reich also used this same Beethoven’s Fifth musical motive to announce, through broadcast and film, their own victories and grand plans. Bacewicz was silent on the matter, but it’s enticing to imagine that in the depths of the War, it was her coded message of hope in this wonderfully upbeat and optimistic Overture.

© Max Derrickson

(Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, and strings)

Frédéric Chopin

(Born near Warsaw, Poland in 1810; died in Paris in 1849)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21

1. Maestoso

2. Larghetto

3. Allegro vivace

Fryderyk (he preferred the French spelling, “Frédéric,” that he has come to be known by) Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810. By the age of 6 he had mastered the piano on his own and his talents were so instinctive and remarkable that he was soon lauded as “Mozart’s successor.” By age 19, and after several successful concert debuts in Warsaw and abroad, Chopin was searching for a fortuitous career. Although Poland was already defining him as their national composer, financial support there was scant. And thus, he set out for “England by way of Paris” to seek his fortune.

Ultimately, “by way of Paris” became Paris itself. Upon his arrival there in 1831, Chopin’s reputation preceded him, especially burnished by Robert Schumann’s glowing endorsement of him as a “genius.” Chopin quickly found the fame and fortune he had sought, as well as a heady romance with the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil (who went by her pen name, George Sand). He might have imagined returning to the Poland that he continually spoke of with adoration, but in 1831, that notion abruptly became impossible. That same year when Chopin arrived in Paris, Russia invaded Poland and gave no indication of retreating. This Russian occupation of his homeland would remain the situation for the rest of Chopin’s life. He would eventually die of tuberculosis in Paris 18 years later, deeply regretting never having been able to visit his “motherland” again.

Of Chopin’s roughly 270 compositions, many of them are considered masterpieces of the solo piano repertoire, and indeed, he was likely the first composer to focus almost entirely on solo piano works. In addition, he masterfully incorporated Polish folk and dance music into his works, and with such mastery that these dance forms became internationally popular, especially the folk-dance forms the mazurka and the polonaise. Even during his lifetime, Chopin’s name became synonymous with both Poland and solo piano, and at the time, surely aided in the cause of Poland’s plight with Russia. Although the polonaise had by 1831 already been appropriated by the Russian aristocracy as a kind of parade-and-pomp music, Chopin made that dance a thing of serious and Polish beauty, despite his country’s invaders – Schumann called Chopin’s polonaises “cannons buried in flowers.”

But before France, and his eventual international celebrity, Chopin had composed the F Minor Concerto in Warsaw between 1829-30 at the age of 19 as a vehicle for self-promotion. This Concerto exquisitely foretells what will become hallmarks of Chopin’s composing – magical and magisterial piano solo moments, Polish dance and folk elements, and a lyrical Romanticism imbued with intense emotion. Though published as his second (No. 2), chronologically it’s his first and is perhaps the most loved for its meltingly gorgeous middle movement.

The first movement, Maestoso (meaning, performed with a majestic feel), is a marvel of lyricism. The first theme, introduced by the full orchestra, is indeed majestic, but the instruments fall back when the piano solo enters – Chopin always gives the piano priority when he’s writing for it, spotlit without competition from the orchestra. Throughout the movement, the soloist must achieve virtuosic brilliance, but also with a focus on melody and beauty, not bombast and bravura. Notice, too, as was a convention of the time, the elaborate ornamentation in the solo part. Even as these flurries of soft extra notes sparkle and flutter around the melody, they make the pianist’s task devilishly hard – the soloist must achieve the role of a virtuosic poet.

The second movement, Larghetto, is unmistakably a love song, but that of the unrequited. As Chopin himself explained in a letter, when he was studying at the Warsaw School of Music, he became infatuated with another student, Polish soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. Chopin wrote,

“I have – perhaps to my own misfortune – already found my ideal [referring to Gładkowska], whom I worship faithfully and sincerely. Six months have elapsed, and I haven’t yet exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night – she who was in my mind when I composed the Adagio [Larghetto] of my Concerto [No. 2].”

This Larghetto shows Chopin’s deep respect at the time for the music of the Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini while being a musical love letter to his soprano heartthrob. The strings open quietly and reverently, as though cautiously opening the door to the heart. The soloist soon steps forth. Its love song is ruminative, as though Chopin is daydreaming about his beloved – the melody is pure and simple while the additional ornamentations are shimmering, even in their quietude, like someone singing in a field filled with thousands of swirling dandelion seeds. The center part of the Larghetto brings on tremolo strings (quickly agitated repeated notes), over which the soloist sings fervently, much like a recitative in an opera. The movement ends with a return of the opening reverence, and the pianist trails off into a deep sleep.

The finale, Allegro vivace, brings the Concerto back from dreams and into the ballroom. The first, main theme is based on a Polish mazurka – that lively Polish national dance in three-beats per bar that Chopin will make internationally famous through his compositions. But there’s a brilliant twist from Chopin’s hand. The finale opens without flash or fancy, just solo piano playing what is basically a waltz over a few soft strings as the first theme. But Chopin has made this movement a Rondo, which will cycle through several themes in succession, always returning to the first theme – as the work progresses, the waltz transforms more and more into a classic mazurka. You can hear this shift as the beat moves from a waltz’s typical emphasis on the first beat to becoming increasingly stronger on the second beat (which sounds like the “wrong” beat). And the liveliness increases, as do several imaginative techniques – listen for the “clicking” col legno moments in the violin, where the performers are instructed to play with the wooden side of their bows. Chopin includes some delightful conversations between the soloist and the orchestra, first with the clarinets, then the French horns. And notice that a classic cadenza (an extended virtuosic solo) does not appear in this movement; rather, the entire finale, indeed, almost the entire Concerto, feels like a glorious, continuing cadenza, with the finger-twisting virtuosics steadily increasing to the last bars. Few pieces by Chopin will ever again approach the delightful playfulness of this finale, nor the outpouring of love in the Larghetto, nor the freshness of elan in the Concerto’s opening movement, which makes this great work always a joy to hear.

© Max Derrickson

(Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

(Born in Kamko-Votinsk, Russia in 1840; died in St. Petersburg in 1893)

Symphony No. 3 in D Major, “Polish,” Op. 29

  1. Introduzione e Allegro: Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre) – Allegro brilliante
  2. Alla tedesca: Allegro moderato e semplice
  3. Andante elegiaco
  4. Scherzo: Allegro vivo
  5. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (Tempo di polacca)

In 1875, not too far from Moscow, Tchaikovsky spent the summer months with a former pupil, Alexander Shilovsky, in a beautiful landscape where the fabled Steppes of central Asia begin. He was in a rare mood of calm and happiness as he reported by letter to a friend:

“I’m now composing a new symphony, and I’m doing a bit at a time. I don’t sit over it for hours on end, and I’m walking more…”

The “new symphony” was his enchanting Symphony No. 3 that he completed in under two months. Although the speed of composing was typical of this great composer, the fact that Tchaikovsky did not manically slave over his new composition at all hours, exhausting himself, and battling anxiety, was uncharacteristic. As he effused in letters to Modest, his brother, Tchaikovsky was in love with Shilovsky, and their summer affair along with the tonic of the beauty of the countryside, appears to have imbued a generally happy tone into much of this new Symphony. In thanks, Tchaikovsky dedicated his Third to Shilovsky.

Three of the great charms of this Symphony are Tchaikovsky’s delightfully lyrical themes, the creative use of rhythms, and how the Symphony’s themes often feel dance-like. It turns out that just before leaving Moscow for Shilovsky’s estate, Tchaikovsky had agreed to compose his very first ballet, Swan Lake, as soon as he had finished his Symphony. Although Tchaikovsky never offered any direct mention of it, the Symphony feels permeated by dance. So much so, that in 1967 the great dancer, choreographer, and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, choreographed the last four movements of the Symphony as part of his famous dance suite Jewels.

Though the introductory section of the first movement is marked as a marcia funebre (“funeral march”), it appears that Tchaikovsky was using this tempo marking not to create a macabre tone but instead for two creative purposes: one, to introduce us to several of the themes that will appear throughout the work; and, secondly, for dramatic effect as the funeral march blossoms into the ebullience that permeates much of this Symphony – the only of his 7 symphonies that Tchaikovsky cast in a major key. As the funeral march accelerates, it is transformed into a lively and grand procession, the Allegro brillante. Listen for how Tchaikovsky creates a kind of orchestral “sound check” as he passes bits of the theme and their accompanying lines across the entire roster of instruments. Not long into this Allegro, the oboe serenades us with a folklike, exotic theme. From here on out, themes will transform continually, shifting as Tchaikovsky creates successive waves of energy building to climax. Throughout, the pace is brisk with a sprightly undercurrent, giving the feeling that this is music waiting to be choreographed.

The second movement (considered an atypical “fifth” movement in the usual four-movement symphonic scheme) is marked “Alla tedesca” which means “in the German style,” referring to its rustic waltz, called a ländler in German. This is one of Tchaikovsky’s most lovely treasures and is truly dance music. The opening flute theme is intoxicatingly folksy and quirky as the rhythm gives a syncopated weight to the weak beats in the bar. This is just the first of Tchaikovsky’s frequent experiments in this Symphony with meter manipulation. After the bassoon reprises the flute’s lovely folk theme, Tchaikovsky then ingeniously makes us wonder if there are two beats, or three beats, in each bar – and yet, the movement flits by with an otherworldly allure and grace.

The third movement, Andante elegiac (meaning slowly and elegiacally), begins with a somber wind chorale. Then the bassoon, followed by the horn, sings a melancholic love call filled with longing. A new section arrives after a brief break and the strings serenade us with a touching, romantic song. Elements of both sections begin to mingle throughout the rest of the movement. At times, the richness of sound that Tchaikovsky creates with full orchestra is breath-taking, and as the movement winds down, some of the effects are sparkling – such as near the movement’s end as the tremolo strings wander down into the depths just before the bassoon returns to its lonely call.

The fourth movement, Scherzo, begins with gossamer lightness and breezy ebullience in both the strings and winds. Tchaikovsky adds punctuations from a core group of winds that propel the pace along. Every few phrases, singing above this buzzing activity, the horn and then the trombone have extroverted solos. The overall effect is wonderfully dizzying. Listen especially for one of Tchaikovsky’s most inventive moments in the Symphony at about 3 minutes in. Here, the violins begin playing rolling arpeggios (the basic notes of a chord) at great speed. By accretion, the other strings join in, some in different rhythms, creating a magnificent din of whirling activity. Into this musical maelstrom enter the horns with a blaring fanfare, as though the calvary has driven into the riotous fairy crowd. The remainder of the movement, though basically a recap of the first half, is a virtuosic concerto for the orchestral instruments.

The finale is directed to be played “con fuoco” (with fire) and like a polonaise (“Tempo di polacca”) – one of the most famous and widespread Polish waltz-like dances of the 18th-19th Centuries. From this tempo designation came the Symphony’s nickname, the “Polish,” upon its British premiere in 1899. At that time, Poland was struggling for independence from three occupying countries, Prussia, Russia, and the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy – referred to in the West as the “Polish Question.” Thus, the British audiences, along with the headlining advocacy of Ignacy Jan Paderewski for his home country, were sympathetic to Poland’s quest for independence, and imagined that Tchaikovsky was also on board with the “Polish Question” in this finale. In reality, in 1875 the Tsarist Russia of Tchaikovsky’s time when writing this Symphony, the polonaise was associated with royalty. When the Tsar did anything publicly, a polonaise was expected to be played – thus, Tchaikovsky was hedging for royal favor in his new work, not Polish independence. But even though historically inaccurate as representing hopes for Polish independence, the nickname “Polish” has stuck, nonetheless.

But Tchaikovsky wasn’t just thinking of the Tsar – polonaises were hugely popular worldwide, and the composer was clearly looking to please. And this finale does indeed please – feelings of dancing course throughout the entire movement, as does an exhilarating energy. Several moments are noteworthy in this final movement. One is Tchaikovsky’s wonderful second theme, heard in the winds and horns above active strings – it’s anthem-like, and one of his most robustly cheerful melodies. When this anthem returns near the end, it jubilantly blazes into triumph. Soon after, the beat becomes disorienting and ambiguous – again, juggling between the syncopation of two beats per bar versus three beats – keeping us delightfully off balance. And finally, Tchaikovsky saves the best for last – the concluding bars are as glorious as anything Tchaikovsky wrote. With bombastic brass and timpani, the Symphony ends with breath-taking joy.

© Max Derrickson