Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)

A child prodigy, Grazyna Bacewicz started composing at the age of 13. At the Warsaw conservatory, she studied philosophy, violin, piano and composition and later she continued her studies with Nadia Boulanger and Carl Flesch in Paris. Back in Poland, Bacewicz served as concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra, where she got to hear a lot of her own music. Before World War II, she traveled Europe giving concerts as a violinist, often accompanied by her brother. After the war, she took up a teaching position at the conservatoire in Lódź. In this time, she shifted her musical focus towards composition.
In 1954, Bacewicz suffered serious injuries from a car accident and composing became her major musical activity. She is one of the most important representatives of modern Polish music. In addition to composing, Bacewicz was a prolific writer.

Pensieri Notturni was composed in 1961, during a period at which Bacewicz concentrated on sonorist writing. The piece, which is not intended to be program music, is framed for chamber orchestra: single woodwinds (except three clarinets), single brass, percussion, harp, celeste and strings (5321). It is mainly characterized by flexible, volatile gestures, notes expanding and returning to their previous states. The sound material is not based on existing systems, except the concept of non-recurring notes. The instrumentation is extremely sophisticated, for example trombone, harp and guiro imitate gestures and create an image of a surreal, fantastic environment. The recurring use of the vibraphone gives the movement a sense of tranquility. What especially struck me was Bacewicz’s refined use of string techniques. Glissandi, flageolets, legno, ponticello, saltando, combined and overlapped, contribute to a unique sound world.

Program suggestions:

  • Bacewicz Pensieri Notturni 8’ - Bartók Divertimento for String Orchestra 26’ - Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra 30
  • Bacewicz Pensieri Notturni 8’ - Mahler Symphony N°7 80

Ruth Crawford-Seeger (1901-1953)

Ruth Crawford-Seeger was a key figure in American modernist music and a well-known ethnomusicologist. She began taking piano lessons at the age of 11. Her teacher was a pupil of Scriabin, whose musical ideas she passed on to her students. Crawford-Seeger became associated with „ultramodernist“ composers like Edgar Varèse, studying serialism and dissonant counterpoint. She was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship in music composition to study in Europe. Among the composers she met there were Béla Bartók and Alban Berg. The majority of her compositions were written in the 1920s and early 1930s. She married her teacher Charles Seeger in 1932. Already around 1934, Crawford-Seeger stopped composing and devoted all her time to her work at the American folk-song-archive at the Library of Congress, where she worked together with her husband.

Music for Small Orchestra (1926) shows an experimental, formalist style. Consisting of two movements, the longer first one („Slow, pensive“) begins with an ostinate rhythm on a single note in the piano. A static chord of string and wind instruments slowly oscillates between changing notes in the middle voices and little dynamic fluctuation. The rather static exposition becomes more elastic as contrasting layers join in: wave-like quintuplets in the first cello and dissonant piano basses. Only about two minutes into the piece we become aware of two espressivo melodies by the flute and the bassoon, which mainly proceeds between two notes. The structural patterns slightly speed up, accompanied by a crescendo, then calming down again. New patterns get introduced in the next section, there is more movement, the dynamic development happens at a faster pace. A short flute cadenza builds the transition into a brief celestial episode with high flageolets until, in the final bars, we are reminiscent of the opening’s quintuplet section, this time accompanied by a widely stretched dissonant chord. The music fades off, the piano remains, finally, on a consonant fifth in the left hand.

In the contrasting, short second movement („In roguish humor. Not fast.“) rhythmic patterns in piano, bassoon and cellos mark the background for playful, agile woodwind solos. The instruments change patterns and a fast intensification suddenly breaks off. A modified recapitulation starts, like a second attempt, which also breaks off suddenly after an even stronger culmination than the first time. The short third attempt fades out in a ritardando molto. The last bar is a big laugh.

Program suggestions:

  •  Crawford-Seeger Music for Small Orchestra 10’ - Carter Clarinet Concerto 19’ - Bartók Concerto for Orchestra 40’

Dora Pejačević (1885-1923)

Perhaps the most famous Croatian composer (alongside Franz von Suppé), Dora Pejačević was born in Budapest before moving to the family’s castle in Našice. Her parents were both of noble descent and Dora grew up in a luxurious environment which supported her artistic education. An excellent pianist and violinist, she started composing at the age of 12. She later studied in Zagreb, Dresden and Munich. In Dresden, Pejačević got acquainted with the music of Richard Strauss, whose world premiere of Elektra she witnessed. During World War I, she volunteered to take care of wounded soldiers in her home town Našice. Passing away at age 37 due to complications related to the birth of her first son, she left a grand oeuvre of compositions for piano, chamber ensembles, voice and orchestra.

Her Symphony op. 41 received high critical acclaim at the world premiere in Dresden in 1917. A critic compared her with Tchaikovsky. Artur Nikisch, who had heard of the successful premiere, had planned to perform the composition with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, which sadly couldn’t happen due to his sudden passing. Only in 2022, 100 years after Nikisch’s death, the Gewandhausorchester performed the symphony under the baton of Andris Nelsons.

Pejačević’s symphony in F-sharp minor is a highly original composition, embracing an extended, cyclic symphonic formal concept, Richard Strauss’ harmonic language and a slavonic idiom.

The introduction of the first movement starts with a voluptuous diminished chord, perhaps a fate motive inspired by the devastation caused by World War I and Pejačević’s frequent encounter with wounded soldiers: a desperate appoggiatura continued by a decisive fanfare motive, which is to play an important role during the entire movement. The first subject is a beautiful, gently flowing melodic gesture, but Pejačević attributes more significance to the expansive second subject (maestoso), dominated by the sound of the horns. More and more enthusiastically, this motive develops into a grand culmination. A forceful stretta comes to a sudden halt when the tutti (fff) intones the desperate fate motive, which had opened the movement.

The cor anglais opens the slow second movement with a lonely prayer in a russian idiom. Its theme is then continued as a passacaglia through various instruments, before a lamenting episode seems to be building a bridge to the dramatic ending of the first movement. The middle section consists of an agile, wave-figured melody, perhaps resuscitating joyful memories from childhood, before developing into a dramatic outburst. The third section of the movement combines elements of the first two sections, ending in a somber tone with trombones and timpani: memento mori.

In the humorous third movement, Pejačević makes use of percussion instruments (xylophone, glockenspiel, piatti). A lot of rubato is happening and sudden, unexpected shifts of mood. The joyful opening of the scherzo with syncopated accents evokes the image of a happy village dance, the idiom may be inspired by Dvořák. In the Trio, mysterious woodwind-figures add a surreal touch before violins and cellos sing a beautiful melody.

Per aspera ad astra, the last movement is characterized by a mostly heroic expression. Pejačević asks for six horns. An energetic first theme with its prominent rhythm initiates the movement. In the development section, reminiscences of the previous movements appear and are from here on interwoven in the movement. Mostly the main theme from the second movement becomes prominent and joins forces with the energetic theme from the finale, concluding in a brilliant apotheosis, although in a minor key.

Program suggestions:

  • Pejačević Symphony op. 41 47’ - Dvořák Cello Concerto 42’

  • Pejačević Symphony op. 41 47’ - Elgar Enigma Variations 32’

  • Mozart Piano Concerto KV 482 32’ - Pejačević Symphony op. 41 47’

Julia Amanda Perry (1924-79)

Julia Amanda Perry was a very prolific composer, having written twelve symphonies, three operas, two concertos and some smaller pieces. As a child, she studied voice and violin. Later on, she attended classes at the Juillard School and at the Tanglewood music center before spending half a decade in Europe, where she expanded her training as a composer with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence. After a stroke paralyzed her right side, she learned to write with the left hand in order to complete her last compositions in hospital.

Her „Short Piece for Orchestra“ became the first composition by a woman of color to be performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1965. A wild, sudden uprising in unison opens the piece. the music seems to be torn apart by marked syncopations and harsh interruptions. In the following Andante lento solo winds, later horn and solo violin articulate an expressive chant in a wide range of large intervals, commented by low strings in fourths. That bass line builds the bridge into a varied recapitulation of the opening music. A wild ride follows, on top of which the horns and later the first violins sing a warm melody. Warning signals in high winds and trumpet fanfares appear before we are led back again to the initial music. The dramatic scenery seems to vanish and we find ourselves in a lonely atmosphere, reminiscent of Shostakovich. When only a low bass note is remaining and we think the piece has come to a sad end, Perry surprises us with a short and effective stretta.

Program suggestion:

  • Perry Short Piece for Orchestra 7’ - Sibelius Violin Concerto 34’ - Bruch Symphony 3 32’


Ruth Zechlin (1926-2007)

Ruth Zechlin started playing the piano at the age of five and composed her first piece at the age of seven. She studied composition, choral conducting and organ at the Leipzig Musikhochschule. From 1950 she became a professor at the newly founded „Hanns Eisler“ Musikhochschule in Berlin. Zechlin was friends with Hans Werner Henze and Witold Lutoslawski. She was a member of the Akademie der Künste of the German Democratic Republic and became one of the most influential composers of the GDR. Zechlin wrote more than 300 compositions of all genres. Her idol was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music she had frequently heard at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. She searched an imaginary dialogue with Bach, sometimes quoting his music and continuing it in her own way. Zechlin created her own tonal language, using dodecaphony, aleatoric music, cluster and collage. Alongside her activities as a composer and teacher, she was a concert cembalist for many decades.

Her Music for Orchestra (1880) starts on a very soft high violin note, gradually developing downwards into a pulsating cluster. The dynamic remains pp, the basses join in molto cantabile. A sudden warning signal by the woodwinds creates tension. Again, a softly downward moving cluster in the strings, again contrasted by woodwind signals, later by brass fanfares. The situation seems to become dangerous, a long and menacing cluster builds up from the low brass with an accelerating rhythm and the first use of a military drum. The music is torn apart between high strings and low strings. A solo oboe and 4 violins contemplate the sadness, but they get overpowered by merciless, loud, repeated brass chords. A big culmination, orchestrated by a long crescendo in piatti and gran cassa, leads to a touching bass clarinet solo lamenting over a very soft, sustained tam-tam and double bass note. This entire dramaturgy reminds me of Shostakovich. After the lament, there seems to be a bit of hope. „Con calore, poco a poco“, trombones and horns are singing in consonance over string carpets. A peaceful episode, played by flutes, violins, vibraphone and glass plates makes us believe we have escaped the threat experienced earlier. A solo violin cadenza ends on a high note that makes all other violins join in. Dolce espressivo, legato molto, the music indulges in a pastoral way, a crescendo suddenly drops to pianissimo to give way to a beautiful violin solo. Like the piece had started on a single high note, it ends in unison on a high note, this time with everybody playing accelerated notes in a big crescendo, suddenly cutting off.

Program suggestions:

  • Zechlin Music for Orchestra 13’ - Henze Ariosi 27’ - Schumann Symphony 2 38’

  • Weber Euryanthe Overture 9’ - Bruch Violin Concerto 1 25’ - Zechlin Music for Orchestra 13’ - Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis 21’


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