Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Spotlight on...

Spotlight on Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Chapter 1: The Struggling Young Artist


Spring has been rather tardy in coming to Montreal, and for the first installment of our “Composer of the Month” series we have selected a composer who could also be considered a late bloomer: Gabriel Fauré. Born on May 12, 1845 near Pamiers in southwestern France, Fauré displayed great promise from a young age, but he struggled tremendously for the first half of his life to gain recognition for his works. History has been kinder to Fauré however, and he is now recognized for the fine craftsmanship and originality of his works, and for the important influence he had on composers such as Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Nadia Boulanger, and Arthur Honegger.

After completing his studies at the École Niedermayer in Paris, where the focus on religious music had a major impact on Fauré’s style, Fauré worked primarily as a private teacher and organist, and eventually attained the post of choirmaster and deputy organist at La Madeleine in Paris thanks to his close friendship with Camille Saint-Saëns.

As a composer, Fauré’s initial focus was on solo piano works, songs, and chamber music, such as the Violin Sonata No. 1 and Ballade for Piano, and his cheeky homage to Wagner’s Ring cycle, the Souvenirs de Bayreuth. Such works allowed Fauré to reach only a very limited audience, but those that heard Fauré’s music were astonished by his creativity and craftsmanship. In the early part of his career, Fauré became a fixture of the many salons in Paris during the late 19th century, where he mingled with some of the most talented minds of other artistic fields, and cultivated relationships with wealthy patrons, which would lead to important commissions for major works later in his career.

To be continued….

An in-depth look

As a young composer who lacked the proper connections to gain entry into the Parisian musical establishment, Fauré instead turned his focus to the many artistic salons held in private homes, where he quickly became the darling of these gatherings, and more importantly, captured the attention of several wealthy patrons. Composing did not pay the bills however, and so Fauré was forced to work as an organist and private teacher, which as a result severely curtailed the time he could devote to composing - for most of his life in fact, he could only find time to compose during his summer vacation.

The other difficulty that Fauré faced at this time was finding an audience for his work. His natural inclination towards chamber works more suitable for small gatherings, and the difficulties he faced in having them published, limited his public exposure. Large-scale orchestral pieces would have allowed him to reach a far larger audience, but early compositions such as a violin concerto and a symphony in D minor remained only abortive attempts at such works.

Had Fauré even succeeded in completing these works, he then would have had to contend with the difficult reality that many French composers faced from the mid-19th century onwards: the hegemony of German composers in the realm of symphonic music, and the stranglehold that opera had on French musical life. There was little appetite in Paris at that time for symphonic music, and the only surefire way for a composer to earn widespread public acclaim was through opera. Even Fauré felt compelled to attempt composing an opera despite his inexperience and lack of aptitude for the genre, and he would pursue various unsuccessful projects before he completed Pénélope, the sole opera in his output, in 1913.

An Unconventional Education

Fauré’s distinctive style was formed in part by his rather unconventional musical education; rather than passing through the Paris Conservatory or competing for the Prix de Rome as would be expected of an ambitious young composer, at nine years of age Fauré was sent to the École Niedermayer in Paris, which focused on educating musicians for a career in the church. The study of works ranging from Josquin to J.S. Bach had a profound influence on the young Fauré, as did that of the church modes - the medieval predecessors of the major and minor scales that form the basis of tonal harmony. Echoes of this centuries-old music are heard in the simple, modally-tinged melodies of many of Fauré’s works, as well as the counterpoint that ripples beneath the surface and the linear conception of his music.

Fauré and Saint-Saëns

The other great influence of Fauré’s youth was Camille Saint-Saëns, who was a young professor at the École Niedermayer when Fauré first arrived there. Saint-Saëns introduced his pupils to the latest works of Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and Chopin, and for Fauré his role surpassed that of a teacher to be his mentor, substitute parent, and lifelong friend and confidante. It was Saint-Saëns who assisted Fauré in finding employment after graduation, first as a church organist in Rennes, and eventually as choirmaster and deputy organist at La Madeleine in Paris, then one of the most fashionable churches in the city.


Violin Sonata No. 1 – The Beginnings of a distinct style

Gabriel Fauré - Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 13

Violin Sonata No. 1

Masterpieces from Fauré’s early period include the Piano Quartet No. 1 and the Ballade for Piano - whose intricate filigree-like figurations entangled Liszt’s fingers when Fauré presented it to him in 1882 -, as well as the Violin Sonata No. 1 composed in 1875, in which Fauré firmly established his style while also displaying astonishing creativity. Fauré’s passionate temperament seems to flow through the entire work - from the very first measure it bounds forward with youthful exuberance, barely able to contain its ecstasy.

It is in early works such as this that Fauré established what would become stylistic trademarks of his output: a heavily chromatic, ambiguous harmonic character, and a predilection for rising scale motifs over syncopated rhythms - a device used here in the final movement, and one to which Fauré would return in many other compositions. The third movement also displays his unique take on the scherzo: a sunny and nimble movement with the lightness of bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Encadré Proust

Souvenirs de Bayreuth – Fauré and Wagner

Fauré/Messager - Souvenirs de Bayreuth

At the time Fauré was in the process of establishing himself as a composer, one figure towered over the world of music: Wagner. Fauré first encountered Wagner’s music in the classes of Saint-Saëns, and in early adulthood ventured to Germany on several occasions to experience the master’s operas in person. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der Ring des Nibelungen thrilled him, while Lohengrin left him indifferent and Tristan und Isolde aroused a virulently negative reaction; and yet, unlike his colleagues, Fauré was not swept up in the craze of “Wagnérisme.” He rummaged through Wagner’s music for material that was useful to him, but it seems Fauré quickly realized that Wagner’s aesthetic and his own were fundamentally incompatible - the overflowing emotions of Wagner’s operas were the antithesis of the restraint and poise of Fauré’s carefully sculpted works.

Fauré’s admiration for Der Ring des Nibelungen, however, did not impede him from paying tribute to Wagner’s epic with the tongue-in-cheek Souvenirs de Bayreuth, composed for piano duet with his friend André Messager. Various leitmotifs from the cycle are transformed into four foppish quadrilles, their open-ended harmonies securely tied down with an emphatically tonal cadence at the end of each section - here, the heroic Siegfried has traded his hunting horn and helmet for the frock coat and spats of a proper bourgeois dandy!

by Trevor Hoy

Georg Unger Siegfried
Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Chapter 2: Successes and Tribulations of Middle Age


Gabriel Fauré’s middle years coincided with the belle époque in Paris. It was a time of societal change as well as great scientific and technological innovation, and for Fauré brought a mixture of success and disappointment; and yet, just as societal progress continued its inexorable march onwards, Fauré’s career followed its slow upward trajectory as if drawn by some invisible force. While Fauré was generally good-humoured for much of his youth, he was also subject to emotional extremes, and his middle years were marred by bouts of depression - what Fauré termed “spleen” - brought about most likely by a broken engagement and unhappiness over his lack of success as a composer, as well as the deaths of his parents. In spite of these doldrums, there were also many bright spots in this period of Fauré’s life. It was a sign of the changing times when Fauré obtained in 1896 a coveted position as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory, despite the dislike for Fauré among conservative members of the musical establishment. During this period, Fauré completed important new works for both small ensemble and solo piano, while a sojourn in Venice yielded the song cycle Cinq mélodies de Venise. An even more profound impact on his music arrived in the form of a passionate affair with Emma Bardac begun in 1892, the result of which includes the song cycle La Bonne chanson, in which Fauré explored new formal possibilities in music of exquisitely sensual beauty. Fauré also found success in this period with music of a much larger scope, including charming incidental music for the plays Caligula, Shylock, and Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande. Belated, but much-deserved, public acclaim on a grand scale arrived with his monumental Prométhée, when at its premiere in Béziers in 1900 a crowd 10,000 strong fêted a triumphant Fauré.

An In-Depth Look

La Belle Époque: Transformation of a Society

All around Fauré, the world was changing at an ever-quickening pace. The 1889 Universal Exhibition was a seminal event in French art, in particular music. It was here that Claude Debussy first encountered the Javanese gamelan, which permanently altered the direction his music would take; if Fauré attended the exhibition, there is no evidence that gamelan, or the current fad of japonisme, had any impact on his music, and he was content to continue composing in his own manner. That same year, and also part of the Exhibition, an intricate ironwork structure designed by Gustave Eiffel appeared on the Parisian skyline - the Eiffel Tower stands today as an unmistakable symbol of Paris, but it was at first condemned as an eyesore by many, including Fauré’s fellow composer Charles Gounod. Meanwhile, one of the most groundbreaking innovations of this era was the widespread introduction of electricity. Starting in 1893, Fauré was able to enjoy an electric elevator installed in his apartment building, while the ever-inquisitive Camille Saint-Saëns composed his cantata Le Feu céleste in honour of this exciting new technology.

The Eiffel Tower under construction

Fauré and the Conservatoire de Paris

Seismic change was also coming to the musical establishment, as the deaths of older composers left vacancies at the Conservatoire de Paris. Despite the support of Saint-Saëns, Fauré had been continuously frustrated in his attempts to obtain a much-vaunted teaching position there, as more conservative composers felt threatened by this mere composer of “salon music” who constantly broke established rules of harmony in his works. In a previous application for a post, Fauré had been instead shunted into a position as inspector of musical education in branches of the Conservatory - a position which came with more prestige and a better salary, but now required Fauré to make interminable journeys to provincial towns. Fauré’s second go at a position at the Conservatory proved more successful: in 1896, at 51 years of age, Fauré finally had a taste of the success and recognition he had for so long craved when he was appointed as a professor of composition. The most famous pupil of this class was Maurice Ravel, but Fauré also educated some of the other great talents of the 20th century, among them Nadia Boulanger, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin, and George Enescu.

Fauré the Celebrity: Large-Scale Works

Important compositions from this period of Fauré’s life include the Piano Quartet No. 2 and the Piano Quintet No. 1, as well as several nocturnes and barcarolles for piano and the song cycles Cinq mélodies de Venise and La Bonne chanson. This period was also marked by the completion of several larger orchestral works that contributed to Fauré’s growing reputation: along with the Requiem, Fauré composed incidental music for the plays Caligula, Shylock (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), and Pelléas et Mélisande.

Finally, on August 27, 1900 Fauré was able to enjoy the public recognition he so deserved with the premiere of Prométhée at an outdoor arena in Béziers. A tragédie lyrique on the myth of Prometheus that cannot be categorized as either a cantata or an opera, Fauré composed Prométhée for an ensemble of 800 musicians, and the work was heard by a total of 17,000 people over two nights. The public marvelled at his creation, and Fauré was elated - never before had he enjoyed celebrity status. In the coming years, several small Fauré festivals would be held in Paris, and in 1903 Fauré would be appointed as music critic for Le Figaro, a position he would hold until the end of his life. Things were finally beginning to go his way.

A Turbulent Romantic Life: La Bonne chanson

Anne Sofie von Otter: The complete "La bonne chanson Op. 61" (Fauré)

La Bonne chanson, op. 61

With middle age came the trappings of domestic life, and in 1883 Fauré married Marie Fremiet. The two were at first affectionate and shared a mutual passion for art, but things eventually cooled between them; Marie shared neither Fauré’s passionate temperament or love of socializing, and unfortunately for Marie, marriage could not tame Fauré’s unfaithful behaviour. Fauré’s musical talents combined with his other attributes - a dark complexion and wavy locks, “large, languid and sensual eyes of an impenitent Casanova” according to his pupil Alfredo Casella, pleasant demeanour and charmingly provincial manner of rolling his ‘r’s - apparently made Fauré irresistible to the opposite sex, and Fauré was equally unable to resist the affections of other women.

For the first half of Fauré’s life, this unhappy marriage and other turmoil in his love life - various short affairs, a failed earlier engagement, and the brief, ultimately futile romantic feelings for his lesbian patron Winnaretta Singer - caused Fauré a fair amount of emotional instability. All this changed when Fauré met Emma Bardac in 1892. Bardac was at this time married to a wealthy banker (whom she would eventually divorce in 1905 for Claude Debussy), but both she and her husband had a very loose interpretation of marital fidelity. Intelligent, beautiful, a gifted soprano and brilliant conversationalist, Bardac provided Fauré with both the first emotionally fulfilling relationship he had thus far experienced, and the inspiration for a strikingly original work: the song cycle La Bonne chanson.

In conjunction with this change in his personal life, La Bonne chanson *demonstrated a marked shift in Fauré’s music that was far more adventurous in its approach to both form and harmony, to the point that Saint-Saëns declared that Fauré must have gone mad the first time he heard the work. *La Bonne chanson also marked Fauré’s first prominent use of cyclical elements in his music, a technique foreshadowed in the Ballade for Piano and* Cinq mélodies de Venise*. In La Bonne chanson though, these recurring themes play a far more important structural role, akin to a leitmotif, and are manipulated and transfigured through the nine songs that make up the cycle; notable examples are a melody pulled from one of his earlier songs, Lydia, and a passionate rising motif that accompanies the words “Je vous aime” in the fifth song, “J’ai presque peur, en vérité”.

Fauré selected nine poems from Paul Verlaine’s eponymous collection for* La Bonne chanson*, which, rather than outlining a story, sketch a portrait of the beloved. As the composer was particularly enamoured of Verlaine’s poetry, having previously set several of his poems to music, when Fauré’s patron Winnaretta Singer offered him a substantial commission to compose a short opera, Fauré saw this as a splendid opportunity to work with Verlaine. This ambitious plan fell apart though when Fauré finally located Verlaine in 1891, by which time the poet was reeling in the advanced stages of alcoholism, and it was clear that the once-gushing well had dried up.

Emma Bardac

Fauré at the End of the Century: Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande

Fauré : Pelléas et Mélisande, suite d'orchestre (Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France / Mikko...

Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande

Fauré’s incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande was one of only four works based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama that were composed in the span of ten years; most famous of these is Claude Debussy’s opera, but Arnold Schoenberg produced an hour-long tone poem in a sweeping post-Mahlerian style in 1903, while in 1905 Jean Sibelius composed his own incidental music for the play. It may seem odd that so many composers were drawn to a play expressing a pessimistic worldview and in which little action happens, but it is precisely these qualities that were evocative of the fin-de-siècle mood; the idea of man’s impotence before destiny expressed in Pelléas et Mélisande echoed the sense of resignation and mourning for a slowly crumbling world that gripped many artists at this time. Fauré’s music for Pelléas et Mélisande, which he composed for an 1898 production in London, has had the misfortune of being overshadowed by Debussy’s far more radical opera, and the two composers made no secret of their dislike for each other’s work; after first hearing Debussy’s opera, a baffled Fauré exclaimed “If that is music, then I have never known what music is.” Nonetheless, to Fauré’s credit, he produced richly melodic and appealing music that won the admiration of Maeterlinck himself; the music today exists only as a four-movement suite, while the rest sadly remains unpublished.

by Trevor Hoy

Claude de Bussy
Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Chapter 3: The Elder Statesman of French Music


For the final decade and a half of his life, Fauré was at the peak of his fame and influence. In 1905 he took the helm of the Paris Conservatory and brought important reforms to an institution that had become backwards in its views and encumbered by its own traditions. He also achieved significant success when, after years of failed attempts at composing an opera, his Pénélope had its triumphant premiere in 1913. The joy, however, was tempered by tragedy: Fauré experienced the deaths of his older siblings during this time, as well as that of his close friend Camille Saint-Saëns in 1921. He also suffered the greatest misfortune that could happen to a musician as he gradually went deaf, until he could finally only hear his compositions in his head. In spite of these challenges, the final years of Fauré’s life were some of his most productive, during which time he produced innovative works such as the Piano Quintet No. 2 and the String Quartet, before he finally passed away from pneumonia in 1924.

An In-Depth Look

The final period of Fauré’s life brought another unexpected turn of events, when in 1905 he was appointed director of the Paris Conservatory following the resignation of Théodore Dubois, in a move that was possibly influenced by the government as a way to shake up an institution that was perceived as increasingly ineffectual and backwards. Fauré entered his new position with sweeping plans to reform the Conservatory - to the point that others nicknamed him “Robespierre” due to his determination and toughness in carrying out this task. First among these reforms were modifications to the teaching curricula, as well as a massive expansion of the repertoire students were permitted to study: Wagner was at long last allowed within the Conservatory walls, and students could now study music ranging from Monteverdi to Debussy. A wave of resignations by professors outraged at the appointment of this outsider from the provinces gave Fauré the perfect opportunity to appoint more progressive members to the faculty, and invite composers such as Paul Dukas and Claude Debussy to sit on examination panels.

A major advantage that Fauré had during his tenure as director was the goodwill he held with both warring factions of the Parisian musical world: he was an esteemed colleague of conservative composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns and Vincent d’Indy, and admired by members of the younger generation like Maurice Ravel and Darius Milhaud.

Pénélope: an Opera at Last

Another significant achievement of Fauré’s later life was his sole opera, Pénélope, based on Ulysses’ return to Ithaca as told in the Odyssey. While for most of his life Fauré had avoided Wagner’s influence, he finally turned to his operas to aid him in the composition of Pénélope. Taking his cue from Wagner, Fauré created a series of leitmotifs to represent key characters and elements of the story, and favoured a mostly continuous musical flow in place of set recitatives and arias; nonetheless, Fauré was selective in what aspects of Wagnerian opera he imitated, and combined them with elements of more traditional opera to create an idiosyncratic and wholly personal approach. Fauré scored a tremendous success with the Paris premiere of Pénélope on May 10, 1913, only to have his moment of triumph overshadowed when, three weeks later, a young Russian composer by the name of Igor Stravinsky scandalized Paris (and forever changed the course of music) with his new ballet The Rite of Spring.

Poster for the opera Pénélope

Beethoven and Fauré: a Shared Fate

All this time, Fauré was concealing a secret, one so devastating that it could potentially finish his career at the Conservatory: he was going deaf. By the first decade of the 20th century, the first noticeable signs of hearing loss were beginning to appear; worse still, they were accompanied by the distortion of sounds - according to his son Philippe, Fauré “heard bass notes a third higher and treble notes a third lower”. Rumours of Fauré’s difficulties began to circulate at the Conservatory, and in all likelihood Fauré was only able to maintain his directorship as long as he did due to the outbreak of the First World War. Fauré’s experience, in many regards, was akin to that of Beethoven’s - both produced some of their most innovative and adventurous works near the end of their lives while living in aural isolation. The tragedy for Fauré was that, just as was reaching the peak of his fame, he could now only hear his music in his head; as the librettist of Pénélope, René Fauchois, once related in an interview, at a rehearsal for Pénélope, “[Fauré] leaned towards me and said in my ear: ‘It’s pretty, isn’t it?’ ‘Admirable!’ I answered him, as indeed I thought. And never have I forgotten the intense melancholy and the sorrowful accents of the old master saying to me then: ‘I can’t hear it!’ “

Piano Quintet No. 2 in C minor, Op. 115

Fauré - Piano Quintet No.2 in C minor, Op.115 (score)

Old age was slowly wearing down Fauré’s body, but it did nothing to dampen his spirits or his intellect, and in the last three years of his life Fauré experienced an “Indian summer” - a sudden outpouring of works that confirmed Fauré was in no way past his prime. This event was partly the result of his retirement from the Conservatory in 1921, which suddenly offered Fauré with the one thing that had always eluded him as a composer: free time. Among the works from Fauré’s final years is the Piano Quintet No. 2, completed in 1921, which combines the energy of Fauré’s youthful works with the harmonic dexterity and daring characteristic of Fauré’s later compositions. The overall mood of the quintet is one of serenity, with the calm exterior of the music broken by occasional energetic outbursts; the piano provides much of the rhythmic drive, often playing rippling, rapid patterns over which the strings unfurl long-winded melodies.

The String Quartet

Gabriel Fauré: Quatuor à cordes en mi mineur, Op. 121 (Quatuor Ysaÿe)

The final year and a half of Fauré’s life was marked by two grand achievements: on January 31, 1923, he was awarded the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur, the very highest level in the French honours system and one rarely awarded to composers; that same year, he also began work on a string quartet, a genre hitherto unexplored by Fauré. Given his immense talents and proclivity for chamber music, it may seem odd that Fauré composed a string quartet so late in his life. However, Beethoven and his sixteen string quartets cast a long shadow over the genre, and it is possible Fauré only overcame his apprehension in composing a string quartet until later in life. Fauré’s compositions are also biased towards the piano - the String Quartet in E minor is his sole piece of chamber music without piano, and its textual sparseness can seem almost jarring in comparison to his other works.

The String Quartet is often viewed as his least successful chamber work, and its various qualities that are so typical of late Fauré - lengthy phrases and seemingly endless sequential progressions, intricate counterpoint, and strange harmonies - can render it difficult to grasp at first. Nevertheless, these features are married with the suppleness and fine-shaped melodic contours also characteristic of Fauré’s music, in a work that progresses from the shadowy E minor of the first movement to end in a luminous outburst of joy.

The effort of finishing the String Quartet severely weakened Fauré, and shortly after completing it in the summer of 1924 he fell ill with pneumonia, a problem exacerbated by years of heavy smoking. He recovered, but his condition steadily declined over the rest of the year until he passed away in Paris on November 4, thus ending a remarkable life and career, and bringing to a close an important chapter in French music. Georges Auric, a member of the generation of French composers that followed Fauré, perhaps summed up Fauré’s legacy best: “Fauré’s achievement was to invent musical forms which attracted our hearts and senses without debasing them. He offered a homage to Beauty in which there was not only faith, but a discreet yet irresistible passion … The delicate precision of his architecture, the concision (without dryness) of his ideas will long guide us in our moments of anxiety …”

By Trevor Hoy

Score of the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121

Spotlight on Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen

In our June edition of our Composer of the Month series, we explore the life and music of Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s superstar composer and one of the most original voices in classical music. Over the span of four chapters, discover Nielsen’s role as a symbol of Danish culture; the modern innovations of his music; his idiosyncratic and humorous personality as expressed through his compositions; and his philosophical musings on music and the human condition. As Nielsen famously stated in reference to his Fourth Symphony, “music is life, and like it, inextinguishable.”

Chapter 1: Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s National Songwriter

North American audiences are in general most familiar with Nielsen’s six symphonies, though his music does not enjoy nearly the same level of popularity as that of his close contemporaries such as Jean Sibelius and Béla Bartók. In Denmark however, Nielsen’s status transcends that of a renowned composer to be the country’s Composer-Hero and a national symbol: his music is lauded as an important contribution to Danish culture, his portrait once graced the 100-kroner banknote, and his opera Maskarade is considered Denmark’s national opera. Aside from Nielsen’s numerous classical works - among them concertos, tone poems, string quartets, and incidental music for plays such as Aladdin - in his home country he is also remembered for his hundreds of popular songs.

Nielsen’s interest in composing songs for the general public stemmed from a desire to reform the national song tradition, which occurred during a period of renewed curiosity among the Danish population in their country’s folk traditions. This folk revival in Denmark meanwhile coincided with a broader European movement of composers seeking out the traditional musics of their respective nations. Out of the hundreds of simple, pleasant tunes that Nielsen wrote, one of the most popular was “Jens Vejmand” (Jens the Roadmender), composed in 1907. Several years later, Nielsen embarked on an ambitious collaborative effort with organist and composer Thomas Laub that yielded several volumes of popular songs and hymns inspired by Danish folk music - which Nielsen would have known well from his childhood experiences - and using texts by eminent Danish poets. The fruits of their labour included En Snes danske Viser *(A Score of Danish Songs) published in two volumes between 1915 and 1917, of which one the most popular songs is “Se dig ud en Sommerdag” (Behold You on a Summer’s Day); and Folkehøjskolens Melodibog* (The Folk High School Melody Book) in 1922, which gained widespread use in the homes, schools, and congregations - a delightful example from this collection is “Som en rejselysten flåde” (There’s a Fleet of Floating Islands).

Nielsen was acutely aware of how his songs stirred feelings of national pride in his fellow citizens, and as he once reflected, “It is strange that, when I am writing these plain and simple melodies, it is as if it was not me who composed them; it is as if - what shall I say - the people from my boyhood on Funen or, as it were, the whole Danish people demanded something through me. But these are perhaps too big words when the matter is so plain and simple, at least to me.”
And yet, despite the indelible association of these songs with Danish culture, there is nothing in their melodies or rhythms that makes them inherently Danish; it is only through their widespread use over the past one hundred years that these songs have become imprinted on the national consciousness, and have become associated in the hearts of many with feelings of identity and community. As Nielsen himself stated, “only the people can make art into something national, the artist can’t.”

Chapter 2: Nielsen the Modernist

Progress and rapid change were the order of the day at the turn of the 20th century - progress in society, in science and technology, and in the arts. Though Carl Nielsen was not the most radical composer of his time - he made no bones about his disdain for the avant-garde, such as the music of Arnold Schoenberg - he was nonetheless profoundly inventive, and explored new possibilities of form and harmony through his works. During the period in which tonality was the established harmonic practice in Western music, which spanned the mid-Baroque era (around 1650) until the beginning of the 20th century, it was conventional for a work in an established key to begin and end in the same key - a symphony in F major, for example, would begin and end in F major, and all key changes would be calculated in relation to F major. Though Nielsen never abandoned tonality in his music, as some of his contemporaries did, he instead made progressive tonality, whereby a work ends in a key different from that in which it begins.

When Nielsen completed his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 in 1892, progressive tonality was a novel concept in symphonic music, and musicologist Robert Simpson declared this symphony to be “possibly the first to end in a key other than that in which it started”. This symphony involves a tussle between G minor and C major that persists until C major emerges triumphant in the final measures.

Thirty years later, Nielsen premiered his Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, by far one of his most radical works and considered by many to be his masterpiece. Divided into two movements rather than the usual four for a symphony, and again utilizing progressive tonality, this work is best known for the battle that takes place in the first movement between the orchestra and a rogue snare drummer. The drummer is even instructed at one point to play ad libitum in an attempt to halt the forward momentum of the ensemble and tear the music to shreds. The drums go silent only when the full weight of the orchestra is brought to bear against them near the end of the movement.

The Disappearing String Quartet

The Danish String Quartet plays Nielsen's Quartet Nr. 3

Composed between 1897 and 1898, Nielsen’s String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 14, is evidence of his full embrace of a more modern style and his utterly unique musical voice. As critic Hother Ploug wrote in his review after the first public performance in Copenhagen in 1901, “A strange work, like everything that comes from his hand, but more a work for connoisseurs than for the general public.” It is easy to understand why this quartet would have been hard to stomach for those “bottle-fed day in and day out with ‘romances’ and romance-like music” as Ploug put it - there is nothing sentimental about the heavily contrapuntal first movement, which leaps out of the gate with multiple musical lines intertwined around each other like a tangled mass of vines. Meanwhile, the third movement demonstrates Nielsen’s penchant for writing oddball melodies, as the first violin’s opening gesture descends from a G to land on a D-sharp, completely upending the C major tonality of the movement - almost as if the composer is thumbing his nose at the listener!

Nielsen’s Third Quartet was also the subject of a bizarre theft in 1898 when, as Nielsen was bicycling with the score to the home of his music copyist, he stopped to help a horse that had fallen in the street. To free up his hands, Nielsen handed the roll containing the score to a young boy in the crowd, who promptly ran off with it as Nielsen was helping the horse get back up! Nielsen never managed to retrieve his score, and so had to completely rewrite the Quartet from various sketches and fill in any remaining blanks from memory.

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen

Chapter 3 : Nielsen the Individualist

If there is one adjective that describes Carl Nielsen and his music best, it is “quirky.” Nielsen was well-known for his sharp wit and sense of humour, which found expression in both his colourful prose and his music, and his compositions stand out due to their unconventional forms and occasionally weird melodic contours - as critic Alex Ross describes Nielsen’s music, “Audiences, for their part, often go away from Nielsen performances pleased but a little dazed, not sure what hit them.” Throughout his career Nielsen was determined to chart his own course, following his musical instincts as he had done since his youth. The unorthodox and modern qualities of his music often drew withering attacks from critics - Nielsen once acknowledged that he had been “a bone of contention … because I wanted to protest against the typical Danish soft smoothing over. I wanted stronger rhythms and more advanced harmony” - but he nonetheless developed a loyal following in Copenhagen. Despite his determination to push Danish music forward, Nielsen was not attempting to reinvent the wheel with his music: he revered J.S. Bach and Mozart, which lent some of his compositions a neoclassical sound, and his symphonies were influenced by those of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, and Norwegian-Danish composer Johan Svendsen; and yet, as you will discover in the next two works, throughout his symphonic music Nielsen was constantly pushing at the boundaries of this model.

Two Symphonies, Multiple Personalities

A work that at first seems more like a suite of character sketches than a traditional symphony, Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 16, “De Fire Temperamenter” (The Four Temperaments) has its genesis in a visit Nielsen paid to a country inn on Zealand (the island on which Copenhagen is situated). As Nielsen later recounted, “On the wall of the room where I was drinking a glass of beer with my wife and some friends hung an extremely comical coloured picture, divided into four sections in which ‘The Temperaments’ were represented and furnished with titles … my friends and I were heartily amused by the naivety of the pictures, their exaggerated expression and their comic earnestness. … one fine day I realized that these shoddy pictures still contained a kind of core or idea and - just think! - even a musical undercurrent!”

The four temperaments, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine, are personality types first theorized in antiquity, and as such Nielsen portrayed in each movement the contrasting emotional states of each temperament, excepting the phlegmatic; by doing so, Nielsen also presented symphonic principles of contrast and thematic development in each movement. The choleric regrets his outburst of rage, while the confident outlook of the sanguine - “a man who storms thoughtlessly forward in the belief that the whole world belongs to him, that fried pigeons will fly into his mouth without work or bother” as Nielsen wrote - is briefly shaken as he is gripped by terrible fear, though this spell quickly passes and he regains his cheerful disposition.

For his final work in the symphonic genre, Nielsen stated that his Symphony No. 6, “Sinfonia semplice” was to be simpler in style in comparison to his previous works; needless to say, it is one of the strangest works in Nielsen’s output, and remains the least performed of his six symphonies. During this work's gestation, from 1924 to 1925, Nielsen was battling health problems stemming from a heart condition, depressed by his lack of international success, and baffled by the direction modern music was taking, and these feelings of disillusionment leached into the new symphony. The innocent-sounding melody of the first movement is constantly overtaken by darker emotions, while in the second movement, Nielsen voices his opinion of avant-garde composers of his day by ruthlessly mocking them in a shameless caricature of their music. For the final movement Nielsen composed a theme and variations, which shifts from moments of pure silliness, to a madcap waltz, and ends with a scurrying melodic gesture that closes with a long, loud B-flat played by the bassoons - the symphonic equivalent of blowing a raspberry!For his final work in the symphonic genre, Nielsen stated that his Symphony No. 6, “Sinfonia semplice” was to be simpler in style in comparison to his previous works; needless to say, it is one of the strangest works in Nielsen’s output, and remains the least performed of his six symphonies. During this work's gestation, from 1924 to 1925, Nielsen was battling health problems stemming from a heart condition, depressed by his lack of international success, and baffled by the direction modern music was taking, and these feelings of disillusionment leached into the new symphony. The innocent-sounding melody of the first movement is constantly overtaken by darker emotions, while in the second movement, Nielsen voices his opinion of avant-garde composers of his day by ruthlessly mocking them in a shameless caricature of their music. For the final movement Nielsen composed a theme and variations, which shifts from moments of pure silliness, to a madcap waltz, and ends with a scurrying melodic gesture that closes with a long, loud B-flat played by the bassoons - the symphonic equivalent of blowing a raspberry!

The Temperaments
Statue of Carl Nielsen

Statue of Carl Nielsen

Chapter 4: Nielsen and the Human Condition

Carl Nielsen was known for his quirky individualism and his ability to write music of both dazzling complexity and utter simplicity, but in certain compositions Nielsen also concerned himself with broader questions of human existence. While Nielsen did not prescribe to Gustav Mahler’s vision of the symphony as a work encompassing all aspects of the world, both banal and sublime, Nielsen’s interest in the human condition and life-force compelled him in middle age to compose a pair of symphonies that grapple with these philosophical questions.
His Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, “Sinfonia Espansiva” takes its name from the forward momentum and sense of “expansiveness” of its first movement as the music progresses ever upwards through various tonalities; this idea of expansiveness could also be interpreted as a feeling of wide-open spaces and the enormity of the natural world, or an expanding of the human consciousness.

The symphony opens with the note A hammered out 26 times by the orchestra, quickening in rhythm like an aircraft accelerating to take-off speed. The first movement is replete with sweeping, life-affirming melodies, while the final movement sounds akin to one of Nielsen’s popular songs - a hymn for the ordinary man, as the composer described it. In comparison to the vigorous motion of the first movement, the second is almost static, suggesting awe in the presence of nature; unusually for a symphony, it includes a wordless duet for soprano and tenor as part of the orchestral texture.

An Inextinguishable Belief

In May 1914, Nielsen wrote to his wife Anne Marie, “I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied - very varied - yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”

Carl Nielsen and his wife, Anne Marie

The word that Nielsen selected for this new composition, the Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, was uudslukkelige - “inextinguishable.” It was perhaps no coincidence that Nielsen composed a work expressing the triumph of life in the face of adversity at this time: in August 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, sparking the First World War, during which Denmark remained neutral, but few remained unaffected by the horrors of this bloodbath. But even before this event, Nielsen was facing significant crises in his personal and professional lives. In May of that year, Nielsen resigned his conducting position at the Royal Theatre, having grown tired of the friction between himself and the management; this was followed by the start of an eight-year separation between Nielsen and his wife. The strain on their marriage had resulted in part from them both pursuing important artistic careers - Nielsen a composer and conductor, and Anne Marie a sculptor - while trying to raise three children, and also from Anne Marie’s extended absences as she worked on projects. But Nielsen was also unable to resist the company of other women when Anne Marie was away from home, and his constant infidelities had finally driven their union to the breaking point.

Thus, Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony marked a great turning point, both in his life and his music - it was a smashing success for Nielsen both in Denmark and abroad, and as one prominent music critic wrote after the premiere, “the two Janus-faces that have characterized his peculiar artistic physiognomy so far … unite for the first time into a single artistic countenance: Carl Nielsen.” But Nielsen’s search for stylistic unity had been fractured by external events, and feelings of doubt and conflict now broke through the once-confident exterior of his music - in the Fourth Symphony, this culminates as a battle between two sets of timpani set across the orchestra from each other. And yet, recurring throughout the symphony, and eventually emerging victorious, is an epic, descending scale: the “inextinguishable” motif, and a reminder that “music is life, and like it, inextinguishable.”

Carl Nielsen: Symphony No.3, "Sinfonia Espansiva" - Leonard Bernstein

Spotlight on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Chapter 1

Today, Edward Elgar is typically recognized as the preeminent composer of Edwardian England, but at the tail end of the 19th century, while a middle-aged Elgar was still waiting for his big break to arrive, he witnessed the meteoric rise to fame of a very young, and enormously talented, composer from London: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Elgar wrote of him as “far and away the cleverest fellow among the young men,” while Elgar’s publisher August Jaeger hailed Coleridge-Taylor as a genius. And yet, since Coleridge-Taylor’s early death from pneumonia at age 37, his music has mostly fallen into neglect.

Nevertheless, despite his brief life, Coleridge-Taylor left behind a rich and fascinating legacy: in his early 20s he became an overnight celebrity after the premiere of his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, and he is also notable as a Black composer who experienced widespread success at a time when the classical music establishment was an almost exclusively white preserve. Coleridge-Taylor’s music embodies the late Romantic tradition, but as a composer he cannot be pigeonholed as easily as many of his contemporaries - driven by an interest in his African heritage, Coleridge-Taylor used his compositions to elevate traditional music of various regions of Africa and the African diaspora to the concert stage, in much the same way Antonín Dvořák and Edvard Grieg did for the folk music of their respective nations.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - enfant

A Promising Young Musician

Born on August 15, 1875, Coleridge-Taylor was the son of Alice Hare Martin and Daniel Taylor, a Sierra Leonean doctor who, after completing his medical studies at King’s College in London, returned to Sierra Leone with no knowledge that he had fathered a son. Coleridge-Taylor was thus raised by his mother - who named him for the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge - and her extended family in Croydon, a suburb of London. While he grew up in a generally musical family, Coleridge-Taylor’s exceptional gifts were recognized from an early age, and at 15 he left home to study violin and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in London, where he remained until 1897. There, he studied with composer Charles Villiers Stanford - whose notable students included Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams - receiving from him a solid grounding in the Germanic tradition of Schumann and Brahms, evident in works such as Coleridge-Taylor’s Nonet in F minor, Op. 2, Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp, Op. 10, and Cameos, Op. 56. This compositional style, combined with a decidedly English sensibility, formed the foundation of Coleridge-Taylor’s compositional style, though his interests extended far beyond England’s borders; he revered the music of Antonín Dvořák, and his three tours of the United States brought him into contact with spirituals - the same style of music that had captivated Dvořák during his stint as director of the National Conservatory in New York City.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Ballade for orchestra Op.33

Ballade in A minor, Op. 33

By the time Coleridge-Taylor graduated from the Royal Conservatory in 1897, he already had sufficient name recognition to embark on a career as a professional musician. Apart from his activities as a composer, during his lifetime Coleridge-Taylor obtained a teaching position at Trinity College, London, and became the conductor of the Handel Society. An 1898 performance at the Gloucester Festival of his Ballade in A minor for Orchestra, Op. 33, brought Coleridge-Taylor favourable attention, and only a few months later he premiered the work that rocketed him to national fame...

Chapter 2

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast

In November 1898, a 23-year-old Samuel Coleridge-Taylor took to the stage of the Royal Conservatory of Music to the sound of the audience's rapturous applause. Those gathered in the hall were attending the premiere of Coleridge-Taylor’s ambitious new work, a cantata for tenor, chorus, and orchestra entitled Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. This premiere had generated a great buzz of excitement in the preceding weeks, and among those who had managed to cram into the tightly-packed hall was famed comic opera composer Arthur Sullivan, who wrote in his diary later that night, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original … The work is very well done.”

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (1898) (Full Score)

*The Song of Hiawatha, Op. 30 - Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast *

The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was so immediate that Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to compose a sequel, The Death of Minnehaha, followed by another, Hiawatha’s Departure, with all three cantatas published as a trilogy in 1900: The Song of Hiawatha. While the sequels were regarded as less successful than the first cantata in the trilogy, this did nothing to diminish the popularity of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast over the course of the next decades, during which time hundreds of thousands of copies of the score were sold, and it attained a level of popularity in Britain rivalled only by Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Coleridge-Taylor even named his own son Hiawatha, and Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast has remained his most enduringly popular work, even while the rest of music fell into obscurity following his death.

The source Coleridge-Taylor based his trilogy of cantatas on is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, recounting the fictional exploits of an Ojibwa warrior; traces of themes used in the cantatas can be found in the Hiawathan Sketches, an early work by Coleridge-Taylor for violin and piano. But Coleridge-Taylor was not the only composer of his generation to be inspired by Longfellow’s poem - Frederick Delius and Duke Ellington both composed works based on The Song of Hiawatha, while Antonín Dvořák, who knew The Song of Hiawatha in Czech translation, stated that sections of his Ninth Symphony were inspired by Longfellow’s verses.

The ultimate tragedy of Coleridge-Taylor’s most famous work is that he was unable to reap the financial riches generated by its tremendous success. Having no inkling of the just how popular the work would become, and at a time when many composers sold the rights to their works outright so as to generate immediate income, Coleridge-Taylor sold Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast for the sum of 15 guineas, the equivalent of about $3400 CAD today. Thus, Coleridge-Taylor and his descendants lost access to these royalties, and it has been theorized that Coleridge-Taylor’s early death was brought about by overwork as he struggled to keep his family financially afloat.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
On Tour in the New World

In 1903 - almost in a repeat of the event that had taken place in London five years earlier - 2000 audience members crowded into a Washington, D.C. church to hear the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society’s performance of The Song of Hiawatha. That there already existed a choral society named for Coleridge-Taylor, and in a city on the opposite side of the Atlantic, was indicative of his immense popularity. The success of Hiawatha in the United States led the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society to invite its namesake to embark on an American tour in 1904 - his first of three, which in subsequent visits took him to New England, the Midwest, and even Toronto. While in Washington, D.C. during his first visit, Coleridge-Taylor attended performances by the Choral Society, was granted a private audience with President Theodore Roosevelt, and conducted the United States Marine Band - the famous “President’s Own” -, augmented by a full string section, in a performance of The Song of Hiawatha - both unprecedented events in an era when racial segregation was de jure in the United States, and an indication of the enthusiastic reception accorded Coleridge-Taylor during this visit. Among the Black community in the United States, Coleridge-Taylor was lauded for his musical talents and viewed as a cultural icon and an example of what one could achieve if racist societal barriers were not in place. The years of Coleridge-Taylor’s American visits, and the period immediately preceding them, were also marked by an increased interest on his part in his African heritage, and in the music of Africa and Black population of the United States - an interest that manifested itself in some of Coleridge-Taylor’s most fascinating and original works.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor Choral Society

Chapter 3

Dvořák’s Vision

In 1893, the New York Herald published an article in which the much-venerated composer Antonín Dvořák called for the music of Black Americans to form “the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” In saying this, Dvořák did not simply mean white composers should draw on Black musical material for new compositions - he also promoted the inclusion Black composers in American classical music. And yet, as the doors of the classical world remained closed to Black musicians, Dvořák’s dream never truly materialized. Over the course of the following century, despite the immense talent of many aspiring composers or performers - among them Will Marion Cook, Billy Strayhorn, Fletcher Henderson, and Nina Simone - their ambitions were consistently dashed against the wall of racial prejudice, and so they instead turned to jazz and popular music to build their careers, and drew upon their classical training to create numerous innovative new works in these genres. As Will Marion Cook wrote in 1918, “The colored American is finding himself. He has thrown aside puerile imitations of the white man. He has learned that a thorough study of the masters gives knowledge of what is good and how to create. From the Russian he has learned to get his inspiration from within; that his inexhaustible wealth of folklore legends and songs furnish him with material for compositions that will establish a great school of music and enrich musical literature.”

Photo of Samuel Coleridge Taylor playing piano
Drawing Upon his Roots

However, Dvořák’s vision was realized by one of his greatest admirers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. His interest in the music of Africa and the African diaspora resulted in several works on these themes: a concert overture on Toussaint L’Ouverture, a leader of the 1791 Haitian Revolution that freed the colony’s slaves from French rule and led to the creation of an independent republic; the Five Choral Ballads, which set to music excerpts of Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery; African Suite, Four African Dances, and Symphonic Variations on an African Air; and perhaps most significantly, his Twenty-Four Negro Melodies for piano. In this work, Coleridge-Taylor compiled original works based upon melodies transcribed from Africa, the West Indies, and the United States, and grouped by geographic region - as Coleridge-Taylor remarked, he treated his source material the same way Dvořák did Czech folk music. Texts by the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom Coleridge-Taylor first met in London in 1896, meanwhile yielded works such as African Romances, Op. 17, and The Dream Lovers - a one-act opera featuring African characters, with a libretto by Dunbar.

Maud Powell

Of the styles of traditional music Coleridge-Taylor incorporated into the Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, the spiritual had perhaps the greatest impact on his music. Coleridge-Taylor was first introduced to the spiritual by Frederick Loudin, a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers - a vocal ensemble formed in 1871 and active to this day, which toured internationally to bring the spiritual to the far corners of the globe. As Coleridge-Taylor admiringly wrote, Loudin was the person “through whom I first learned to appreciate the beautiful folk-music of my race, and who did so much to make it known the world over.” Coleridge-Taylor incorporated famous spirituals such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” into the Hiawatha Overture and “Keep Me From Sinking Down” into his Violin Concerto, but his setting of “Deep River” in the Twenty-Four Negro Melodies - his favourite work in the collection - was destined for particular greatness thanks to the nascent technology of recorded sound. A transcription of “Deep River” for violin and piano by Maud Powell, which she recorded in 1911, gave it worldwide reach. Powell was renowned in her lifetime as the first internationally-famous American violin soloist, and also as one of the first white musicians to champion the music of Black composers - among them Coleridge-Taylor, whom she met while he was on tour in the United States in 1910.

The Spiritual
A Socially-Conscious Composer

In conjunction with his interest in the music of Africa and the African diaspora, Coleridge-Taylor became involved in social movements concerned with the condition of Black citizens in both Britain and the United States. In 1900, he attended the first Pan-African conference in London as a delegate, where he became acquainted with the writings of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington; later on, he would also familiarize himself with those of the great American civil rights activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois, who had attended the same conference. These encounters led to Coleridge-Taylor becoming an ardent supporter of the Pan-African movement, which sought to foster solidarity between people of African descent in both Africa and the diaspora, and promote a unified sense of historical and cultural identity.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor achieved much during his short lifetime, and his music and success served as a beacon of hope to a people suffering from racial discrimination on all levels of society. We can only imagine what else Coleridge-Taylor might have accomplished had he lived longer, but the legacy he left behind is nonetheless rich and rightfully deserving of its place in the canon alongside the works of the other great masters.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Maud Powell

Spotlight on Grażyna Bacewicz

Chapter 1

Fryderyk Chopin may be the most well-known composer of Polish origin, but this eastern European nation has proven to be a wellspring of musical talent, and today we can count several Polish names among the pantheon of great composers of the 20th century. In the first half of the 20th century, Poland’s most prominent composer was Karol Szymanowski, who produced works in a mystical, late-Romantic style, while the period spanning from the 1950s up to the present day witnessed the appearance of the so-called “Polish composers school” - a loose collection of modernists whose foremost representatives were the trio of Witold Lutosławski, Henryk Górecki, and Krzysztof Penderecki. Bridging the gap between the two halves of the past century, and these two styles of composition, was a brilliant, tenacious, and immensely talented composer who is the subject of this three-part series: Grażyna Bacewicz, dubbed by one English critic as “the first lady of music.”

Bacewicz was notable not simply as a woman composer in a field dominated overwhelmingly by men, but also for her prodigious talents and the great success she enjoyed during her lifetime. In addition to a prolific output - numbering four symphonies, seven violin concertos, seven string quartets, and numerous chamber works - Bacewicz was a formidable violinist and pianist who premiered several of her own compositions. Today Bacewicz remains greatly appreciated in her homeland, and though her legacy outside of Poland has been eclipsed by the works of her Polish contemporaries, more and more attention is now being paid to her music. As her slightly younger compatriot Witold Lutosławski once remarked about Bacewicz, “I have always been of the opinion that a true judgement of the creative ability of a composer does not belong to contemporary reviewers or artists, but to thousands of audiences over many decades, which may be referred to as the ‘jury of time.’ Based on the fact that many of her earliest works are still being performed throughout the world today, one can already predict that her music will stand this test of time.”

Grażyna Bacewicz
A Young Talent

Born on February 5, 1909 in the industrial city of Łódź, Bacewicz grew up in a musical family, performing chamber music with her siblings. Following studies at the Warsaw Conservatory - in addition to which she studied philosophy at Warsaw University -, Bacewicz left for Paris in 1932, where she studied violin with André Touret and Carl Flesch and, upon the advice of Karol Szymanowski, composition with Nadia Boulanger, who was renowned as a pedagogue to many noteworthy composers of the 20th century.

Varsovie in ruins, 1945

Bacewicz then worked primarily as a violin soloist, concertizing throughout Europe, before accepting a position as principal violin of the newly-formed Polish Radio Symphony, with which she premiered works such as her Violin Concerto No. 1 and Three Songs for tenor and orchestra.

And yet, such prosperous times could not last; on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, followed by the Soviet Union on September 17. By October, Poland had ceased to exist as an independent nation and been divided up between the two invading powers. The German occupation brought with it numerous hardships and deprivations, including a great curtailment in musical life; for Bacewicz, she and her family were displaced at one point to a camp near Pruszków, before moving to Lublin to wait out the remainder of the war. And yet, even during such trying times Bacewicz maintained her impressive level of productivity, turning out major works such as the String Quartet No. 2, Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin, Symphony No. 1, and Overture for orchestra. This is but one example of the determination and dedication with which Bacewicz approached her craft; as she once described her working methods, “I think to compose one has to work very intensely. One has to pause between composing different works, but interruptions shouldn’t be made when you are in the middle of writing a piece. I’m capable of working on one composition for many hours daily. Usually I take a break in the middle of the day, but even during the break my brain keeps on working. I like to get very, very tired. It’s sometimes then that I suddenly get my best ideas.”

Bacewicz’s Early Period

Bacewicz’s early compositions, produced during the 1930s and 40s, are often described as “neoclassical,” a term to which she herself was averse. Despite these personal objections, her music from this period certainly bears the attributes of other neoclassical works from this era, no doubt a result of influence by both the music of her time and her studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. This neoclassical style, with an emphasis on textural clarity and rhythmic vigour, is on full display in works such as the jocular, witty Wind Quintet, composed in 1932. The haunting second movement of her Piano Sonata No. 1, dating from 1949, meanwhile echoes the music of Karol Szymanowski, whom Bacewicz knew from her studies at the Warsaw Conservatory. Bacewicz nevertheless viewed her compositional style as being in a constant process of evolution, and for her the form and construction of a work was of paramount importance, as she declared in a 1947 letter to her brother Witold: “In my compositions, I mostly pay attention to the form. If you are building something, you will not pile stones randomly on each other. It’s the same as a musical work. The principles of construction don’t have to be old fashioned. The music can be simple or complicated. It depends on the composer, but it has to be well constructed.”

Grażyna Bacewicz - Kwintet

Bacewicz’s String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1938 - the first of seven she would compose -, was likewise written in the neoclassical vein, though it also displays her desire to constantly explore new territory in her music. The first movement follows a clear ternary form, but employs chromatic musical language that extends beyond the bounds of traditional tonality. For the other two movements of the Quartet, Bacewicz turned to folk music, setting five variations of the Lithuanian folk song “Vai žydėk, žydėk” in the second movement - a personal touch, as Bacewicz’s father was Lithuanian - and turning to folk dance for the basis of the fugal final movement. These early compositions stand as a testament to Bacewicz’s genius, but for her, they were only a beginning - still greater things were yet to come.

Chapter 2

The Soviet Influence

Following the end of the Second World War, Grażyna Bacewicz and her family returned to the rubble of Warsaw, which had effectively been wiped off the map. Following a failed 1944 uprising by the Polish resistance, the Germans retaliated by razing Warsaw to the ground, destroying over 85% of the city’s buildings, with particular attention paid to museums, theatres, churches, and historical structures. Once the German occupiers had been expelled by the Soviet army, so began the laborious process of rebuilding cities, careers, and lives, and re-establishing cultural life in the country after six years of pillaging by foreign occupiers. But while Poland was now free from the Germans, it also found itself behind the Iron Curtain. Apart from isolating Poland from Western Europe, the new Communist government aligned itself with the artistic values of the Soviet Union by dictating what constituted state-approved art. From 1945 to 1956, the sole approved style was socialist realism, which aimed to make art comprehensible to the masses, typically through glorification of Communist themes. In music, this entailed the avoidance of avant-garde practices and the inclusion of Polish folk music in compositions; to this end, the government also created state-sponsored ensembles such as Mazowsze to collect, preserve, and disseminate the traditional music of the Polish countryside (events that form a major plot point of the 2018 film Cold War). Works that did not adhere to socialist-realist ideals - such as Witold Lutosławski’s First Symphony, completed in 1947 - were branded as “formalist” and banned, and their composers faced government censure.

During this period, Bacewicz succeeded in navigating a rather perilous course, managing to ignore government pressures and preserve her individual musical style while also avoiding reprimand from higher powers. Following the example of Szymanowski, in pre-war compositions such as her Wind Quintet, Bacewicz had already begun to incorporate elements of folk music, and she continued this practice in her post-war music. This folk influence is explicit in certain works, as in the Taniec mazowiecki [Masovian Dance] and Taniec słowiański [Slavic Dance] for violin and piano, but in other works far more subtle, such as Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra, composed in 1948, which, along with her Third String Quartet, is today her best known work. In 1950 it won Bacewicz the “National Prize” awarded by the Polish government, and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. gave its American premiere two years later.

The Mazowsz, a estate-sponsored ensemble aiming to collect, preserve, and disseminate the traditional music of the Polish countryside
Bacewicz - Concerto for String Orchestra (1948)

A “concerto for string orchestra” may seem like a contradictory title, as the modern concerto form typically consists of a work for solo instrument and orchestra; in the mid-20th century however, the concerto for orchestra as a genre - which emphasizes virtuosic treatment of instruments or sections within the orchestra - came to prominence, most notably through works by Béla Bartók and Witold Lutosławski. In keeping with the neoclassical orientation of this work, Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra also contains echoes of the Baroque concerto grosso form, as presentation of musical material is frequently alternated between soloists or small groups of soloists and the main ensemble. The D minor opening of the Concerto, with its relentless forward momentum, is Baroque in flavour, while the second movement exemplifies Bacewicz’s talent for writing lyrical, emotionally profound melodies without ever sounding saccharine. Throughout the Concerto, we also hear Bacewicz’s absolute mastery of string instruments and her ability to coax novel textures out of an even rather homogeneous ensemble - in the second movement for example, the yearning melody for solo viola is doubled an octave above by violins playing sul ponticello (when the instrument is played with the bow near the bridge) to haunting effect.

In spite of the government restrictions on the arts, the early 1950s was a prolific and successful time for Bacewicz. In addition to maintaining an active career as a soloist and serving on various competition juries, Bacewicz continued to compose at her typical high level of productivity, completing major works such as her Fourth Violin Concerto, Fourth Symphony, Second Piano Sonata, **and **Fourth String Quartet, which in 1951 won first prize at the International Composers’ Competition in Liège, Belgium. Written at the height of Stalinist repression in Poland, the Fourth Quartet is demonstrative of Bacewicz’s disregard for official pressures to compose music in a socialist-realist style, though its rather sombre mood is perhaps reflective of the difficult circumstances under which it was composed. While the Fourth Quartet hums along at times with Bacewicz’s characteristic rhythmic drive - particularly in the finale, which almost stumbles over itself as it races to a furious conclusion -, it is in general more reserved in character than Bacewicz’s earlier quartets.

G. Bacewicz - String Quartet No.4

Bacewicz String Quartet No. 4

A wind of change

Bacewicz’s career had to be put on pause, however, in 1954, when she was involved in an automobile accident that left her with serious injuries, forcing her to spend months recuperating in hospital; nevertheless, despite this misfortune Bacewicz maintained her remarkable determination and resolve. This event effectively ended Bacewicz’s performing career, which she had already begun to wind down in 1953, and in 1955, now recovered from her injuries, Bacewicz elected to devote herself entirely to composition. But at this point in the decade, the winds of change had started blowing in Poland. A political thaw in 1956 loosened restrictions on artists, allowing the first Warsaw Autumn contemporary music festival to take place in October of that year, which introduced Polish composers for the first time to the latest music from the West. Simultaneously, a younger generation of Polish composers, including Kryzsztof Penderecki and Henryk Górecki, was bringing radical ideas to the fore. While Bacewicz maintained her position as one of Poland’s leading composers, for the remaining decade and a half of her life she was forced to grapple with these profound shifts in the musical landscape; nevertheless, as the works from Bacewicz’s final period testify, she was more than ready for the challenge.

© Trevor Hoy

Grazyna Bacewicz

Bourgie Hall

Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1339 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, Quebec H3G 1G2

About Bourgie Hall

View on Google Maps


Add a touch of culture to your inbox
Subscribe to the Museum newsletter

Bourgie Hall Newsletter sign up