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Grażyna Bacewicz illustration

Celebrating Women Composers

Grażyna Bacewicz
February 28, 2024

Creators, performers, teachers, leaders, and trailblazers. In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, and continuing through the entire month, Noteworthy is profiling some of the groundbreaking and influential women composers whose extraordinary works and other accomplishments are only just beginning to receive the recognition they so richly deserve. 

Our series begins with Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1960), the prolific and acclaimed Polish artist. Though her musical education began in her native country, it was in Paris that her remarkable gifts were truly developed. There, she studied both violin performance and composition—the latter under the great Nadia Boulanger, who also taught such musical luminaries as Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. Bacewicz excelled in both areas, developing highly successful parallel careers as a creator and an instrumentalist. Sometimes the two would converge: as Concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra in the late 1930s, Bacewicz had occasion to perform some of her own pieces as part of the ensemble. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Bacewicz was one of the nation’s key musical figures, and her compatriots’ esteem only grew when she bravely held underground recitals against her occupiers’ orders. After the war, she took on additional roles (including professor and union leader), and her artistic productivity reached new heights. Ultimately, she would compose more than 200 pieces, for ensembles of all sizes, before her death from a heart attack just a few weeks prior to her 60th birthday. 

In November of last year, the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra inaugurated its landmark 50th season with a performance of Bacewicz’s first work for orchestra—her Overture. Composed in 1943, under darkness of war, the work is paradoxically lively and optimistic. Her fourth orchestral composition, the Concerto for String Orchestra, was written in 1948 and combines classical, baroque, and folk elements in innovative ways. It is considered by many to be Bacewicz’s greatest achievement, and your Toronto Symphony Orchestra will be presenting the piece next January as part of a series of concerti for orchestra running through the entirety of the 2024/25 season.

One can say with a clear conscience that this time the dignity of the Polish composers was saved by a woman, Grażyna Bacewicz.

Writer Stefan Kisielewski, Following the première of Concerto for String Orchestra