The final years of the 1950s were, in contrast, a time of unbridled excitement and experimentation in Polish music, as composers discovered what was going on in Western avant-garde music. It was no surprise that the youngest generation seized these opportunities most readily; older composers, like Bacewicz and her near-contemporary Witold Lutoslawski, then in their late forties, were understandably more circumspect because they had already established their compositional voices. In 1958, both composers completed works that acknowledged some of the less radical ideas of recent years: Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music for strings (a tribute to Bartók) and Bacewicz’s Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion. After 1960, Lutoslawski developed a clear new phase in his compositional career, whereas Bacewicz, despite going on to explore some experimental ideas, maintained strong ties with her neoclassical origins right up to her death, just short of her sixtieth birthday, in 1969.
Bacewicz, too, may be said to be paying tribute to Bartók, whose Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was one of the few of his pieces to be known in Poland in the 1950s. Yet her tribute really lay elsewhere, as Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion may be viewed as a reworking, in totally new creative circumstances, of her own Concerto for String Orchestra. It maintains its predecessor’s three-movement format and overall expressive outline. The concerto grosso ideal now gains instrumental colour, much as some of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos added brilliance to Corelli’s strings-only textures. The five trumpets and percussion (celesta, xylophone, side-drum and timpani) are used by Bacewicz as obbligato instruments, with different percussion being highlighted in each movement (timpani and celesta in the first movement, celesta in the central Adagio and xylophone in the finale).
The first movement uncompromisingly sets out the composer’s new thematic and harmonic astringency. Although the principal opening idea recalls the anchored ascending theme at the start of the Concerto (it is based on an open violin G), its accumulation of dissonance through perfect intervals and tritones shows the distance that Bacewicz had covered in the intervening decade. This passage is restated with the participation of the trumpets and reaches a climactic, twelve-note chord. The music is less severe than this description might suggest, as it is enlivened by its almost jazzy rhythmic propulsion; all the succeeding ideas are likewise based on hockets and syncopations. For contrast, Bacewicz introduces a brief, slower, two-voice string idea, but the overriding impression, yet again, is that the outline structure is less important than shifting thematic perspectives and developmental threads based on subtle motivic undercurrents.
As in the Concerto for String Orchestra, the second movement is the expressive centre of the work. Its initial ostinato and improvisatory duo for viola and double-bass solo are wasted shadows of their antecedents of 1948. A fuller texture does evolve, leading to the warmer harmonic and melodic detail of a secondary theme, with its cadential obbligato of jazz-muted trumpets. Although the music becomes rhythmically animated, it abruptly evaporates, pauses, and becomes a series of clustered trills played con sordino and sul tasto. While the trills may recall accompanying textures from the first movement, here they have a totally disembodied presence, disintegrating into a bleak landscape of sustained and quietly reiterated semitones at the extremes of the string register. Solitary trumpets intone a semitonal sigh, there is the most laconic of references to the opening ostinato rhythm, and the music ceases.
The Adagio’s non-repetitive structure, in which the first and second sections are counterpoised by static trills and a trumpet sigh, is one of the most experimental in Bacewicz’s output. Yet it has been inherited from earlier approaches. Never again was she to reach out to the sense of total desolation in the closing bars of this middle movement, all but shorn as they are of motivic and harmonic character.
The work as a whole, however, would not be characteristic of the composer if it did not brush away such raw exposure with a lively finale. The Vivace is the most conventional movement of the three, typically spirited, this time unusually including passing references to the earlier movements.
In the melting-pot of late 1950s Polish music, Bacewicz’s Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion stands out for its strength of character and purpose. It shares with its contemporaries that vision of a new musical world that led to Polish music becoming one of the main contributors to European culture in the second half of the twentieth century.
from notes by Adrian Thomas © 2009