100 Years of Vytautas Bacevičius: A Lonely & Ambitious Visionary

(9.IX.1905 - 15.I.1970)

Vytautas Bacevičius' Centennial presents a unique opportunity to evaluate and revive his creative heritage. Attempts to integrate the works of Vytautas Bacevičius and other inter-war composers, who fled from the Soviets to the West, into our musical life and concert seasons have not been successful. A short-lived and perhaps overly intense interest in Bacevičius' music soon diminished significantly; performances of his works remained accidental, and commentaries about his music parochial and one-sided.

The series of events extending throughout the year will be devoted to the 'come back' of Vytautas Bacevičius: soon to appear is a two-volume monograph dedicated to the composer's life, works and his unique correspondence (compiled and edited by Ona Narbutienė and Edmundas Gedgaudas); several publications of Vytautas Bacevičius' works for piano and CDs of his symphonic and piano works will be issued later this year.

An international conference "In and Beyond the Mainstream: Vytautas Bacevičius and his Contemporaries" will be held on September 16 and 17, 2005, discussing the international dissemination of Vytautas Bacevičius' works, his participation in the activities of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), his relations with Polish musical culture and Central European musicians who formed the core of the so-called École de Paris, and their subsequent adaptation in emigration (mostly in the US).

Around the same time a tribute to Bacevičius will be paid in several concerts. The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra will present the first ever performances of the Symphony No. 1 (1926) by twenty-one-year old Bacevičius and his two latest finished symphonic works: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 (1962) and Graphique (1964).

The Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra will undertake even more ambitious project – to reconstruct Vytautas Bacevičius' artistic context during his study years at the National Conservatory and Russian Conservatory in Paris (1927-30) and to present, along with Bacevičius, the composers known as representatives of the École de Paris: Alexander Tansman, Bohuslav Martinů, and Alexander Tcherepnin. It was very similar aesthetic/musical ideals that related Vytautas Bacevičius to the representatives of this school and other Baltic composers who studied in Paris at that time.

The recitals of his piano music will take place in September and October as well as during the Gaida Festival. For the second time after their premiere in Kaunas in 1934, his complete organ works will be performed in St. Casimir's Church in Vilnius.

His trailblazing ideas and music engendered new trends in the Lithuanian cultural environment of the time; before long they helped synchronise the latest musical developments in Lithuania with those in other European countries. Unfortunately, this process was short-lived and did not take root in Lithuania. Now that 100 years have passed, the time is ripe to pay a debt to Vytautas Bacevičius!

© Daiva Parulskienė

Lithuanian Music Link No. 10


Vytautas Bacevičius – a composer, pianist, teacher and one of the most unusual figures in the history of Lithuanian music. His father Vincas Bacevičius was a Lithuanian violinist married to a Polish woman in Łódź. He and his wife divided their children's national identities by two: two had to become Lithuanians, and the other two, Poles. However, only Vytautas identified himself with Lithuania. His brother Kiejstut, a longstanding rector of the Łódź Conservatory, his sisters - the prolific poetess Wanda and the famous composer Grażyna Bacewicz - related themselves to Poland and Polish culture.

His Life

After his studies in Paris, Vytautas Bacevičius moved to Kaunas in the early 1930s and became actively involved in the local musical life. Two vocations, that of a pianist and a composer, intertwined in his career. Bacevičius' pianistic technique and taste were formed at the Łódź Conservatory and influenced by the studies at the Conservatoire national de Paris, the Russian Conservatory, and the Sorbonne. Besides his composition studies with Nikolai Tcherepnin, the intense musical life of Paris and the contacts with various musicians were as much important for the development of Bacevičius as a composer.

Upon his return to Lithuania, Bacevičius became part of a small circle of the Lithuanian avant-gardists. As a pianist, composer and writer, he promoted contemporary music and was one of the instigators of Lithuania's membership in the ISCM in 1937. In 1939, Bacevičius went on a concert tour to Argentina. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he did not return to Lithuania occupied by the Soviets and moved to the United States in 1940.

Bacevičius did not achieve great success as a pianist in the US despite the fact that he had concerts all over America, gave eight recitals at the Carnegie Hall in New York, and received favourable reviews in the largest US's dailies. Earning for living as a piano teacher he subsisted in poverty devoting all his free time to composing. Unfortunately, his piano works have been performed only by himself, and many of his symphonic works were not performed during his lifetime. A majority of them received their first performances more than 20 years after his death, in Lithuania.

Before and after the war, some of Bacevičius' piano works were published by the Universal Edition in Vienna, the Mercury Music Corporation and the Paragon Music Publishers in New York. The composer was often invited to the WNYC's radio program "Master Hour" in which he played his works, commented them and promulgated his ideas of "cosmic music". He became a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and was awarded the ASCAP Prize for his compositions in 1969.

His Aesthetics

Bacevičius' pianism was steeped in the ideas and ideals of programmatic romanticism. He especially valued the piano technique of his Łódź colleague Arthur Rubinstein who knew how to manage the form of a musical piece, how to make phrase succeed phrase in a logical manner and lead them to the inevitable climax, retaining all the best elements of romanticism but discarding its excesses. Bacevičius' connection with this tradition never disappeared throughout his career as a pianist. Since 1940, living in New York and trying his chances at the major American venues, he had to conform to the romanticized taste of the local public. The romantic tradition, emphasizing the importance of a programme and preconceived ideas over the search for the possibilities of autonomous musical structures, became a basis for his first compositions.

On the other hand, Bacevičius was a modern man possessing a vivid and inquisitive mind. He firmly believed in the renewal and in the necessity to create new modern music which he associated with the atonal expression. Many of his ideas corresponded to the general modern trends in Western music. He declared himself a creator of absolute music, spoke and wrote about the absolute virtuosity and musicality. This attitude naturally led to his other aspirations, such as a need to invent new forms which would be unique and inherent to each new work, and later to the abstraction of his musical idiom, when he started expressing his thoughts about the cosmic music and abstract graphic notation of musical ideas.

His Music

Bacevičius was a prolific composer. He wrote an opera, a ballet, six symphonies, four concertos for piano, one for violin, a number of works for symphonic orchestra, piano and organ, and four string quartets.

Even today Bacevičius' work provokes controversy. Most of the critics rely on the stylistic periodization presented by the composer himself, which includes the period of early Scriabinian influences during his studies, his later turn to atonalism in Lithuania (1927-1939), the period of compromise in America, and the late period of abstract cosmic music. The first-hand experience of Bacevičius' music poses the question whether this subjective interpretation of his music, his declarations of ideals and aspirations, and the periodization of his works provide sufficient grounds to define the style and development of Bacevičius' music?

Objectively, Bacevičius' music can be divided by genre: his piano works seem to belong to a completely different world than his symphonic music. It is enough to compare the style of his early Poème astral for piano, written in 1927 in Kaunas, and that of his Sixième mot, written in 1963 in New York, to see that there is no essential difference. All his piano music is a reflection of Bacevičius' individual piano technique, and its style appears to be rather homogenous. Apart from conventional sonatas, etudes and preludes, the genre of poem is important (Poème astral, Poème contemplation, Poème mystique, etc.) which reveals his direct relation to Scriabin. His seven "Words" (Mots) demonstrating a search for new forms seem most unusual.

Bacevičius' symphonic music, however, embodies different aspirations. His most famous symphonic work, Poème électrique, performed in Kaunas in 1934 to wild public dissent, was associated with other "machinist" works of the time (exemplified by Honegger, Martinů, and Tcherepnin) and futurism, largely because of the programme presented by the composer ("the main feature of this work is [...] the impulse of life and machinism which characterize our electric age"). Various scholars have attempted to trace influences of Bartók, Jolivet and Varèse in his ideas of cosmic music underpinning his later works, such as Symphony No. 6 and Graphique.

The novelty of his Poème électrique, however, is related more to the necessity of conveying the programme rather than to 'electric' components of the musical material. His ideas of cosmic music originated not in New York and not under the influence of Varèse. Their source was quite different - Scriabin and his ecstatic music. The idea of the union of inner spiritual universe with the whole cosmos lying outside was connected with early 20th-century symbolism in Polish, Russian and Lithuanian art, with fashionable esotericism and Yelena Blavatskaya's theosophy. The symbolist paintings of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis were looming nearby. What would we say about Bacevičius' music were there no programmatic titles of his works? Absolute music, a cosmos? Or Scriabinian motif of ecstasy as a theosophical idea?

In his music, Bacevičius continued the narrative tradition of programmatic romanticism. It is likewise hard to call him an atonalist in the genuine sense of the term. All structures of his music, in one or another shape, are merely programmatic realizations of his visual ideas. Formwise, their variability, constantly changing tempi and meter arose not from the musical material itself but from his programmatic ideas and pure musical expression.

It is in this context that we can evaluate Vytautas Bacevičius' symphonic works, symphonies and concerti, in which much bigger stylistic leaps can be seen than in his piano works. His symphonic output reveals more distinctly the existence of traditional thinking in his music. This fact is conspicuous in his works of the Lithuanian period and his symphonies of the wartime that stand as a genuine illustration of his programmes. Interestingly, the aforementioned Symphony No. 6 and Graphique are often considered abstract compositions, though they retain the programmatic underpinnings through abstract, graphic and cosmic imagery.

Were these grand notions of Universe, Absolute, and Cosmos accomplished in Bacevičius' works? Hard to say. In what ways did Bacevičius contribute to Lithuanian modernism? First of all, in the originality of his musical language and his programmatic imagery that both developed and modernized Scriabin's ideas. Bacevičius' world is based on the expressionist mindset; yet he can also be ascribed to a number of those who searched for constructive prospects in music. His harmonic idiom is extremely expressive. His forms are very precise and well calculated. Bacevičius was one of the first Lithuanian composers pointing to the direction of modern music on which his persistent striving for professionalism and his versatile personality left an indelible and unmistakable mark.

© Donatas Katkus

Lithuanian Music Link No. 10


Vytautas Bacevičius. Organ Works. The First Complete Edition. – Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, 2004, 122 p. (ed. by Jurate Landsbergyte)

Contents: Deuxième mot, op.21; Chansons lituaniennes no.1 et no.2, op.22; Legierezza, op.23; Marche funèbre, op.24; Miniature, op.25; Poème de la mer, op.26; Rayons cosmiques, op.71

An impetuous innovator and venturesome experimenter, Vytautas Bacevičius was a proficient author of organ music. In August 1934, he wrote seven works for organ (op.21-26), which he performed at a portrait concert at the Kaunas Conservatory in December of that same year. These works reveal his most vivid images and ideas: identification with his country's tradition (Chansons lituaniennes no.1 et no.2), unrestrained search for Scriabinian visionary forms and expression (Deuxième mot), and the images of nature (Poème de la mer), which in his later works evolved into the ideas of "cosmic music" (Rayons cosmiques, 1963). All of these works – once the first examples of modernist idiom in Lithuanian organ music – are being published for the first time.

All the pieces, except the composer's late opus Rayons cosmiques published by Mercury Music Corporation in 1967, were deciphered and restored especially for this publication. This edition aims to reflect as accurately as possible the spirit of that portrait concert which took place on December 2, 1934, at the Kaunas Conservatory Hall on Max Goebel Söhne two-manual organ. It retains all of Vytautas Bacevičius' markings of registers, tempi, and dynamics, as a trace of that particular time and place.

Vytautas Bacevičius. Septième mot (Seventh Word), op.73. – Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, 2004, 40 p. (ed. by Ruta and Zbignevas Ibelhauptas)

In Bacevičius' output for piano, Septième mot, op.73 for two pianos (1966) stands out for exceptional coherence of material and concentration of thought. The music lingers in philosophical tranquility, while the musical idiom is modern, expressive, and in some instances reminiscent of Alexander Scriabin's late piano style, or of Arnold Schönberg's atonal period. Here one can feel a broad scope of different psychological states – from mysterious, mystical, meditative episodes to dramatic climaxes.