100 YEARS OF VYTAUTAS BACEVIČIUS
(9.IX.1905 - 15.I.1970)
© Daiva Parulskienė
Lithuanian Music Link No. 10
A LONELY & AMBITIOUS VISIONARY
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.
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.
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.
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