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Bacewicz and Bacevičutė


OK, here goes. In celebration of the Bacewicz centenary.

Grazyna Bacewicz did not have an extremely colorful biography, though in many senses it could be called a beautiful life. She did, however, have quite a colorful background. The fates of her parents and siblings nicely (and sadly) illustrate the complicated history of this region.

As you may or may not know, in the late 19th century neither Poland nor Lithuania formally existed as independent countries. In 1795 both states were wiped off the map following the third and final partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (often, and misleadingly, called a “partition of Poland”). After two unsuccessful insurrections (in 1831 and 1863), the situation in the Russian partition was especially dire: the use of Polish and Lithuanian in public (such as on street signs etc.) was banned. Russian was decreed the official language. In Lithuania, the use of the Latin alphabet in print was also banned (well, you wouldn’t need it anyway, if you were only allowed to write in Russian, right?). Books printed in Lithuanian (which uses the Latin alphabet) had to be brought out abroad and smuggled into the country (this ban was lifted in 1904). After 1885 Russian was the official language of the Polish schooling system, with Polish demoted to the rank of an “auxiliary”, optional subject. The schooling situation in Lithuania was no better.

The father of our composer was Lithuanian. His name was Vincas Bacevičus and he was born in 1875 in the Lithuanian village of Ardzijauskai (Marijampolė County). He was educated (at the Veiveriai normal school) in the spirit of the Lithuanian National Revival. He shared the fate of other teachers in Lithuania: he was forbidden to teach in his homeland and in 1899 he was deported to Poland. Here he worked as a teacher but also furthered his music education by enrolling at the Hanicki brothers’ music school in Lodz (he was a great lover of music his entire life). And after the school closed down in 1902, he continued to take private lessons. Soon he could start working as a music teacher.

In 1903 he married Maria Modlinska. They had four children and all four made a name for themselves, though Grazyna’s fame remains the greatest by far. The four children were: the pianist Kiejstut Bacewicz (Kęstutis, born 14th June 1904), the composer Vytautas Bacevičus (Witold, born 9th September 1905), Grażyna Bacewicz (Gražina, born 5th February 1909) and the poet Wanda Bacewicz (Vanda, born 10th August 1911). In brackets I have given the other, hardly ever used variants of their given names. You will note that the original, Lithuanian spelling of the father’s surname appears only once in the above list. I’ll come to that in a second.

Since the children were brought up in Poland, they naturally spoke Polish, which was their first language. But they also regularly spent their summers in Lithuania, with their father’s family, where they (just as naturally) acquired Lithuanian.

As soon as Lithuania regained independence Vincas Bacevičus began to think about taking his family back to his homeland for good. It wasn’t an easy plan to put into being, since Polish-Lithuanian diplomatic relations were then at their worst. Ever. An example: Vilnius, a city which in its entire history, since the dawn of mankind, had never been a part of Poland, was at that time forcefully incorporated into the country (and remained a part of it until World War II).

In 1923 Vincas Bacevičus took the decision which would divide the family forever (though only in a geographical sense; otherwise, they seem to have stayed as close-knit as ever). He illegally crosses the border and arrives in Kaunas (which had been turned into the capital of the country, since Vilnius was a now a part of Poland). The fact that he did this illegally meant he would not be able to (legally) return to Poland. What is more, the family did not follow in father’s footsteps. Though Vincas and Maria were never formally divorced, she decided to stay in Poland, and only moved with the young Wanda from Lodz to Warsaw (where the other children were studying and living). Except for Vytautas, no one will settle in Kaunas, even though all the children will visit the city on occasion. Vytautas is the only one of the four who actually decided to adopt his father’s nationality (after graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1926) and became an important Lithuanian 20th century composer (he was never as celebrated in his “adopted” country as he deserved – in fact, he was almost completely ignored, probably because he was “too modern”).

In the early 1930s Kiejstut works for a while in a Kaunas secondary school as a music teacher but later decides to return to Poland. Grazyna searches (in vain) for a job (as music teacher or violinist) in Kaunas at roughly the same time and also returns. In her later career she did visit Lithuania on concert tours (as violinist and composer) several times but, as far as musical links are concerned, that was all. According to Malgorzata Gasiorowska, the composer’s biographer, various Lithuanian motives would surface in Bacewicz’s music many times in the future – but Bacewicz would never mention the Lithuanian heritage in her writings or even admit that she had excellent knowledge of Lithuanian. The reasons for this reticence are not clear but may have had a lot to do with the political climate of post-war Poland.

  1. Johan Herrenberg
    7 February 2009 at 12:51

    Interesting! Thanks, Maciek. History can be very complicated, making people pawns of circumstance.

  1. 28 February 2009 at 1:47

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