POLISH MUSIC CENTER: ESSAYS

Notes on Polish Women Composers

by Maria Anna Harley (Maja Trochimczyk)

The queen of tones or a typical woman? (1)

In 1828, Adam Mickiewicz, universally acclaimed as Poland's greatest poet, wrote an ode to Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), a virtuosa pianist and composer whose musical salon in Petersburg featured many improvisations by the two artists. Mickiewicz called Szymanowska "the queen of tones" while praising her musical skills and artistic originality. (2) As a gifted composer and extraordinary performer, Szymanowska was able to create her own world in sound, a world admired by many artists throughout Europe. Many generations later, Marta Lugowska jokingly entitled her interview with Hanna Kulenty, the rising star of the Polish compositional scene, "a typical woman"-- simultaneously invoking and ridiculing the stereotype of the "typically feminine" which Kulenty and her music transcended and transgressed. (3)

These twin expressions encapsulate the dilemma of Polish women composers through the ages: the struggle with the weight of tradition (stereotypical expectations in regards to their "feminine"characteristics and their role in society) and the need to create a world of their own, a world recognized and admired by their male colleagues as a part of the common musical heritage, a vital element of the Polish culture. While observing the musical life of the country from afar, it is not difficult to notice that few of the women composers achieved a stature comparable with that of Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki, or Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki. Only the name of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) has regularly appeared in the programs of concerts and conferences.

Another characteristics of the Polish musical scene is the fact that women who write music do not like to be grouped according to their gender and identified as "women composers." The masculine form of the name of their profession, "kompozytor," seems to be the preferred form of address, especially in formal situations.(4) The fact that the professional Union to which most of these composers belong, is called Zwiazek Kompozytorow Polskich"--Union of Polish Composers (the male form)--does not facilitate the women's identification with their gender. To a Westerner, well- versed in feminist theory, this position of linguistic "gender- crossing" seems an obvious instance of hidden discrimination against women. Yet, in Poland it is not perceived as such, since Polish women have long enjoyed their personal independence and full participation in the fabric of their society.(5)

Women musicians in the Polish society

According to Bianka Pietrov-Ennker,(6) studies of the role of women within Polish society do not result in discovering variants of the North-American model of the feminism of difference, revealing instead "the tendency to integrate rather than to segregate" women from their society. Yet, Pietrov-Ennker describes Poland's gender relationships as "benign patriarchalism." Here, women's strengths and achievements are highly respected and portrayed in many works of literature and art, but the influential intellectuals, politicians, and artists whose work defines the leading themes of the country's culture are mostly male.

The fact that women are expected to change their names when marrying is another example of the continuity of patriarchal traditions. Maria Szymanowska is a good example of this practice: she was baptized as Marianna Agata Wolowska, but her publications often conceal her pre-married identity. While a married woman changes her name, the unmarried one may be still recognized as a daughter by the use of the suffix "-owna." Grazyna Bacewicz, who was well-established as a composer and performer before her marriage, chose to continue using her birth name throughout her career. She was often referred to as "Bacewiczowna"(7) but her full legal name was hyphenated, "Bacewicz-Biernacka."

Many women composers have followed the pattern of using two names, to mention only Krystyna Moszumanska-Nazar (b. 1924), Gra yna Pstrokonska-Nawratil (b. 1947), Jadwiga Szajna- Lewandowska (1912-1994), and Anna Zawadzka-Golosz (b. 1954). These cumbersome expressions seem to be an intermediary stage on the way towards full linguistic independence and preserving their birth name for the whole life.

The motherhood of home and culture

A particular aspect of Polish gender stereotypes is the connection between the esteem for motherhood and the emphasis on the mothers' achievements in preserving the Polish language and culture. During the years of partitions (1795-1918), when the country lost its independence, the family became "the stronghold of national identity." (8) Women played an important role in the society since their work in educating children as well as their personal achievements contributed to the cultural survival of the nation. Thus, in the Polish national mythology, "mother" became a heroic figure: "Matka Polka" whose work for the country was as vital as her importance within the family.

The Polish paradigm of maternalism does include the traditional values of selfless love, gentility, patience, etc., often associated with the religious model of the God-Mother, Mary. However, these values are not enclosed in a "private" sphere diametrically opposed to the domain of the "public" life reserved for men, since women participate in both areas of social life.

Many women composers bear the double burden of managing two careers at the same time, i.e. taking care of children while pursuing their professional goals. Like the famous virtuosa Clara Schumann, Maria Szymanowska was able to support her three children and her siblings with earnings from her concert appearances and publications. Similarly to the German artist, Szymanowska relied on the help of family members who cared for her children while she was away on concert tours. Yet, the responsibility as a single mother of two adolescent daughters influenced Szymanowska's decision to settle in St. Petersburg where she worked at the Court of the Tsarina (1828-1831). She considered this city as the best place for her children to grow up, acquire an education, and marry.

Other women composers decide to limit their maternal responsibilities by having fewer children. Bacewicz had one daughter (now a painter and a poet, Alina Biernacka); this model seems to be the preference of many younger artists. Interestingly, when considering the conflict between housekeeping and composition, Bacewicz often credited her ability to achieve artistic success to her exceptional efficiency and unusual speed in dealing with housework, not to the sharing of household duties with her husband. (9)

Difficult choices

In a difficult situation, when forced to choose between continuing her compositional activities at an undiminished rate and taking care of her family, Anna Zawadzka-Golosz (b. 1954) decided to sacrifice her artistic interests for the sake of her two children. Many women composers, faced with a similar dilemma, would follow her example, and this is, perhaps, why others, such as Bernardetta Matuszczak (b. 1937), choose to remain single. Matuszczak was well aware that it would have been very difficult to maintain a high level of musical productivity while being a parent. She loved music more than anything else and her choice was to compose. (10)

This is not an isolated phenomenon among creative artists: in Canada, a similar decision was made by Violet Archer (b. 1913) and earlier examples of famous male European composers include Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. The conflicting demands of life and art seem not to be gender- specific. However, women, traditionally considered as the "hearts"of their families, are expected to sacrifice themselves more often and to a greater extent than men.

An example of a husband who supports his wife's compositional activities by copying the parts or organizing concerts of her music has not been brought to my attention--neither in Poland, nor anywhere else in the world. In contrast, instances of wives assisting their spouses are plentiful, to mention only Danuta Lutoslawska (d. 1994) copying the manuscripts and participating in the concert tours of her husband, Witold Lutoslawski (1913- 1994).

Bacewicz: The first to be equal

Despite the existence of many artists, such as Maria Szymanowska, Tekla Badarzewska, Irena Wieniawska, and Anna Maria Klechniowska, the first Polish woman composer who achieved national and international stature, was Grazyna Bacewicz. (11) She won a number of important compositional awards, received numerous commissions and was featured in countless concerts and festivals. She become the first woman vice- president of the Union of Polish Composers and a professor of composition at the Warsaw PWSM. In Poland, there are schools and streets bearing her name, while sculptures portraying her ornament urban parks.

According to Bernadetta Matuszczak, Bacewicz was the first woman accepted as an equal by her male peers. (12) Her example opened the way for many female students of composition who found hope for themselves when seeing Bacewicz's name on the programs of the Warsaw Autumn Festivals and reading monographs about her. The respect for Bacewicz's music did not diminish after her death in 1969. In recent interviews, Krzysztof Baculewski (composer and musicologist, the author of an important monograph about Polish music after 1945) and Olgierd Pisarenko (music critic, associate editor of Ruch Muzyczny) highly praised Bacewicz's music and emphasized her importance in the history of Polish music. (13) These respondents also described the present situation as one of women's full integration into the musical life of the country.

The Polish ideal: Working together

The lives of several generations of women composers, including Krystyna Moszumanska-Nazar (b. 1924), Marta Ptaszynska (b. 1943), Elzbieta Sikora (b. 1945), Lidia Zielinska (b. 1953) and Hanna Kulenty (b. 1961) present numerous examples of the absence of discrimination against women in social practice. Moszumanska- Nazar taught composition at the Krakow PWSM (the State Higher School of Music, now called the Academy of Music), since 1962, serving as the rector (president) of this institution from 1987 till 1992. (14)

Zielinska is an associate professor in composition at the Poznan PWSM, but the most obvious example of her role in contemporary musical life in Poland is provided by her work as a member of the board of the Polish Society for Contemporary Music (till 1994), along with Tadeusz Wielecki and Zygmunt Krauze. In this capacity, she greatly contributed to the programming of the SIMC Festival "World Music Days" held in 1992 in Poland. Zielinska's entrepreneurial spirit is to be greatly admired; with a handful of colleagues, she founded Brevis , the first independent music publishing company in Poland (located in Poznan and publishing music scores and books).

Elzbieta Sikora's cooperation with her male colleagues is most notable in the forming of a compositional collective Grupa KEW [Group KEW] with Krzysztof Knittel and Wojciech Michniewski (1973-). (15) The group focused on organizing concerts and happenings; its members composed electroacoustic music individually and together-- working, for instance, at the Experimental Music Studio at the Polish Radio in Warsaw. Sikora and Knittel studied sound recording at the Warsaw PWSM, while Michniewski was also a student of conducting, and this became his primary career in subsequent years.

Grupa KEW , consisting of one female and two male composer-performers, did not function as a "gender-related institution" but as a musical one. It played an important role in the cultural life of the country, introducing novel compositional issues, techniques, as well as original forms of concert life, including happenings and performances in unusual concert locations. The three composers recall this phase of their artistic lives with fondness and nostalgia. However, their memories do not include remembering Sikora's music as being particularly feminine or "different" because of her gender.

At present, Sikora is one of the most interesting Polish composers; her fascinating music-theatre piece, Wyrywacz serc [Heart-snatcher] was featured at the 1995 International Festival of Contemporary Music Warsaw Autumn and her plans include a commission from her home-town of Gdansk to celebrate the millennium of that city. Although her career is now divided between Poland and France where she is a professor of electroacoustic music at Angouleme and Poitiers, Sikora plans to return to her homeland.

In Poland and abroad

Many women have achieved international recognition of their music after leaving Poland to study abroad and settling in the country of their choice. Sikora is just one example, other names include Marta Ptaszynska now living in the United States and Joanna Bruzdowicz-Tittel (b. 1943) who is an active member of the new music community in Belgium. Hanna Kulenty left Poland to study with Louis Andriessen at the Hague and has settled in the Netherlands.

The youngest of composers mentioned so far, Kulenty received numerous compositional awards, commissions and grants, including the prestigious DAAD scholarship in Berlin. In 1986, her acceptance as the youngest member of the Union of Polish Composers surprised many of her older colleagues, still "languishing" in the Youth Circle of that organization. The unusual maturity of Kulenty's compositional talent, and the scope of her portfolio, allowed the Union's board to make this controversial decision.

Equality? Some statistics

However, despite Kulenty's success, statistics reveal that women constitute a minority in the group of people earning their living by composing music and teaching composition. In 1988, the Union of Polish Composers included 27 women in a total of 187 composers. (16)

The number of premieres of women's works at the Warsaw Autumn Festival has seen a steady rise since the first ten years of the festival's existence when the only name on the program was that of Grazyna Bacewicz (later joined by Moszumanska-Nazar and Matuszczak). Recent festivals include about 6-8 Polish women composers on the program, and these numbers increase with the growth of the number of female graduates from institutions of higher education.

Many departments and faculties of music have been created during the so-called "communist" rule, in the Polish People's Republic (1945-1989). The government was firmly committed to promoting the arts, gender equity and women's rights. It may be important to remember that Poland proposed that the United Nations pass a declaration against the discrimination of women (in 1965, the definitive text was adopted by the General Assembly in 1967). (17)

Yet, women living in the country did not enjoy a full freedom and were deprived of many democratic rights and opportunities available to those living in the West, such as organizing concerts and publishing their own music without external control. Perhaps, that is why so many of them moved elsewhere.

Nonetheless, for many composers the aesthetic, autonomous values of their music are more important than the social conditions of its creation. Great music is as likely to be composed in a totalitarian system as in a country respecting civil rights. There are no limits for the freedom of imagination, when--to quote Lidia Zielinska--the music's "beauty and power" is all that counts. (18)


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(c) 1995 by Maria Anna Harley. (c) 2001 by Maja Trochimczyk
Send your comments and inquiries to: polmusic@email.usc.edu

Formatting completed on 8 August 2000.