• Andrzej Panufnik (2014)

Andrzej Panufnik
Poland’s great exile

Adrian Thomas tells how Panufnik, born 100 years ago this month, escaped the creative shackles of his Polish homeland to forge a distinctive new voice abroad

This article was written for the series ‘Composer of the Month’, BBC Music Magazine (September 2014), pp.54-58

In 1947, two years after all his music had been destroyed in a fire, a 32-year-old composer stood on London’s Waterloo Bridge during a brief visit from Poland.  Andrzej Panufnik’s reaction to what met his eyes unwittingly anticipated the pattern of the rest of his personal and creative life.  He had been to England in 1939, and in vastly altered circumstances in 1954 he would permanently exile himself here.  He returned to Poland only once, a year before his death in 1991.

The view from the bridge in the early hours of that March night included ‘the water of the Thames … dark clouds … a brilliant full moon’.  From this visual impression Panufnik went on to compose Lullaby (1947), whose musical texture consists of three overlapping layers, each isolated in its own sequence.  The Thames is represented by pulsating harps, the clouds by quarter-tonal strings, the moon by a Polish folk tune passed from one solo string instrument to another.  Separate though they are, these layers alchemically combine to create one of Panufnik’s most bewitching scores. Such technical, material and programmatic features would return time and again during his career.

In fact, they were already in evidence in the wartime Tragic Overture (1942), based on a four-note motif akin (although not identical) to the BACH motif (B flat-A-C-B natural).  Its insistent rhythm (almost certainly based on the BBC wartime call-sign, itself drawn from the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), the dramatic use of sequences and the counterpointing of the motif at different speeds give Tragic Overture an uncommon urgency that mere technical description cannot convey.

The orchestral Nocturne (1947) and his first acknowledged symphony Sinfonia rustica (1948) are more fluidly, if still assiduously constructed.  Nocturne is one of Panufnik’s most evocative and stylistically advanced works.  As he tellingly wrote, “I completely detached myself from the tragic memory of the past years.  I was escaping reality”. That ‘tragic memory’ included the occupation and destruction of Warsaw by German forces during World War II, subsequent invasion of the city by the Soviet Union and, of course, that loss of all his music in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising.

Panufnik was soon aware, however, that reality was catching up with him and his fellow Polish composers.  The prescriptive cultural policies of the Polish one-party State that came into being at the end of 1948 had a detrimental effect on their creative spirit.  ‘Decadent’ Western culture (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, jazz, dissonance = ‘formalism’) was to be avoided in favour of good old-fashioned melody and simple harmony (‘realism’).  Works that did not fit with the government’s view of music for the masses could be banned.  Panufnik recalled that the Minister of Culture declared in 1949 that the innocuous Sinfonia rustica “has ceased to exist”.

By playing with composers’ minds as well as with their works, the Ministry of Culture sowed uncertainty and dismay.  Sinfonia rustica – influenced, like the much later Third String Quartet ‘Wycinanki’ (1990), by the multi-coloured, symmetrically designed paper cut-outs made by Polish peasants – was no real threat to the system.  Indeed, despite its ‘disappearance’, Sinfonia rustica was performed on several occasions in Poland in the early 1950s, sometimes under Panufnik’s baton.  It was also broadcast on Polish Radio and the score published by the State Music Publisher, PWM.

The inconsistencies in regulating socialist realism played havoc with Polish composers’ confidence, and in Panufnik’s case they took a heavy toll.  So-called ‘listening sessions’ were organised for new pieces, and Panufnik’s Symphony of Peace (1951) was one of many works that failed to satisfy the critics completely.  And yet its title and associated texts were politically charged, and it was used as propaganda both at home and abroad.  This contributed to Panufnik’s growing unease at being used by the State, much as Shostakovich was being trotted out by the USSR.  Panufnik’s situation was worse in this respect than that of his fellow members of the Polish Composers’ Union and, despite material privileges that came with his prominence, he looked for a way to escape his creative and personal traumas.

Conducting provided his way out.  It is a fact largely forgotten today that in the early post-war years Panufnik became not only the most progressive Polish composer but also one of the country’s best-known conductors.  He even conducted the premiere of his Heroic Overture (1952) at that year’s Olympic Games in Helsinki.  In July 1954, he took advantage of a conducting engagement in the West, in Zürich, as an opportunity to flee Poland.  All he took with him were his scores.

If Panufnik expected a fully supportive environment when he arrived in London, he was soon disappointed.  After the initial press excitement about his defection from behind the Iron Curtain, Panufnik found himself more or less abandoned to fend for himself (with the exception of help from one or two British promoters and composers, including Vaughan Williams).  As he ruefully put it in his autobiography Composing Myself (1987): ‘I had leapt from my Polish position of No. One to No One at All in England’.

Once again, his conducting came to the rescue and he took the position of Musical Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1957, but resigned two years later to concentrate on composition.  This move was accelerated by his overwhelming desire to escape the limelight and its pressures, and he withdrew into a private world of composing and, soon, to a new marriage and the arms of a close family life.

The first major sign of his renewed confidence was the third symphony, Sinfonia sacra (1963), which remains his most performed and recorded symphony.  It commemorates the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Poland.  While the communist government in Poland did all it could to thwart any Christian celebration on Polish soil, Panufnik was free of such constraints.  He would take good advantage of his liberty again, as in his Bassoon Concerto (1985), written in memory of the Polish priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, who had been murdered by the secret police the previous year.

More particularly, Sinfonia sacra demonstrates Panufnik’s skill at constructing a large-scale form that guides the listener through a symphonic narrative.  Here, three Visions separately explore the first three intervals from Poland’s most famous battle hymn, the medieval modal chant Bogurodzica, before bringing them all together in the full melody in the concluding Hymn.

Panufnik’s need for structural frameworks may seem to be the driving force in his music.  He himself used phrases such as “an extremely rigid design” (Sinfonia sacra) and “stern discipline” (Universal Prayer, 1969).  His now-famous graphic designs for many of his works are testimony to his passion for symmetry, geometry and symbolism of the natural world.  These include the number six that permeates Sinfonia di sfere (1975), the ‘tree’ structure of Arbor cosmica (1983) and the rainbow arcs of Sinfonia di speranza (1986).  Such structural devices are paralleled, in the last twenty or so years of his life, by his obsession with small intervallic cells, most commonly the three-note cell F-B-E, with its tritone, perfect fifth and semitone.  These he fashioned into sequential motivic chains that rise and fall, coming in and out of focus, as if examining a cut diamond under an eyeglass.

Sometimes the results can be starkly ascetic, as in the seventh symphony Metasinfonia (1978), but his music is never less than exquisitely designed.  This is apparent, for example, in Universal Prayer, a setting of Alexander Pope whose dictum ‘Order is Heav’n’s first Law’ seems tailor-made for Panufnik.  On the other hand, Panufnik maintained that he aimed for deep emotional impact, and his perennial search for balance between technique and expression is reflected in the commentaries on individual works that he published under the heading, Impulse and Design in my music (1974).  For some listeners, it may be the shorter, more overtly descriptive works that are most immediate: Autumn Music (1962, written in memory of a friend) or Katyń Epitaph (1967, written to commemorate the wartime slaughter by Russian forces of 15,000 Polish POWs).

For others, the larger orchestral works are most impressive, including several non-programmatic concertos plus the later symphonies: Sinfonia di sfere (no.5), Sinfonia mistica (1977, no.6), Sinfonia votiva (1981, no.8), Sinfonia di speranza (no.9) and the untitled no.10 (1988).  There is a quality of tensile meditation that inhabits these scores, with their interlocked sections of quasi-militaristic violence, striving rhythmic sequences and delicate or sustained melodic lines.  In the works from Sinfonia votiva onwards, culminating in the Cello Concerto written for Rostropovich (1991), there is even a hint of neo-romanticism.

In 1977, Polish authorities gave permission for Panufnik’s music to be featured – in measured doses – at the annual ‘Warsaw Autumn’ international festival of contemporary music.  Panufnik was the principal guest at the 1990 festival: eleven of his works were performed and he himself conducted Harmony (1989).  Democracy had been restored to Poland the previous year, and only at that point could Panufnik contemplate returning to the country he had fled 36 years earlier.  It was his one and only visit, but one that meant everything to a composer for whom his country had always been central to his creative impulses.

In this his centenary year, one might be forgiven for observing that his adopted country, as well as Poland, has somewhat short-changed him.   The BBC Proms have ignored him (Tragic Overture and Lullaby were slipped in last year) and at the time of writing only five of his ten symphonies (nos 2-5 and 10) have been programmed anywhere at all.  This is in stark contrast to the rich tapestry woven around the centenary last year of Witold Lutosławski.

The clue may lie in part in Panufnik’s reclusive nature.  In a way, this has led to an unduly low level of public recognition.  Although he was an experienced conductor, he rarely took to the stage or occupied the recording studio during the last thirty years of his life, unlike Lutosławski, who was the pre-eminent proponent of his music during the same period.  As a result, there are only just over a dozen recordings of Panufnik’s compositions under his own baton.

Along the way, record companies have periodically waved the flag, notably Unicorn-Kanchana and Conifer.  Now the chamber music is better represented in the catalogue and the German label CPO has completed its eight-CD series of Panufnik’s complete symphonic works under the enthusiastic direction of Łukasz Borowicz.  At least on record the breadth and depth of Panufnik’s legacy may now be properly measured.

* The passages in bold were edited out of the printed version.

Panufnik’s Style 

Panufnik planned his musical structures like an architect.  From the relatively simple Sinfonia rustica, whose layout is similar to that of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, to the complexity of Universal Prayer, his highly-patterned compositions fill out ingenious skeletal frameworks.

Quite apart from his ten surviving and three abandoned symphonies, there is a large array of pieces that are testament to Panufnik’s orchestral imagination.  He has favourite textures, often contrasting the main orchestral families, but there are numerous instances of smaller forces, such as unpitched percussion, solo strings or solo piano.

Running through his music is a particular harmonic-melodic fingerprint, drawn from Polish folk idioms.  This is Panufnik’s fondness for bittersweet major-minor chords, most typically a first-inversion major triad topped by the minor third, e.g. (reading from the bottom) F#-A-D-F natural, which sometimes falls down to the D).

There are relatively few totally abstract works in Panufnik’s output.  He invested his remarkably consistent and objectified musical language with a variety of different emotional states.  While a few works have relatively specific programmes, the majority demonstrate his broader though no less integral pursuit of an elegiac view of the world and his yearning wish to cleanse it of iniquities.

Recommended Recordings

Sinfonia sacra etc.
Tampere PO/John Storgårds
Ondine ODE 1101-5   £12.99
An excellent sampler, including Heroic Overture, Sinfonia sacra and Sinfonia di sfere.

Bassoon Concerto etc.
Robert Thompson, BBC SO/Andrzej Panufnik
Heritage HTGCD 266   £10.99
Panufnik conducts his own Bassoon Concerto alongside one of two recordings he made of Sinfonia di speranza, plus his spoken introductions.

Cello Concerto
Mstislav Rostropovich, London SO/Hugh Wolff
NMC D010S £10.99
A short CD single featuring Panufnik’s last major work, the Cello Concerto, played by its notable dedicatee.

Complete Symphonic Works, vol. 1
Polish Radio SO/Łukasz Borowicz
cpo 777 497-2 £12.99
The first disc of this eight-CD series features six works including Tragic Overture, Nocturne, and Katyń Epitaph.

© 2014 Adrian Thomas

2 Responses to • Andrzej Panufnik (2014)

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Terrific article, and your recommendations are much appreciated.

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