• (2009) Panufnik: Heroic Overture

Andrzej Panufnik: Heroic Overture
programme note written for
Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra, cond. Jacek Kaspszyk
Cadogan Hall, London, 30 April 2009

Note: this programme note reveals for the first time, and largely contrary to the recollections of the composer, something of the convoluted history of this piece, with five significant dates in its gestation: 1939, 1950 (two versions), 1952 and 1969.

By coincidence, today marks the 55th anniversary of the last time that Panufnik’s Heroic Overture was programmed in Poland before he left for England in July 1954.  On 30 April and 1 May that year, in a programme evidently politicised for the May Day celebration, Heroic Overture began a concert, by the Kraków Philharmonic Orchestra under Bohdan Wodiczko, which ended with Stanisław Skrowaczewski’s Cantata for Peace.  This performance was the final chapter, in Poland, for a work which more than most bore the wounds of its gestation and contextual history.

The most commonly cited date of Heroic Overture‘s composition is 1952, yet there are three, possibly four other dates that chart its tortuous history.  Panufnik began his sketches in 1939, but had to abandon further work as the German occupation intensified.  He returned to the project and completed it sometime in 1950: Heroic Overture was performed on 15 and 16 December in Kraków alongside works by Tadeusz Baird, Kazimierz Serocki and Jan Krenz (another political cantata, Two Cities) in a concert by the Kraków Philharmonic given to mark the end of an All-Polish Academic Conference on Research in the Arts.  In his review in Tygodnik Powszechny in January 1951, Stefan Kisielewski intimated that the Overture had been performed earlier in 1950 as ‘Jubilee Music’, not as an overture, to mark the fifth anniversary of the post-war founding in Katowice of tonight’s orchestra, then known by the acronym WOSPR.  There is no other evidence for a 1950 Katowice version, and the Kraków score seems no longer to exist.

Heroic Overture resurfaced early in 1952, when in a revised version it won the orchestral section of a Polish competition to find pieces to celebrate the forthcoming Olympic Games in Helsinki.  It was premiered on 16 May 1952 in Warsaw by the National Philharmonic under Witold Rowicki.  It was subsequently selected by the Olympic organisers as one of very few works to be performed in Helsinki, where Panufnik conducted it with the Finnish Radio Orchestra on 27 July.  The final version, which is how Heroic Overture is now known, did not appear until 1969, by which time Panufnik had been resident in England for fifteen years.

Behind the work’s convoluted history lie events over which Panufnik had no control.  The effect of the onset of the Second World War is obvious, but that of the cultural-political interference of socialist-realism in post-war Polish music is far harder to pinpoint.  This may be observed, with whatever reservations we may hold, in the reviews and reports of peer-review listening sessions accorded to the work.  It was hardly surprising that Panufnik was unnerved by the conflicting views of his music at this time, and those of Heroic Overture were typical.  The Kraków performance in 1950 was derided by one unnamed party-line reviewer for being ‘strictly formalistic’ and not appealing ‘to listeners who seek realism’, while Stefan Kisielewski, who was on the opposite side of the political and cultural spectrum, criticised the composer for writing a work that was ‘excellently orchestrated but fairly perfunctory’.  And while the Warsaw critics in 1952 were scathing along party lines, Panufnik’s colleagues, including Zofia Lissa and Piotr Perkowski, simultaneously praised the piece.

The 1969 version keeps the principal thematic material at the start of the 1952 score (published by PWM in July 1953), although there is only one opening chord rather than original four (which still dominate the coda) and the trudging march is now played by bassoons rather than the trombones and tuba of both the 1950 and 1952 versions.  More importantly, Panufnik has injected much greater rhythmic life into the main horn theme by starting it off the beat and inserting rousing scalic triplets in the fourth and fifth bars.  The level of dissonance is marked, including in the rising sequence of brass trills in triple metre (though they are still notated in 4/4), and this may well have exacerbated the critical reception.

Elsewhere, Heroic Overture is greatly changed.  Panufnik stripped out long passages of ‘heroic’ marching material, and for the two main portions reconfigured a harmonic sequence in the earlier version into an idea which stretches, in an almost disembodied way, above a militaristic side-drum reiterating the rhythm of the horn motif.  It is as if there is a theme missing.  Indeed, the idea of a missing theme had lain behind Panufnik’s sketches forty years earlier, but not at this point in the composition.  As he later emphasised, the 1831 revolutionary song ‘Warszawianka’ provided the skeleton behind the opening march and horn theme.  But it is never audible and in the event is no more relevant to the music that we hear than the unnamed melody that Elgar said lay behind his Enigma Variations.  But for Panufnik ‘Warszawianka’ had patriotic if not political symbolism.  Heroic Overture remains very much a creature of its several times.

© 2009 Adrian Thomas


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