Andrzej Panufnik

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A fine and forgotten composer

I first discovered the music of Sir Andrzej Panufnik in November 1993, when he was featured as Radio 3's Composer Of The Week two years after his death. For some reason his music has largely been forgotten, and these series of programmes charted his musical career and brought to light many excellent compositions. His daughter Roxanna, herself a very talented composer, wrote and presented the programmes with many fascinating insights into her father's work. I myself was then at a particularly intense emotional and creative period, and the honesty and directness of Panufnik's music affected me deeply. I've subsequently found recordings of his work, some of which are reviewed here, in the hope that this honorary Englishman should be remembered as a major figure in Twentieth Century music.


Born in Warsaw on 24th September 1914, Andrzej's world was at war. His father was an engineer and violin-maker, and his mother a violinist, so it was natural that he should gravitate to music, and began composing in childhood. After graduating from the Warsaw Conservatoire in 1936, he studied conducting under Felix Weingartner in Vienna, which paved the way for his later conducting tours of Asia and the Americas. During the Second World War, he played piano duets in cafes with fellow composer Witold Lutoslawski, risking arrest when concerts were banned by the Nazis. Panufnik's early manuscripts were tragically destroyed when a neighbour thought they were just a pile of old papers and burned them! Alas, they were not even published, and so lost forever, although he did try and reconstruct some of them from memory. (As a composer myself, I know just how distressing this would have been.)

The Polish people suffered terribly during the 1940's, not just from the German occupation, but also after the Soviets 'liberated' them. The regime took control and infiltrated every strata of life, such that all decisions came from Moscow, and Polish culture was severely crushed. Worst of all for Panufnik, he was pressurised to take up positions which he disagreed with, and became the music director of the Polish Army Film Unit, as well as conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra. Bureaucratic posts were also forced on him, such as Vice President of the Composers Union and a member of the Polish Committee for the Defence of Peace; these sapped his time for composing. New directives from Commissar Zhdanov in Moscow, that 'cultural products must serve politico-economic ends', and orders from Minister Sikorski that music must depict 'socialist reality' in a manner 'simple and understandable to the broad masses' appalled Andrzej. His Sinfonia Rustica was awarded first prize at the Chopin Competition in 1949; meanwhile, in a debate attended by Stalin's protegee Tikhon Khrennikov, Sinfonia Rustica was scorned by a music critic as 'a formalist composition'. Sokorski then stated that 'Sinfonia Rustica has ceased to exist'.

In 1951 he married Marie Elizabeth O'Mahoney, a beautiful Irish woman, also known as Scarlett, who suffered from epilepsy and a nervous disposition. In 1953, he was sent (against his wishes because of his wife's ill health and newly born daughter) as leader of a two-month cultural delegation to China, and performed for Chairman Mao, before his visit was cut short due to the tragic death of his baby daughter. Back in Poland, the Communists were becoming ever more oppressive, demanding that he take part in political activities completely against his moral and artistic principles. In despair, and assisted by his wife's connections in London, he eventually defected in 1954 (narrowly evading capture by Communist Secret Police) and was granted political asylum in England. In his native Poland, his name was deleted from all records and publications and he became a 'non-person'.

As he struggled to make a living, Ralph Vaughan Williams and pianist Witold Malcuzynski helped by arranging a bank loan and introducing him to patrons to sponsor his work. He conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing his Sinfonia Rustica at the Proms, and signed a publishing deal with Boosey & Hawkes. In 1957, he took up the post of Music Director and Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. His marriage to Scarlett Panufnik soon ended, as she refused to leave London. In 1959 he fell in love with Winsome Ward, who tragically died of cancer in 1961. Her headstone in Gunnersbury Cemetery bears the first few notes of Andrzej's Autumn Music; in the same cemetery stands the Katyn Memorial in memory of the 15000 Polish officers slaughtered at the Katyn Massacre, about which Panufnik later wrote his Katyn Epitaph, premiered in New York by Leopold Stokowski in 1968.

In 1962 Andrzej was living in a drafty cottage in Dockenfield in Surrey, where he wrote much of Sinfonia Sacra, before retreating to Spain to avoid the harshest winter in living memory and finish it. This effort paid off: it received standing ovations at its premieres in London conducted by Constantin Silvestri and in Dublin by Colman Pearce, and won the Prix de Composition Prince Pierre de Monaco. At last, his music was starting to become more widely performed and known. The young BBC producer Martin Dalby later made a programme on him in his series "The Composer's Portrait" in 1966, helped by John Amis and Anthony Hopkins.

By chance, Andrzej met and fell in love with his second wife, photographer Camilla Jessel. While touring Peru, they flew to the city of Cuzco and visited Macchu Picchu. His wonderful Song To The Virgin Mary was written for her a few weeks after their marriage at Caxton Hall, London on 1963-11-27; their reception was at The Dorchester :-)

They lived in Riverside House, Twickenham - a Georgian town house which stood overlooking the Thames, with towering chestnut trees in the grounds and three whispering willows beside the river, near to St. Mary's 18th Century Parish Church also on the river, burial place of the great poet Alexander Pope. Panufnik lived a mile from Richmond along the towpath, along which he would walk, past Orleans House with its Gibbs Octagon Room and Palladian Marble Hill House with a rare 18th Century black walnut tree. [Sounds worth a visit.] The convivial atmosphere of his studio at Riverside House, a converted outbuilding, and his new happy marriage, led to a new fruitful period of works: Reflections, Universal Prayer, and the breathtaking Sinfonia Concertante for flute, harp and strings. Daughter Roxanna was born in spring 1968, and a son Jeremy came 13 months later. She played flute and piano, and he sang, later appearing aged 9 and 10 on the recording of Thames Pageant, a cantata for younger players and singers, which Andrzej dedicated to them. They are now both composers.

Yehudi Menuhin commissioned a Violin Concerto in 1970, and many recordings of Panufnik's music began to be made. In 1973, he wrote a piece called "Triangles" for BBC2 television (also dedicated to Camilla), which featured three cellists (vc) and three flautists (fl) arranged in two interlocking triangles, a concept from Tantric philosophy:

  \ /  \ /
   X    X
  /_\  /_\
vc   \/   vc

Sacred geometry played an increasing interest in Panufnik's music, and much of his later music features graphic scores and geometric forms, such as the Sinfonia Di Sfere and Sinfonia Mistica of the mid-1970's.

Andrzej was finally invited on a return visit to Poland in 1990 after 36 years away, where he conducted his music, which had not even been performed there until 1976. He was knighted by the Queen in 1990, and died in Twickenham on 27th October 1991.

For more details, see an extensive biography by his wife Lady Camilla Jessel, from an archive of the official website which is sadly no longer online. The Polish Music Centre has a comprehensive bibliography and writings. The International Andrzej Panufnik Conference was held in November 2001 in Krakow, Poland.

I recently finished reading Andrzej's fascinating autobiography "Composing Myself", which is strongly recommended; it shows how free and easy our lives are compared with people living under such oppression, and is a great study of victory over adversity. Sadly out of print, I managed to track down a copy at my library.

Selected Discography

This is just a list of recordings I own. See the Polish Music Centre for a complete list of recordings, or try Amazon for some audio clips.





[Still under construction...]

Personal Favourites

The Symphonies

  1. Sinfonia Rustica (1948, rev. 1955)

    In four movements:

    1. evokes the hustle and bustle of 1950's London, like an Ealing comedy film score
    2. has a gentle melody on flute and oboe over tentative pizzicato strings, leading to a Wild West expansive string theme with big horn calls
    3. a tender folk melody from "Song To The Virgin Mary"
    4. brash celli and brass fanfares
  2. Sinfonia Eligiaca (1957, rev. 1966)

  3. Sinfonia Sacra (1963)

  4. Sinfonia Concertante for flute, harp and strings (1973)

    Beginning delicately with harp arpeggios and legato flute, the Molto cantabile shimmers into view with lush string tones painting a very soft canvas so fragile it occasionally disappears altogether. Later Panufnik reverses the roles with the flute running up and down arpeggios around static harp notes; this time the strings enter passionately with a new theme reminiscent of Sinfonia Rustica.

    The Molto ritmico second movement begins with deep double basses played con legno. The harp joins in with crystalline patterns, and then a mischievous flute flutters into the scene. A gentle interlude then develops into a revolving sequence of string tutti alternating with flute and harp duets, with complex writing. A climax shatters into silence and returns to the initial movement's sparse melodic lines in the Postscriptum, finally reaching a serene sense of stillness.

  5. Sinfonia di Sfere (1974-75)

  6. Sinfonia Mistica (1977)

  7. Metasinfonia (1978)

  8. Sinfonia Votiva (1981, rev. 1984)

    It begins with a plaintive piccolo and vibraphone solo, joined by oboe and clarinet, which then builds as other instruments enter. A deep sense of mystery pervades this movement, marked Andante rubato, con devozione, the devotion being described by The Composer thus:

    It is a votive offering to the miraculous ikon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in my native Poland.

    Occasional brass fanfares launch from the mist, propelling the music forwards, before subsiding again to a subdued silence. Harps tip-toe around tremulous string chords thick with autumnal languor.

    Urgent brass tuttis with tubular bells announce the start of the Allegro assai, con passione, along with a long string melody which works its way up and down the pitch register. Gongs and tam-tam lend an exotic shimmer as the piece ominously advances. This is very filmic music, which conjures up images of pursuit and danger, perhaps of Panufnik's terrifying times during the Warsaw Uprising.

  9. Sinfonia della Speranza (1986, rev. 1987)

  10. Symphony No. 10 (1988, rev. 1990)

Orchestral works

Other Reviews Online

© copyright Malcolm Smith 2004-06-17 - last updated 2005-06-18 - links verified 2004-06-17