By John Paul Hardy
There’s a very engaging film yet to be made about the Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik. It might begin with his experiences of the Anschluss, and then move on to his time in Nazi-occupied Poland. It could then tell the story of the loss of all of his early work in the Warsaw Uprising, the post-war restrictions on his art by the ruling Communist Party, culminating in an edge-of-the-seat depiction of his dramatic defection to Britain. And that would only cover his life to the age of 40.
Panufnik was born in interesting times, just two months after the outbreak of World War One, when his native Poland was a territory divided between the warring factions. By the time the conflict had ended, Poland had become a re-created independent state, albeit a fragile one. It was in this environment of burgeoning nationalism that Panufnik cut his teeth.
His musical talent was evident from an early age, and he attended the Warsaw Conservatoire to study first percussion, and then conducting and composition. Upon graduation, Panufnik planned to take up a place at the Vienna State Academy to study with the great Felix Weingartner. His plans were put on hold when he was called up for National Service, but thanks to the intervention of a Major Śledziński – himself a musician – Panufnik was discharged on dubious medical grounds. On the morning of his medical examination, Panufnik heard a radio broadcast of an old Polish hymn – the Bogurodzica – which had an immediate and profound effect upon the impressionable composer. It was a melody that would stay with him throughout his career.
Panufnik eventually went to Vienna, and enjoyed his time as a pupil of Weingartner. Circumstances were to change dramatically, however, in March 1938 when Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany in the Anschluss. Towards the end of the academic year, Weingartner was replaced at the Academy by a ‘good loyal Nazi’, and Panufnik promptly decided to leave Vienna without staying to take the final examination. In his view, he ‘did not care to have a piece of paper stamped with a Nazi swastika’.
Panufnik returned to Poland, but within months it too was under Nazi occupation. He remained in Warsaw despite a ban on organised gatherings meaning that musical performances became impossible. During the occupation, Panufnik formed a piano duo with his friend from the Warsaw Conservatoire, the composer Witold Lutosławski. They performed together in cafés to circumnavigate the Nazi-imposed performing restrictions.
In 1944, Panufnik took his sick mother to be cared for in the rural outskirts of Warsaw. While he was away, however, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army, the Polish resistance) attempted to liberate the city in what became known as the Warsaw Uprising – the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during the Second World War. Without the hoped-for backing from the advancing Russian army, it was crushed and Warsaw was demolished.
When Panufnik returned to his former home he discovered, to his horror, that all of the music that he had written up to that point in his life had been destroyed – ironically not by the actions of the Nazis, but by a well-meaning compatriot. A woman who had taken over Panufnik’s rooms had simply cleared out the discarded papers and, oblivious to their worth, made a bonfire of them.
After the war, Panufnik moved to Kraków, where he began again as a composer. He tried to reconstruct those of his destroyed pieces that he could recall – notably the Tragic Overture, Five Polish Peasant Songs, and the Piano Trio. After attempting to re-compose his Symphony No. 1, he had to admit that his memory faltered and found the resulting work disappointing. He destroyed the score, and abandoned any further attempts to reconstruct his lost works. Instead, he set about composing a new symphony.
Written in 1948, Sinfonia Rustica was ostensibly a quite harmless and uncontroversial work, in strictly musical terms, yet its history was so troubled that Panufnik devoted an entire chapter of his excellent autobiography – Composing Myself – to its misfortunes.
In February 1948, Andrei Zhdanov, director of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy, had issued a decree on music, which stated that Russian composers should eliminate Western ‘bourgeois’ tendencies and embrace Socialist Realism. This was in turn adopted by the Soviet Composers’ Union, headed by Tikhon Khrenninov, and it soon became apparent that its guidelines would extend across the border into Poland.
It was against this backdrop that Panufnik wrote Sinfonia Rustica, based on northern Polish themes and an expression of his love for the country’s peasant music – and no doubt with one eye on its likely reception in Warsaw and Moscow. It appeared to have had the desired effect, being well received at its first performance and subsequently winning the Chopin Competition the following year.
Almost immediately afterwards, however, the ‘Russification’ of all aspects of Polish artistic life began to take hold. At a conference on the future direction of music in Łagow, Panufnik’s Nocturne was programmed and savagely criticised as ‘unsuitable for the broad masses’.
In 1950, at a meeting of the Polish Composers’ Union, attended by Khrenninov, the award-winning Sinfonia Rustica had its fate sealed in a matter of minutes. An attack on the work by a music critic and Communist Party member began a chain reaction of condemnation, which culminated in Polish Cultural Minister Włodzimierz Sokorski declaring, ‘Sinfonia Rustica has ceased to exist!’
The irony is that, with its rustic themes and use of folk melodies, it was a celebration of peasant life – the complete antithesis of bourgeois. It should, on the face of it, have fulfilled the brief of being ‘simple and understandable to the broad masses’. The vagueness of the Socialist Realism concept, however, meant that it was impossible to know whether a work would fall foul of the authorities.
During a tour to the Soviet Union soon afterwards, Panufnik made a throwaway remark about starting work on a Symphony of Peace. He hadn’t written a note of it, but the comment was immediately seized upon by the powers-that-be, whose enthusiasm for the project far exceeded his own. Panufnik was even moved into a Government Rest House, formerly owned by an aristocratic family, to ensure he was allowed to work on the symphony undisturbed.
While the concept of a three-movement choral symphony came fairly quickly, when it came to actually committing notes to paper Panufnik was bound up by anxiety. Mindful of the fate of his Sinfonia Rustica, and the requirement to conform to the elusive guidelines of Socialist Realism, progress was slow. And then a young girl of Irish parentage by the name of Marie Elizabeth O’Mahoney turned up at the Rest House and worked stopped altogether.
Everyone knew her as Scarlett, due to her resemblance to the lead character in Gone with the Wind, and despite her being there on honeymoon, she and Panufnik embarked upon a passionate affair. They were married the following July.
Panufnik did eventually deliver the score of his Symphony of Peace in time for its scheduled first performance in Spring 1951. Working to this deadline, and under the watchful gaze of the Ministry of Culture, it seems that Panufnik was less than totally happy with the finished piece. Nevertheless, at its première, he said that the ‘audience applauded with tremendous warmth’.
The authorities were less taken with it. It was awarded a State Prize, second class, which was roughly equivalent to damning it with faint praise. The minutes of the State Prize Committee stated that Panufnik’s artistic background, ‘has its roots in the formalist school’, and that by using medieval motifs, considered religious, the symphony ‘is not ideologically pure’. The Symphony of Peace had, indeed, met the same fate as the Rustica.
It seemed to Panufnik that, as his country’s leading composer, he was effectively being torn to shreds by the party zealots as an example to the younger generation. After his Heroic Overture was heavily criticised at an audition by a panel of judges in a seemingly premeditated attack, Panufnik stopped composing new music. And with Scarlett now expecting their first child – Oonagh, born in September 1952 – Panufnik had other priorities.
Matters eventually came to a head on a gruelling Chinese tour in Spring of 1953. Panufnik was reluctant to leave his young daughter, but was left under no illusion that it was his patriotic duty to go. Shortly before a gala concert in Beijing, attended by Mao Zedong himself, Panufnik received a short telegram wishing him ‘deepest sympathy’ – with no further explanation. Over a distorted phone line, he heard the devastating news that Scarlett, while bathing their daughter, had suffered an epileptic fit, and on regaining consciousness, she discovered that eight-month-old Oonagh had drowned. The distraught Panufnik begged to return home immediately, and although permission was granted, he was told he had to conduct the concert first.
Panufnik was a broken man, both emotionally and creatively, and he spent another year in Poland as, to use his own term, ‘a stuffed dummy of a composer’. In 1954, Panufnik was ordered to write letters to Western musicians to establish whether they would give their support to the Polish ‘Peace Movement’. Seeing this as a request to indirectly spy for Moscow, he decided there and then to leave Poland.
England was the obvious choice of destination. Scarlett’s family lived there, and as her father was seriously ill at the time, she could legitimately return on compassionate grounds. For Andrzej, however, a plan had to be hatched. First, a conducting engagement in Zurich was contrived. Then, with the help of Polish émigré friends in London, a flight from there to London was arranged through the British Foreign Office. While Panufnik was in Zurich, the authorities got wind of his plans, and ordered him to return to the Polish Legation. Instead, Panufnik gave the Secret Police the slip and, paying a taxi driver double to drive as fast as possible to lose his pursuers, he headed straight for the airport.
The Panufniks struggled financially during their early months in London after their defection. Andrzej set out to find work as a conductor, and tried to arrange performances of his works. The Symphony of Peace was given a revival in a performance in the Masonic Temple, Detroit under the baton of Stokowski. It once again received an enthusiastic reception, although Panufnik remained unhappy with the work and promptly withdrew it. The Sinfonia Rustica, in a slightly revised version, was conducted by the composer at the Proms in July 1955 and it too was extremely well-received.
Rejuvenated by these triumphs, Panufnik set about dismantling his withdrawn Symphony of Peace, and rebuilding it as his second catalogued symphony, the Sinfonia Elegiaca. Panufnik had considered the original work too long, although the surviving Polish radio broadcast lasts only 29 minutes – hardly Mahlerian. The musical language was of more concern to Panufnik, and the resulting Elegiaca is sparser and more direct.
The new work retained the symmetrical three-movement structure. The choral sections were, however, removed entirely and the original first movement provided the material for two new outer movements. Panufnik described these outer movement as laments for the dead, while the largely unchanged central movement – entitled Dramatico in the Symphony of Peace – was a dramatic protest against the inhumanity of war. He dedicated Sinfonia Elegiaca to the victims of the Second World War.
The drastic revision of the Symphony of Peace was not driven by a commission or promise of a performance, but appears to have been a purely cathartic exercise as Panufnik attempted to rescue the work from the painful association with the regime it was originally written to please. It apparently came as a complete surprise to Panufnik that the work was given its first performance in 1957 in Houston, by Stokowski.
Panufnik continued to find his early years in the UK something of a struggle. Occasional commissions came his way, but insufficient to provide a living. Life in the suburbs of London – where he lived next door to the Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. – did not provide him with the peace he craved to compose. Worst of all, his marriage to Scarlett was breaking down.
His financial situation improved after securing a two-year stint as principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), but that precluded any hope of composing. When he returned to London, he began work on his first new piece for three years, Autumn Music. By this time, he had been divorced from Scarlett, and had made the acquaintance of an ‘English rose’ by the name of Winsome Ward. Panufnik hoped that after the failure of his marriage to the socialite Scarlett he had found a woman with whom he could be truly happy.
It was not to be, however. Panufnik suspended work on Autumn Music to fulfil a lucrative conducting appointment in Buenos Aires, and when he returned, it was to the news that Winsome had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Panufnik now poured his heart into Autumn Music, saying in his autobiography:
… its theme of seasonal decline now cruelly apt alongside my heartbroken consciousness of a most precious human life in a different sort of decline – which would not be renewed by the coming of another spring.
It is a work of almost unbearable melancholy. Its second movement in particular, in which some of the most impassioned music Panufnik ever wrote soars above a tolling low B from the piano, tears at the heartstrings.
Against a backdrop of Winsome’s long and agonising decline, Panufnik began work on his third symphony to a commission from the Kościuszko Foundation to celebrate Poland’s Millennium Year – the Sinfonia Sacra. For this, Panufnik appropriately returned to his Polish roots and the Bogurodzica – the medieval hymn that had captivated him as an adolescent.
Part One of the symphony comprises three contrasting Visions: the first a fanfare for four trumpets; the second a calm and contemplative passage for strings in which the influence of Autumn Music can clearly be heard; the third a violent, percussion-driven depiction of war. Part Two is given over to a setting of the Bogurodzica. Beginning with barely audible violin harmonics, it swells through a ten-minute long crescendo to a powerful finale in which the opening fanfares return as shrill, out-of-key shrieks from the four corners of the auditorium.
Although Poland’s Millennium Year was actually 1966, the work was completed in 1963 and the financially compromised Panufnik decided to enter Sinfonia Sacra into that year’s Prince Rainier III Competition in Monaco. It won first prize out of 133 entries from 38 countries, and Panufnik, as well as welcoming the financial reward, saw this as a vindication of his artistic merit. The judging was anonymous, so there was no question of a politically motivated decision, and as Panufnik put it, ‘professionally at my lowest ebb, I needed the approval of that eminent international jury’.
The Sinfonia Sacra represents something of a turning point in Panufnik’s life. Apart from the international recognition it brought him, and the fillip it provided him with personally, it corresponds with a passage from his darkest period into possibly his happiest. Winsome Ward died from her illness during the early months of its composition, but by the time it was completed Panufnik had begun a relationship with the love of his life – Camilla Jessel. Camilla had been acting as Panufnik’s PA, having been introduced to him by the Foreign Office employee responsible for his defection, Neil Marten. Andrzej and Camilla were married in November 1963, a few months after his success in the Monaco competition. Sinfonia Sacra remains Panufnik’s most enduring and popular work, and is certainly the most frequently performed.
Meanwhile, back in his native Poland, Panufnik’s defection had come as a body blow to the communist regime. The inevitable steps were taken to denounce him as a traitor, declare him a ‘non-person’, and ban performances of his works. Neither his name nor his achievements could be published.
The Polish authorities had clearly been stung by the defection though, and, in a complete about-face, all restrictions on Polish composers had been lifted within a year. It was therefore quite ironic that, having left Poland in order to free himself from the restrictions of Socialist Realism, he now watched from afar as his former contemporaries, and up-and-coming composers such as Górecki and Kilar, started producing works at the very forefront of the avant garde.
The mid-Sixties were clearly a happy time for the newly-remarried Panufnik. Life in Twickenham was idyllic and he settled into domestic bliss. His output in the immediate aftermath of the success of Sinfonia Sacra was hardly prolific though, with his only significant new work being the Katyń Epitaph – dedicated to the 20,000 Polish officers murdered in Katyń Forest by the Russians during the Second World War.
The arrival of two children – a daughter, the composer Roxanna Panufnik, and a son, Jeremy – distracted him further from the business of composing. It was also clear that Panufnik was in something of a dilemma over his musical language, which he felt was stuck in the past, and relied too heavily on Polish themes. Panufnik resolved to develop a new way of expressing himself, and this manifested itself as an organic process in which an entire large-scale work could evolve from a tiny three-note cell. One of the earliest examples of this was in Triangles, a piece commissioned by BBC Television and broadcast in April 1972. The commission itself was an indication of Panufnik’s rising stock – he even went on to make a couple of appearances on the BBC TV panel show Face The Music!
The first use of this three-note cell approach in symphonic form came in Panufnik’s fourth symphony, the Sinfonia Concertante, for flute, harp and strings. It differs from its predecessor the Sacra, in almost every respect. The forces used are much reduced, and the sparser, almost minimalist thematic material makes for a far more austere sound world. It was a tenth wedding anniversary gift to his wife Camilla, and makes constant reference to her initial, the note C. The three-note cell is a C-D-A triad, in all inversions, reflected horizontally to form a melodic line. Secondary triads, as Panufnik refers to them, comprising the notes F-B-E are reflected vertically to form the accompaniment. The entire work evolves from this scant material, with the first molto cantabile movement treating it symmetrically and melodically, while the contrasting second molto ritmico movement is deliberately asymmetrical and dance-like.
Sinfonia Concertante was the first of four symphonies composed in just five years from the now-revitalised Panufnik. In his autobiography, the chapter covering this period in his life is entitled ‘Music Pouring From My Pen’, which accurately describes the most productive era in his creative life.
His fifth symphony, Sinfonia di Sfere (Symphony of Spheres) is a quite direct reference to his fascination with geometric patterns and how they might permeate a large-scale musical structure. Although it is a single-movement work, there are six sections in which the ‘Sphere of Tempo’ is explored from poco andante at the outset to molto allegro at the conclusion. There are five other ‘Spheres’ – Harmony, Rhythm, Melody, Dynamics, Structure – that are worked through as the symphony progresses. The circle influences every minute detail of Sinfonia di Sfere, even the percussionists are arranged around the platform in performance so that their sound constantly orbits the orchestra. Panufnik also records:
When the work was televised from the (circular) Royal Albert Hall in the 1978 Promenade season, the Television Director, Peter Butler, made brilliant use of every circular or spherical symbol he could find within the auditorium.
Panufnik returned to the theme of circles in his next symphony, the Sinfonia Mistica, written two years later. Being his sixth symphony, the music is infused by his fascination with the mathematical properties of the number six. Again, it has six sections, is in the metre of six. The thematic material is based on six triads, six melodic patterns and six melodic combinations.
Attempting to organise the chaos of dissonance was an issue that had exercised composers since the 1910s, and Panufnik’s choice to relate his music to geometric symbols was an attempt to provide a ‘spiritual, not a cerebral experience’, according to Antony Hopkins. While aesthetically pleasing, it has to be said that Sinfonia di Sfere and Sinfonia Mistica do rather lack the emotional power of Panufnik’s earlier works. This fact was not lost on the composer, who confessed that, as he sat in Middlesbrough Town Hall listening to the Northern Sinfonia giving Sinfonia Mistica its first performance, he felt he had gone too far in ‘allowing intellect to outstrip intuition’. Nevertheless, they are key works – studies of sorts – that enabled him to find his own voice as a composer.
The fourth in Panufnik’s cluster of mid-Seventies symphonies was his Metasinfonia of 1978. It was written for the unusual combination of organ, timpani and strings, and in it Panufnik made a conscious effort to redress the balance between ‘feeling and intellect, heart and brain, impulse and design’. The Nietzschian dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian in art has exercised most great artists at one time or another and the Metasinfonia represents the point at which Panufnik most consciously wrestled with the problem. Having written at great length about the schematic approach he took to its predecessors, even to the extent of providing diagrams in the score, Panufnik’s programme notes for Metasinfonia were far more concise, accepting that the technicalities of his compositional methods might be of little interest to the listener.
Panufnik admitted that Metasinfonia was more of an organ concerto than a symphony, and the dialogue between the soloist and the strings could, superficially, be seen as an embodiment of the Nietzschian argument at the work’s heart. Insofar as he would elaborate on the work’s geometric form, he described it as a double helix, with ‘the first half of the symphony spiralling towards the centre, the second concentrically and symmetrically working its way outward again’. With Metasinfonia, Panufnik felt he had found his feet again as a composer, and while it is by no means his most well-known work – quite probably the least-performed – it is a very strong piece that deserves greater familiarity.
While Panufnik was completely absorbed in his family and refining his compositional craft, he was oblivious to that fact that, back in his homeland, there had been a relaxation of the ban on him. He, along with other ‘non-persons’, could have his name published, but only in specialist publications and with the caveat that it was prohibited to ‘overpraise the creativity of these persons or to represent them in too favourable a light’. A typical example of this literature can be found in the book Twelve Polish Composers by B.M. Maciejewski, dating from 1976:
When Panufnik arrived in England he was 39 years of age. Today he is 60 and during that time he wrote one major work only – The Universal Prayer.
By that time, he had in fact produced five symphonies, a piano concerto, a violin concerto and numerous other orchestral works. There is reference to Sinfonia Sacra winning the Prince Rainier III Competition, but this is qualified with ‘two Polish composers from Warsaw also won prizes’, namely Rudziński and Bloch. Panufnik’s oeuvre was dismissed with the less than complimentary term ‘film music’.
As mentioned earlier, Panufnik had made a conscious decision to turn away from Polish themes for musical impetus. Whether it was the realisation that his works were now being performed in Poland again – most notably the Universal Prayer at the 1977 Warsaw Autumn Festival – that turned his mind back towards his country of birth is unknown. But when Panufnik was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a work for their centenary, developments in his homeland were at the forefront of his mind.
In August 1980, 17,000 shipbuilders at Gdańsk Shipyard defied a ban on industrial action and went on strike. The Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union was formed, led by shipyard electrician Lech Wałęsa, to become the first non-communist union in the Eastern Bloc. It was an act of great bravery that the Polish government eventually tried to crush by imposing martial law.
Panufnik noted that the striking workers wore on their lapels the image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – a sacred symbol of independent Poland – and he decided that his next symphony would be his own votive offering to the Black Madonna, hence its title: Sinfonia Votiva.
In many ways, the symphony is modelled on his Sinfonia Sacra. There are echoes of the Bogurodzica – the medieval hymn that dominated the Sacra – in the thematic material. The work is also in two sections: the first, marked Con devozione, is a slow and impassioned prayer of devotion reminiscent of Vision II from the Sacra, while the second, Con passione, is turbulent and aggressive, ending with what Panufnik described as ‘a shout of sheer protest’ against the lack of full independence in Poland. The fact that he chose metal percussion instruments for the tumultuous climax of the work was taken by many to be a direct depiction of the clanging of metal in the shipyard. Panufnik insists, however, that the idea had simply not occurred to him.
Framing these contrasting movements is another of Panufnik’s trademark geometric forms. In this case, as it was his eighth symphony, a figure of eight comprising two large circles representing the two sections of the symphony, with four smaller circles within each large circle to create eight in total. Again though, Panufnik sought not to let the form outweigh the impact of the piece, saying that ‘the structure … should for the listener remain an invisible skeleton holding in unity the musical material’.
By now, Panufnik was firmly established as one of Britain’s foremost composers. His seventieth birthday in 1984 was marked by many performances of his works. The CBSO invited their former conductor back for a performance of his Sinfonia Sacra, and Panufnik spent the evening of his birthday conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in performances of his Piano Concerto and Sinfonia Votiva.
The following year, Panufnik received his most prestigious commission to date when The Royal Philharmonic Society requested he write a ninth symphony for their 175th anniversary. He initially found this prospect daunting. The ninth has, of course, mythical connotations for a symphonist, and this was exacerbated in Panufnik’s mind when it was pointed out that the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s ninth.
Panufnik rose to the challenge, however, and produced his most ambitious work – the epic Sinfonia della Speranza (Symphony of Hope). He set himself the ‘formidable task of composing a continuous melodic line of about forty minutes’ duration’. It is comfortably the longest of his symphonies. However, its arching, rainbow structure and continuous melodic thread, give the piece a greater formal unity than any of his other large-scale works. Again, a three-note cell is the starting point. This time the cell acts as a prism creating, in Panufnik’s words, ‘a spectrum of colours … and shaping the melodic line’. This melody passes through a palindromic sequence of keys, starting and ending in E. In keeping with the recurring structural theme of arcs rather than spheres, the melodic line moves from high notes through the low register and symmetrically back to high.
Remarkably, the 74-year-old composer almost immediately set about working on his tenth Symphony, this time commissioned by his old friend Sir Georg Solti, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centenary. Having initially formed the idea of writing something akin to a concerto for orchestra, Panufnik decided instead to showcase their supreme sound quality, through different instrument combinations. He was drawn back to familiar themes: three-note cells and geometric forms. In contrast to the Sinfonia della Speranza, however, Symphony No. 10 is a tightly argued single-movement work of about 17 minutes’ duration. The invisible skeleton of the symphony is the so-called ‘golden ellipse’, which Panufnik ‘orbits’ one-and-a-half times, until ‘suddenly it straightens out into a new trajectory leading to the conclusion of the symphony’. The three-note cell is a familiar one: E-B-F, which he used in his first symphonic exploration of such organic development, his Sinfonia Concertante. In a glowing review, the Chicago Tribune wrote:
…it is not necessary to know geometry to be deeply affected by this music, by the typically ingenious manner in which it flowers from tiny thematic cells, by the hard, bright scoring and richness of incident. And it is this organic unity of idea and structure that allows Panufnik’s gestures to resonate with such urgency and power.
Having said at the outset that Panufnik’s story would make a very good film, there was something cinematic about how, in the final years of his life, a series of episodes reached a satisfactory conclusion. With glasnost and the collapse of the oppressive communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc, Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarność union in Gdańsk, was elected President of Poland in the first free democratic elections there since the war. With the communist regime consigned to history, Panufnik felt able to end his voluntary exile, and he made a triumphant return at the 1990 Warsaw Autumn Festival, which featured 11 of his works, including the tenth Symphony.
In 1991, he received the ultimate accolade from his adoptive country when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to British music. By that time though, Panufnik had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He died in October 1991, just weeks after receiving his knighthood.
In the 25 years since his death, Panufnik’s music has suffered from a degree of neglect, with numbers of performances seemingly declining. True, his centenary year of 2014 was marked with a series of high-profile concerts, and the panufnik.com website notes that there were over 420 performances worldwide to mark his centenary. Tellingly, however, the BBC Proms that year featured none of his works. In fact, the only Panufnik featured across the whole season was his daughter Roxanna, whose Three Paths to Peace was given its European première. This was an extraordinary oversight in a concert series that often features significant anniversaries. According to statistics provided by his publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, there have been just four performances of his symphonies in the UK since 2014, and three of those were given as part of a two-concert celebration by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in June 2015.
Britain has a long tradition of neglecting its own composers, and Panufnik is not alone in needing a champion to bring his music to the fore again. His story is, I’m sure you’ll agree, an extraordinary one, and few composers can have overcome so many obstacles to achieve success. His is a truly unique voice; in order to convey what he wanted to say he evolved his own language, and as a consequence his music is almost instantly recognisable. As one of a select group of knighted composers, his work should be more familiar to the classical music audience. Perhaps if there were a film of his life after all, he might gain a new generation of followers.
John Paul Hardy graduated in Music and Law from Keele University, where he studied composition with George Nicholson and Mike Vaughan. He now sings tenor with Durham Choral Society and Newcastle Bach Choir. His blog A Symphony A Day documents his challenge to listen to 365 different symphonies in 2017.
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