Andrzej Panufnik (1914 — 1991) is one of the most important and original symphonic composers of the second half of the 20th century. His output includes ten symphonies, with centenary commissions from Sir Georg Solti for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The London Symphony Orchestra commissioned three works from him, and recorded many more of his works under the direction of Jascha Horenstein and then of the composer himself. Leopold Stokowski premiered several of his works in the USA and England. Gennady Rozhdestvensky recorded his Hommage à Chopin in Leningrad. The young Evelyn Glennie first came to prominence winning the Shell-LSO Scholarship with his Concertino for Timpani, Percussion & Strings; this work later received its US premiere conducted byAndré Previn. Yehudi Menuhin commissioned his Violin Concerto for the Windsor Festival and recorded it with Panufnik conducting. Mstislav Rostropovich premiered and recorded his Cello Concerto with the LSO, and the Royal Philharmonic Society commissioned his Ninth Symphony, which was premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. In addition to four concertos, he composed three string quartets, three cantatas and many works for chamber and string ensembles.
Born in Warsaw, Panufnik started to compose at the age of nine. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatoire with Distinction in both composition and conducting, developing his classical conducting skills as a favourite pupil of Felix Weingartner at the Vienna Academy, and then studying French Impressionist composers with Philippe Gaubert in Paris, with further music explorations in London. Just before the outbreak of World War II Panufnik returned to Warsaw to look after his parents.
In Nazi-occupied Poland, with public concerts banned, he arranged a massive amount of classical music for two pianos which he played as a duo in “artistic cafés” with his friend and contemporary Witold Lutosławski; also performing with his Jewish violinist friend Tadeusz (known post-war as Thadé Geisler). Despite the Nazi terror in Warsaw, at great personal risk he conducted illegal concerts and composed patriotic resistance songs, including the still-famous Warszawskie Dzieci. During the war he lost most of his closest relatives, as well as every note of music he had composed in his first 30 years, including two symphonies, destroyed by fire during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
In 1945 the 31-year-old Panufnik, eager to help the revival of classical music post-war, was appointed chief conductor of the Kraków Philharmonic Orchestra, having to seek out instrumentalists, old and young, scattered all over Poland. Then, in 1946 he was similarly asked to restore the Warsaw Philharmonic to life.
In those early post-war years, he began to reconstruct his lost symphonies and other works, but soon decided he must bury the past and start afresh. He kept only three restorations, his Five Polish Peasant Songs, the Piano Trio (his Opus 1) and Tragic Overture (dedicated to his courageous brother Mirek, a radio operator in the Polish Underground). He won international admiration and honours in his own country, the originality of those mid-1940s works establishing him as the “father” of the Polish avant-garde.
After 1948, with the imposition of Soviet Socialist Realism, Panufnik’s situation changed dramatically. As Poland’s leading composer, greatly respected throughout Europe, he was under much more intense pressure than his compatriots, bullied to write according to the Soviet imposition of Socialist Realism, artificially “positive” music composed according to the dictates of the authorities. Everything he composed of value was condemned as “western, bourgeois, decadent”. In 1949, the centenary of Chopin’s death, he was elected Vice-President of the Music Council of UNESCO, though the Polish authorities never allowed him to attend any connected ceremonies or concerts. He worked tirelessly to try to obtain better financial and other help for his fellow composers and cared deeply about the future of Polish music; however, creatively stultified by criticism, restrictions and intolerable political pressures, he ceased to be able to compose, the driving force of his life thus extinguished. In 1954 he made a dramatic escape from Poland as a protest against Communist control over creative artists, and this resulted in a raft of vicious propaganda and lies put out about him followed by total censorship of his name and his music in Poland for 23 years.
Panufnik was a shy man, disliking public life, and his greatest desire was to live quietly and compose in peace. He settled in England, Boosey & Hawkes became his publishers, and from 1957 to 1959 he served as Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, his last official position before deciding to dedicate his life entirely to composition. He took British nationality in 1961.
Life in England was not easy for him. He was independent from the current fashion in composition which dominated the BBC, Paris and New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and stuck to his own aesthetic of constantly seeking new forms and “the perfect balance between intellect and emotion, heart, and mind” in his works. Avoiding publicity (and eschewing the financial gain that would have come with public fame), he managed to disappear almost entirely from the musical scene; at last, however, unfettered by politics or conducting, the subsequent years became the most freely creative of his life. In 1963 Panufnik won the coveted Monaco composition prize for his still most widely loved and admired work, Sinfonia Sacra. In the same year he married the author and photographer Camilla Jessel; they settled in her grandmother’s old house by the Thames in Twickenham with a peaceful studio at the end of their garden where he could compose uninterrupted. His two children, Roxanna, also a classical composer and Jem, a graphic artist, DJ and composer of electronica, both grew up influenced by his joy in his creative work. By the 1970s Panufnik, though still shy of publicity and deep in his work, was very much part of British musical life and his music was performed by most of Britain’s leading orchestras, with performances at the BBC Proms and at many LSO concerts.
Eventually, from 1977, Panufnik works were gradually performed in the ever-innovatory Warsaw Autumn Festival thanks to the insistence of his fellow Polish composers. Having left as a protest, he refused to return to Poland while the Communists were still in power. In 1990, when democracy was restored, he made a momentous return to the city of his birth for the performance of eleven of his works at the Festival. He was greeted on the airport tarmac by a crowd carrying red roses and brass players performing his Fanfare.
Panufnik’s autobiography, Composing Myself, was published in 1987. He received a knighthood for services to British Music in 1991 and a posthumous Order of Polonia Restituta from President Lech Wałęsa in Poland.
Works by Andrzej Panufnik
- Modlitwawith Roxanna Panufnik (Composer)
- Song of the Virgin Mary
Festival performances of works by Andrzej Panufnik
- Gala Concert on Saturday 16 May 2015 at St Pancras Parish Church
- Lunchtime Recital on Tuesday 13 May 2008 at St Pancras Parish Church
Recorded performances of works by Andrzej Panufnik
- Song of the Virgin Mary performed by The Marian Consort / Rory McCleery Conductor