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About Andrzej Panufnik
Andrzej Panufnik was living proof that genius is exportable. Without compromising his Polish roots, he became a British citizen, and eventually reached full stature as a composer in his adopted country, but it was not an easy transition.
Son of a leading violinmaker, he studied with Sikorski at the Warsaw Conservatory and Weingartner in Vienna. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, he kept the creative spark alive in the Polish underground, where he became a friend of Witold Lutoslawski and was conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra from 1945 to 1946. His first serious work, the Tragic Overture, composed in 1944, was followed in 1949 by Homage to Chopin, for soprano and piano (or -- an early example of Panufnik's readiness to encourage freedom of musical expression -- for flute and strings).
By 1954, Panufnik was Poland's leading composer, but Russian domination was making artistic freedom impossible; in 1956, while on a recording trip to Switzerland, he boarded a flight to London with no intention of returning to his native country. For some years, he was treated coldly by the British musical intelligentsia. His style was neither traditionally tonal nor fashionably serial; but it certainly sounded "un-British," and for nine years, none of his music was broadcast by the BBC. (American audiences were to prove more responsive).
At his home in Twickenham near the River Thames, Panufnik continued to work on symphonies constructed from small cells of two or three notes arranged in geometric forms, somewhat akin to Webern. By the end of his life, Panufnik had written ten symphonies, including Sinfonia Elegiaca, premiered in Boston in 1957 by Stokowski.
Much of his work reflects the sufferings of the war and its aftermath. It is easy to see why Panufnik would not have survived as an artist under a Stalinist dictatorship. The composer exacted his own bleak revenge: Katyn Epitaph (again premiered by Stokowski in 1968) exposed the massacre of 15,000 Polish officers executed on Stalin's orders. Sinfonia Votiva (premiered in Boston by Seiji Ozawa in 1982) celebrates the popular uprising against Communist rule in the form of a votive offering to the "black Madonna," a statue in Gdansk where the first blows for Polish freedom were struck. After the solo cadenza that opens the Violin Concerto written in 1972 for Yehudi Menuhin, the soloist is (unusually) allowed to decide both the tempo and overall interpretation of the whole work, perhaps yet another symbol of the freedom Panufnik had demonstrated by his own self-exile.
After the collapse of Communism in Poland, Panufnik's reputation there was quickly re-established, and his music became part of the militant modernism for which the country was noted in the liberalization that followed. In Britain, where he conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1957 to 1959, his music was gradually becoming better-known, with performances in London of the Symphony of the Spheres (1976) and Ninth Symphony (1987). The Tenth Symphony was premiered in Chicago in 1990.
When his last work, a cello concerto written for Rostropovich, was played in London in 1990, Panufnik had achieved full recognition in his adopted country. In 1987, he wrote a revealing biography called Composing Myself.
- Warsaw, Poland
- 24 Sep 1914
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