First published in The Herald on 17 June, 2015
A BBC orchestra devoting an entire weekend of concerts to the music of Andrzej Panufnik? The notion would have been unimaginable for most of the composer’s life. When Panufnik arrived in the UK in 1954, having fled a communist Poland that no longer allowed him the artistic freedom he needed to compose, his lush, expressive orchestral music found scant favour with the broadcaster’s new music programmers: they were preoccupied with a kind of arch-modernism that Panufnik never fully embraced. He would later joke that he went “from Number One to No One at All” — from Poland’s foremost post-war composer to an outmoded London refugee.
For years Panufnik was content enough to compose in privacy, but eventually the British music establishment caught up with him. There are several Scottish connections here: Jerzy Maksymiuk, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor from 1983-1993, played a key role in championing his music, and Panufnik himself conducted a Scottish Chamber Orchestra tour to mark his 75th birthday. He enjoyed the partnership so much that when he finally returned to post-communist Poland in 1990 and was asked to bring a UK orchestra with him, he invited the SCO. It was the year before he died.
The 2014 centenary of Panufnik’s birth saw more than 400 performances of his music in 26 countries. Two orchestral concerts during this coming weekend’s BBCSSO bonanza include his finest symphony, the Symphony Sacra, his lyrical Violin Concerto and his orchestral elegy Lullaby, plus a programme of solo piano works performed by Ewa Kupiec. I asked the composer’s widow Camilla what her husband would have made of all the attention. “He would be bemused, yes,” she replied, “and he would have been pleased. He was human. He refused to promote himself, but of course he liked his music to be heard.”
Born in Warsaw just months after the outbreak of the First World War, his father Tomasz was an excellent violin maker — David Oistrakh played one of his instruments — and his mother Matylda was a remarkable musician; the couple had met when she arrived at his shop to try out a violin. The young Andrzej lapped up American jazz through his brother Mirek’s homemade crystal radios and in the 1930s travelled to Vienna, Paris and London to pursue studies in composition. But as many Polish artists fled the Nazis at the end of the decade, Panufnik returned home to be with his family.
Few cities suffered the war as brutally as Warsaw: an unfathomable 80 per cent of the Polish capital was destroyed. Panufnik managed to eke out a survival playing piano duets in cafes with the composer Witold Lutoslawski — to have heard their versions of Tchaikovsky ballets, Brahms waltzes and Duke Ellington standards! — but he suffered huge personal losses. In 1944 his brother, a radio operator for the resistance, was killed in a bomb. “Miraculously Andrzej’s own apartment was not destroyed,” Camilla told me, “but a woman had been living there during the war and when he returned he found she had tidied up all his papers by burning them.” He lost almost everything, including his first two symphonies, and at the age of 30 was faced with the prospect of starting again from scratch. He rewrote one of the symphonies but later destroyed that, too. According to Camilla, “he was always too much of a perfectionist.”
In the years just after the war Panufnik wrote some of his most beautiful music: the Lullaby and the orchestral Nocturne, about which he wrote, “I was escaping reality, weaving for myself a kind of night vision, as in a dream.” He composed several film scores, too, and helped to resuscitate the Krakow and the Warsaw orchestras, but his prominence meant the authorities used him for propaganda — he headed a cultural delegation to China and Mongolia in 1953. Increasingly, the aesthetic diktats of Social Realism made life impossible. He couldn’t write the music he heard in his head.
“He had been taking Polish music to a new level,” Camilla said, referring to works such as Twelve Miniature Studies and Lullaby, whose quarter-tone experiments hinted at the shape of Polish avant-garde to come. “But the Communists were basically banning everything that wasn’t in C-major.” Eventually Panufnik became depressed and stopped composing altogether. Under the ruse of a recording session at Swiss Radio in Zurich, he travelled to the UK and applied for political asylum. He was labelled a traitor in Poland, where his music was officially banned until 1977.
I asked Camilla why Panufnik chose to settle in the UK. He had ancestral links here, she explained, but there was something else that drew him to London. “He knew he would get privacy. He had lived a tragic life, coping with the war then the imposition of communism and the lack of free expression that entailed. He wanted to be left alone. He didn’t want to discuss his music.”
To make ends meet he was director of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1957-1959, and Camilla described meeting him shortly after. “He was hugely admired in Birmingham but he chose not to renew his contract. When I met him he was completely broke but still determined to compose. He wasn’t a religious man but he was deeply spiritual, with a strong sense of faith and a strong sense of purpose. He could have had a great career as a conductor, but deep down he knew he needed to compose.”
She was 20 years his junior, a glamorous photographer from a wealthy London family. “We got married when he was 49 — I thought that seemed frightfully old, but he was always a very attractive man! I’d been wandering around America for a couple years and was just back in London staying with my parents. I was bored out of my skull so volunteered for the local MP, Neil Marten, who knew I was crazy about music and sent me to help this Polish composer who hadn’t been answering letters and clearly needed some support. Basically he needed a quiet home and someone to cook for him. He was much happier once I provided that.”
The image Camilla paints is of a quiet family man — one of the couple’s two children is the composer Roxanna Panufnik — who composed symphonies in his head while walking along the Thames near their home in Twickenham. “He was a purist. He didn’t even listen to music. I would find him reading the score of a Beethoven symphony and I’d say, ‘look, we’ve got a CD player, shall I put it on?’ And he’d reply, ‘no, I want to hear it as I imagine’.”
“But that makes him sound awfully stern,” she continued, “which he wasn’t. He was very sweet and had a wicked sense of humour. He would watch football on television. And he always listened to the news. His whole life had been wrapped up in world events. He lived through all the political turmoil the 20th century could throw at him but he never stopped engaging in the world around him.”
The BBCSSO plays the music of Andrzej Panufnik at City Halls, Glasgow, on June 20 & 21