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The Life and Works of Andrzej Panufnik
by Beata Bolesławska, translated by Richard J. Reisner
Hardback, 350pp, published 2015
ISBN: 9781409463290
Ashgate Publishing Company

Andrzej Panufnik is one of four Polish composers who changed the face of that country’s music: the others were Witold Lutosławski (1913-94), Krzystof Penderecki (b.1933) and Henryk Górecki (1933-2010). In the United Kingdom, certainly, he is sadly undervalued. One of the most important and innovative of the émigré composers who arrived in Britain to escape Fascism or Communism, his musical style has been seen as too modern by traditionalists and too conservative by the ‘Glockian’ avant-garde in the 1950s and 60s.

There is no need to give a detailed biography of the composer in this review. There is ample information in the standard reference works as well as Wikipedia, and the Panufnik webpages. A few brief notes will suffice. Andrzej Panufnik was born in Warsaw on 24 September 1914. After study in Warsaw, Paris and London, he went to Vienna to master conducting with Felix Weingartner. During the tragic war years, he performed as a concert pianist with his fellow composer Witold Lutosławski. After the war, Panufnik worked with the Krakow Philharmonic and was instrumental in the re-formation of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. He was regarded as one of Poland’s most significant composers and conductors. However, he became disenchanted with ‘socialist realism’ as demanded by the Communist authorities. Panufnik defected to the United Kingdom in 1954. He and his music were ‘officially’ forgotten in Poland. After two years as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra he decided to concentrate wholly on composition. He took British citizenship in 1961. In 1991, the year of his death, he was awarded a Knighthood. His native country gave him a posthumous award of the Polonia Restituta Medal. Panufnik’s catalogue includes ten symphonies, eight or so concerted works, three string quartets and a number of vocal pieces. Many of his early compositions have been lost or destroyed. His most ‘popular’ work would appear to be the Concerto for violin and strings, commissioned by Menuhin in 1971. He is reasonably well-represented on CD, with most of his works available in at least a single recording.

Andrzej Panufnik’s life and music has been explored in some detail in books, essays, thesis and websites. Clearly, his Polish background results in much of the literature being written in that language. The first attempt to provide a scholarly overview of Panufnik’s achievement in English, was written by the composer and writer Harold Truscott (Tempo, Autumn/Winter 1960). This is still a valuable introduction to his music. Other articles followed, including Peter French’s ‘The Music of Andrzej Panufnik’ (Tempo Spring, 1968) and a similarly entitled submission by Stephen Walsh (Tempo, December 1974). Truscott was to revisit his theme with his article ‘The Achievement of Andrzej Panufnik’ (Tempo, December 1987) and ‘The Symphonies of Andrzej Panufnik’ (Musical Times, July 1989).

A major source for musical historians is the composer’s autobiographical Composing Myself, published in 1987, some four years before his death. This account majors on his life and times in Poland and England, rather than providing a detailed commentary on the music. Included is some discussion, albeit non-technical, of his methodology for the ‘manipulation’ of three note cells. A further short booklet by the composer was Impulse and Design in my Music (London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1974). There is an unpublished doctoral thesis, An Analytical Study of the Music of Andrzej Panufnik by Christopher Stasiak (Belfast, 1990). An engaging introduction to Panufnik and his contemporaries is presented in Bernard Jacobson’s The Polish Renaissance (Phaidon Press, 1996). There are the usual dictionary and encyclopaedic references to Panufnik, as well as a plethora of reviews of concerts, CDs and scores. As noted above, there is a comprehensive website dedicated to Panufnik, which includes a catalogue of his music, sound samples, a good bibliography and a discography of past and current recordings.

Beata Bolesławska is ideally qualified to have written this present book. She studied at the Institute of Musicology at Warsaw University, and has made a major input to the scholarly investigation of 20th century Polish music. Her CV refers to a number of important contributions to the literature of Polish Music in general and Panufnik in particular. In 1998, she offered her Master’s thesis to the Institute of Musicology, Symmetry in Andrzej Panufnik’s Symphonies: Theories and Practice. Her doctoral thesis completed whilst studying at Cardiff University, was Symphony and Symphonic Thinking in Polish Music after 1956. (2010). She has published many articles and essays for musicological journals in Poland and abroad. Bolesławska has written much material for websites devoted to Gorecki and Panufnik. Between 1997 and 2005 she worked for the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music and latterly she has been employed by the Culture Channel TVP (Kultura) on Polish TV. Beata Bolesławska is active in the Polish Composers’ Union. In 2001, Bolesławska was commissioned by the Polish State Music Publishers to write a monograph about Panufnik. The present book is a reworking of this volume conveniently translated into English by Richard J. Reisner.

The concept of The Life and Works of Andrzej Panufnik is threefold: firstly, to present the course of Panufnik’s ‘eventful life’, secondly, to ‘explain the controversies that grew up around the composer’ in Poland and the United Kingdom. And thirdly, to examine his music by way of reception history, notes by the composer on his own music, and the author’s musical analysis. Bolesławska’s source materials include documents from the ‘Stalinist’ period of Poland’s history, as well as interviews with many people who knew and worked with the composer.

Any study of Panufnik’s music has to consider a number of influences: these include the strong bond with the musical traditions of Poland, the folk music of that country, his religious faith, the landscape and aesthetic concepts of symmetry. The composer himself was always open in discussing his ‘musical inspirations’ whether in scores, concert programmes or interviews. Beata Bolesławska concedes that this study does not include a ‘thorough analysis of all his compositions, or lengthy studies of individual scores’. This is a task for scholars in the future. The main thrust of the argument is Panufnik’s use of symmetry and geometrical patterns as ‘pre-composition techniques’ for any ‘future piece.’ The key compositional aim was to ‘strive towards a perfect balance between the form, the construction of the work and its emotional content.’

This analytical section of the book is a consideration of this symmetry in his music. The four chapters examine this in terms of the composer’s ‘self-reflection’, in ‘harmony and tonality’, in the musical syntax (how it appears on paper) and finally in ‘form.’ The author acknowledges that this is of necessity ‘brief.’

In spite of Bolesławska’s wish to appeal to ‘a broader public not well versed in musicology’ her ‘detailed analyses’ of Panufnik’s music does require some grounding in 20th century musical theory in order to gain benefit from these pages.

As an example of her modus operandi, I refer to one of my personal favourite pieces of Panufnik’s music: the beautiful Lullaby for string instruments and two harps. It was one of the first Polish works to utilise quarter-tones (the gap between C and C# etc.) . This serves as an excellent example of Bolesławska’s approach to the music. She notes that the idea came to him during a stay in London in 1947. He had been invited to the capital to conduct a concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Bolesławska quotes from Composing Myself, how Panufnik had paused ‘one night on Waterloo Bridge…[watching] the river’s flow and the night sky over the misty city prompted the idea…’ Panufnik explained that the music was on three planes: the pulsating rhythm of harps representing the gentle flow of the river, solo string instruments, some moving in quartertones for the drifting clouds and, as the same moon was looking down on London as on Poland, the pentatonic (e.g. black notes only on piano) song of a Polish peasant, played on a succession of string instruments. Bolesławska then quotes comments from essays by Nigel Osborne, and the Polish critics Stefan Kisielewski, S. Lobaczewska and Z. Mycielski to complete the ‘scholarly reception history.’ Further reference is made to Lullaby in her comments on ‘Symmetry in Terms of Harmony and Tonality’, pointing out that the work, along with Nocturne was considered by some musicologist to be avant-garde, and therefore suggested to some critics that Panufnik was ‘the father of the Polish school of composers in the 1960s.’ It is a profitable way of studying this book, taking trajectories of compositions derived from the index and reading the associated references.

Of considerable interest to readers is the ‘Chronological List of Compositions’. Bolesławska does not claim that this is a complete listing, and indicates that incidental music written for films and radio plays is not included. The earliest work referred to are the ‘Cabaret Songs’ dating from 1931 (now lost) whilst the final major work is the Cello Concerto, completed in 1991. The very last piece Panufnik was working on before his death was a revision of the gorgeous Love Song (1976) in a version for soprano, harp (or piano) and string orchestra. For full details the reader will probably (I have not seen this volume) need to consult the Krystyna Jaraczewska-Mockałło, Andrzej Panufnik: Katalog dzieł i bibliografia [Catalogue of Works and Bibliography] Series,1997, assuming they can get a hold of a copy. I would have appreciated details of first performances and revisions, if and where appropriate. Much of this information is available on the website noted above.

I am not convinced by the format of the bibliography in this book: it is presented at the end of each chapter, as opposed to the end of the book. This means that various essays and volumes are cited more than once. It also becomes difficult to find cross references. Although Harold Truscott, for example, is cited in the chapter-end bibliographies, he does not feature in the index. There is no detailed information about the location of primary source material such as scores, letters, diaries etc.

The Life and Works of Andrzej Panufnik concludes with an index which lists people and places associated with the composer’s life and times as well as his musical works. The book is well produced on high quality paper and is well-bound. The printed text is in a relatively small, but well defined, font. The translation has been well done: I have had little cause to feel that I was ‘missing something’ from the original Polish.

There are a number of plates featuring the composer, his family, friends and colleagues. These are printed on standard paper, so are not like ‘plates’. The analytical section of the book is well illustrated with extracts from Panufnik’s scores, with diagrams and tables of compositional processes.

The biographical details presented in The Life and Works of Andrzej Panufnik will be of interest not only to musical historians, but also to students of ‘social realism’ and the impact of Stalinist dogma on the arts. As noted above I found examining individual works by way of the index helpful: this is extremely useful to the engaged listener in exploring the music.

As the first monograph about Panufnik’s music to appear in English, this book will clearly appeal to scholars, critics and reviewers of his music. Yet, there is always a danger with a composer like Panufnik that he will be only approached by enthusiasts and intellectuals who wish to discuss his music without really listening to it, and, more to the point, savouring it. My explorations of Panufnik’s work suggests that his style will (or ought to) appeal to a wide range of musical tastes: this book will help present a framework for enjoying and appreciating his compositions.

Panufnik will never be a regular on Classic FM, but with the CDs and YouTube files available, there is little excuse for the listener not being able to explore his ‘individual and original’ music.

John France



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