There is a stretch of the river in West London where the water takes a deep breath and reaches towards the path and the houses hidden from view. The hum of everyday traffic retreats, giving way to a certain stillness. The air is quiet, there is a palpable sense of peace. Only a bumblebee trapped inside the car, is beating its wings against the glass, trying to get out against all the odds, unwilling to relinquish its freedom.
Standing at the door of the family home of the late Polish composer, Sir Andrzej Panufnik, I ring the doorbell and the warmest smile greets me, that of his widow, Lady Camilla Jessel Panufnik. I am shown to a large room full of an astonishing collection of antique musical instruments.
“I’ve been collecting these since I was 10 years old,” she explains, lovingly picking up an old violin. “Did you ever play yourself?” I ask. “Oh yes, I did, until I married a man with perfect pitch!” she laughs, “I thought it wiser not to test his ears too much…”
The year 2014 is the Andrzej Panufnik Centenary Year, the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The celebratory Inauguration Concert took place recently at the Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra. Over this year, a string of concerts is planned across England, Scotland, Wales, Poland, USA, Germany, Austria, Latvia and Brazil. There will also be conferences, releases of both new and historical recordings, also lectures, workshops for young composers, new editions of his autobiography Composing Myself in English and Polish, and the first publication in English of his biography by Beata Bolesławska. It is surprising that such a prolific composer, often described as being ahead of his time, is not better known. But, of course, I know what happened to those who fled Poland in the time of Communist rule. They disappeared in a conspiracy of silence.
I asked how quickly they met, after his dramatic escape through Zürich, where he was conducting a radio recording in 1954. “I only met him in 1960, after his previous marriage ended,” she says. “He was the most adorable, witty, charming man. He had a very difficult childhood, with a musical family who never appreciated his own great passion for music. Except for his grandmother Henrietta Thonnes. It was in fact she who taught him the piano. She had some English connection from way back, and maybe even a Scandinavian one. It was his absolute choice to come to England. As a student he first studied conducting with a famous teacher in Vienna, unlike most Polish composers of his generation who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; he avoided this direction because he had been warned of her domineering style of teaching; I think they became such good friends just because she didn’t teach him.”
Had he ever claimed the influence of any particular composer? His music is so individual; one can’t put it into any distinct category.
“He said he was influenced by Mozart”. This is a surprise. “Andrzej never, of course composed in Mozart’s style. However, he felt that Mozart wrote with absolute purity and clarity, and he passionately admired Mozart’s ‘perfect balance between intellect and emotion’. When he was going to compose a new work, he sometimes thought and planned for months before he actually wrote one note. He would go to his studio every morning and in the afternoon he would go for walks by the nearby Thames and dream up his ideas, inspired by nature and the peace of the flowing river. Peace meant so much to him. He never had peace as a child. His father, a brilliant violinmaker, was either away during the WW1, or trying to make his Warsaw violin factory viable. (It is ironic that a collection of violins made by his father, that he had managed to save from the Nazis with the help of a German officer, was lost after he left them behind in his flat in Poland, inevitably taken by Communist officials.) The Panufniks were always having financial problems. They appeared to live comfortable lives, but often didn’t have any money and were in reality quite poor. His mother, a fine violinist, as a married woman was not allowed to play in public; it was not considered comme il faut in their society.
The young Andrzej begged his mother to be allowed to go to the Junior Music Conservatoire, but was too highly strung, and was thrown out because of his shyness and nervousness. He describes this sadness in his childhood eloquently in his autobiography, republished this autumn – Composing Myself (new Polish edition – Panufnik: autobiography). The only help he had came from his grandmother. Eventually, after some years he entered the main Music Conservatoire where, amongst others, he met Witold Lutosławski. They graduated together and later formed a famous piano duo during the Nazi occupation, playing in Warsaw ‘artistic’ cafés packed with a captive and captivated audience, at a time when ordinary concerts were banned. Andrzej said that, when they played together in the cafés, they used sometimes to terrify each other by adding in crazy improvisations in the middle of their careful arrangements of classical music, so that the unsuspecting partner in the music also had to improvise to keep pace. The delighted audience never suspected their private jokes on each other. It was a true partnership. Lutosławski had studied the piano more profoundly than Andrzej, but Andrzej had a natural facility. Between them they made over 200 two-piano versions of classical orchestral works; all except one were destroyed in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, along with all of Panufnik’s compositional output including two symphonies and many other admired early works. After the war, Andrzej wanted to bring classical music back for the Polish people, who were deprived of concerts during the German occupation. His first efforts were to restore Poland’s two main orchestras. Eventually, because of his growing international reputation, he found that he was considered to be Poland’s composer no. one, but, to his horror, under communism this resulted in shattering pressures and he was exploited against his will in politics.
This situation became intolerable and he could no longer compose, which was his only true desire in life. Following his escape to the West in 1954, having found the lack of freedom in his native land unbearable, his music was banned and the propaganda smear campaign began. His friend Lutosławski replaced him as composer number one in Poland, which of course Andrzej didn’t mind as it was the most natural official decision. But the worst thing was, first, the violent, lying accusations and then, the ongoing subtle propaganda against him, internationally as well as nationally. In Poland Andrzej’s music, even the writing of his name became banned, but in the silence there were many nasty whisperings of lies, ugly rumours. So many of these are coming to light today. For instance, they boasted that he was a Communist supporter – not true: he always refused to join the Communist Party despite all the pressures.
“A rumour that Andrzej and Witold Lutosawski had quarrelled was also a lie, though it was true they could not see each other for a while, mainly because of the political difficulties it would cause to Witold. They were trapped on either side of an invisible barrier of deceit.”
Did they keep in touch? “Andrzej wrote sometimes, always at Christmas, but did not hear from him for a long time. Possibly even Andrzej’s short letters were destroyed by the censors, and perhaps Lutosławski never saw them. Eventually Witold and his wife, Danuta, came to see us here, and after that we quite often saw them.
The propaganda was spread here amongst the diaspora too; Polish exiles people were also cunningly manipulated. I still hear echoes of those nasty whispers, ‘oh, your husband said this or did that.’ It was a very harmful and sustained campaign.”
So, was your husband a fighter? “Yes and no. No, he was not a fighter; his only wish was to find peace and quiet to compose more music and to explore his own musical language. But I suppose one could say he was fighting for his music. He had lost all the music he wrote up to the age of 30, and then experienced endless criticism from the communist authorities because his music was too experimental and did not fit in with the rules of Socrealism. In Poland, he no longer had the will, even the ability to compose. Here in England, he felt he had to make up for lost time and lost works. For a while he was the Chief Conductor and Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but didn’t renew his contract, he wanted to live quietly in the country in order to compose.
By then, his first wife had left him since he could not share her love of social life. It was a tragic marriage, especially because of the death of their only baby. When we met, for a long time he said he was never going to get married again, and even when we became engaged, he said he would never have children again because he needed complete peace to compose.”
And then he had two with you? Lady Camilla smiles, “Yes, eventually he changed his mind, and we had two wonderful children. It made him very happy, it helped him to put down roots. He was at peace. He was very close to his children. He adored both of them and gave them every encouragement to be creative.”
And, of course, Roxanna is a composer too. Did she choose music herself?
“Music chose her! When she was three years old, she said, she wanted a violin ‘with a stick to make it sing’. And she went on to learn to play eight instruments, very useful for a composer! Jeremy, our son, also composes music, but of a quite different kind; he is an artist, an illustrator and composer of electronica music. He collaborated with the director Krzysztof Rzączyński to make a film about his father My father, the Iron Curtain and me (Tata zza żelaznej kurtyny), which has been a great success in Poland.”
In 1977 Panufnik’s music was played for the first time in Poland after 23 years of almost complete exclusion. He was invited to come, but he continued to refuse all invitations to Poland. He wanted to remind people that he left as a protest against communism. His music was heard for three more years in the Autumn Festival’s (Warszawska Jesień), but was repressed again during the Martial Law period. This may have been because, in his important Centennial Commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he had composed Sinfonia Votiva, which was a votive offering to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, the symbol of Solidarity. Then, when he had a commission for a bassoon concerto, he composed it as a lament and prayer for Father Popiełuszko who was tortured and murdered by the Polish secret police. When his autobiography came out in 1987, the first chapters were secretly printed on an illicit press. The man who initiated this was arrested
When did your husband go back to Poland for the first time?
“He would not go until democracy had been re-established, so at last he went in 1990, the year before he died, for the Warsaw Autumn Festival, where 11 of his works were performed. We had the most wonderful welcome, greeted when we landed by a crowd of people with red roses and his Fanfare, being played right inside the airport. There was a standing ovation at the concerts. But also he was sad, as so many people that he loved and wanted to see again were now dead. He tried without success to find his old home in Warsaw, where his brother, the Polish undergrand army (AK) wireless operator and fighter, had died in an explosion. But happily some were there; we had supper with Witold and Danuta Lutosławski in their apartment, a warm meeting of old friends.
I ask Lady Camilla about her favorite piece of her husband’s music?
“It has to be Sinfonia Sacra, because he was writing that when we were falling in love. Suddenly everything was going right. He was happy. We were happy.”
So, he felt at home in England? “Yes. Once he had a home, which was his own. I was lucky enough to be able to make his life more comfortable. My parents helped us a lot. They adored him too. They were at first rather surprised that I married someone twice my age and from somewhere else, but they loved him, even my father who was tone-deaf and didn’t like classical music at all! We were lucky, we were meant to be together. He was such a gentle, sensitive, fascinating man. He was also very supportive of my work.”
Camilla Jessel (she writes under her own name) is currently writing her 28th book illustrated with her own photographs. She has also had photo exhibitions in London, Paris, New York, Warsaw, Kraków and Katowice. Her next book is to be published under the name Camilla Jessel Panufnik.
A few months before Andrzej Panufnik died a brown envelope arrived addressed to him. He thought it was a bill. When he opened it, he thought it was a joke, but it turned out to be true. The letter was from the British Prime Minister, saying that it was the intention of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to make him a knight of the realm.
Sir Andrzej Panufnik, the composer of 10 symphonies, 4 concertos, vocal works, chamber music, ballets and instrumental pieces for young players, died in October 1991. That same year, he was granted an honorary doctorate by the Warsaw Academy of Music, was made an RAM of the Royal Academy of Music, and was awarded the Polonia Restituta Medal posthumously by President Lech Wałęsa.
Impressed by all the musicians who came to this house, I asked Camilla if she had kept a guest book of visitors, a diary…
“I wish I had,” she said, but I was always too busy, and I thought I would remember everyone.
I tell her that my favorite piece of Panufnik’s music is Autumn Music (1962, revised 1965). For me, his music is very three-dimensional, I can almost see it, its colours, its shapes, hanging in the air against a different background, notes loud and clear, one can almost touch them, it’s a composition in space. And then suddenly, there are these strange sounds, dark, mourning notes, striking, becoming insistent, inevitable; you can’t get rid of them. A clock striking?
“You are right. He started composing this in a happy mood, but then he heard that his dear friend, Winsome Ward was dying of cancer, so those clock-like strokes are a symbol of the inevitable passing of time and of life.”
We say our goodbyes and I leave full of wonder at the love and the home full of the peace that Andrzej Panufnik, after such a fight for the freedom to compose, found near the river Thames.
Returning to the car, I open the door and carefully let the bumblebee out into the park, to freedom. Better to rescue it – too precious, too few of them in the world.