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My personality is very Polish
2018.12.17 / Oleńka Hamilton
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I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, which is one of the best Polish traits. We feel very deeply, I feel everything very deeply. I wasn’t an easy child,’ Roxanna Panufnik tells me over tea in South West London, where she lives with her husband, a banker – ‘he has a sensible job’ –, and her three teenage children.

‘When I was three years old, I saw Ida Haendel playing the violin on the TV and I decided I was going to be a virtuoso violinist, but I wasn’t interested in playing other people’s music. I would make up my own concertos, find an orchestra on the radio and play along and it would be awful and hideous.’

It wasn’t until she discovered the French romantics – Faure, Poulenc, Ravell – some years later that Panufnik came around to the idea of playing ‘other people’s music’.

As measured and self-assured today at 50 as she was at three, Panufnik was clearly destined to try her hand at composition – which might have seemed obvious given that she is of course the daughter of Sir Andrzej Panufnik, the celebrated Polish composer who escaped Soviet-occupied Poland in 1954 and came to Britain where he forged a hugely successful career.

‘It’s inevitable that he’s influenced me,’ says Panufnik, who is half-Polish, half-English, the daughter of Sir Andrzej’s second wife, the photographer Camilla Panufnik. Just 23 when her father died, as a child she would come and tap on his window when he was composing, despite strict instructions not to disturb him. ‘He was incredibly loving and everyone knew him as a very deeply profound man, but he had a really wicked sense of humour,’ she recalls. ‘We both like simultaneous major-minor harmonies, but I do it more and probably go a bit over board with it. Once I heard his voice in my head six years after he had died saying – ‘Roxanna, clean up your harmonies!’

Panufnik has come a long way since then. A successful composer in her own right for over two decades now, she is regularly commissioned by orchestras across Europe. While her father wrote mostly symphonic and instrumental music, Rocanna has forged her own path, writing mainly religious and spiritual music and choral compositions which incorporate a lot of world music. Her big break came at the age of 30, when she was commissioned to write the Westminster Mass, which galvanised a lot of attention at the time, and continues to be played today.

Earlier this year, her oratorio Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, was performed at The Last Night of the Proms to commemorate the First World War centenary celebrations. ‘The best 50th birthday present a composer can get from the BBC,’ she says. Written for two choirs and two orchestras, the piece combined poems from two poets, Kahlil Gibran and Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed in action seven months before the Armistice. The combination of Gilbran, a Christian from Lebanon, and Rosenberg, a Lithuanian Jew, is typical of Panufnik’s interest in writing eclectic, multi-faith music.

Her Polish roots also play a prominent part in her composition. This November, in fact, Panufnik was in Poland for the centenary of its independence, where The National Radio Orchestra of Poland (NOSPA) in Katowice performed her second oratorio, Faithful Journey – a Mass for Poland / Wierna podróż – Msza za Polskę. The piece was co-commissioned to mark the occasion by NOSPA and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), the latter which has particular poignance as having been the first orchestra her father worked with when he came to Britain.

‘I love Poland,’ says Panufnik, who is learning Polish and has just acquired Polish citizenship. ‘I feel at home there, and my personality is very Polish. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, which is one of the best Polish traits. We feel very deeply, I feel everything very deeply. My music is very, very emotional and dramatic. I find I really connect with Polish people, and especially with other Polish musicians.’

The oratorio incorporates ‘some of Poland’s finest poets of the last hundred years, in Polish and English, framing a Latin Mass and incorporating traditional Polish folk music and its sometimes soulful, sometimes quirky, elements,’ Panufnik explains. The opening poem, for instance, is Barwy Narodowe, which commemorates the years 1918-1928 and is about the birth of the Polish flag, while the next poem, representing the following decade which was relatively peaceful, is a pastoral poem. ‘I wanted to celebrate both the centenary of Poland becoming an independent state and my own first half century of life with a meaningful tribute to my Anglo-Polish roots.’

Panufnik listened to 538 tracks of Polish folk music in preparation. Her favourite eight are in the piece, either as little bits of the melody or more subtly woven into a harmony or an accompaniment. The result, she says, is ‘a very Polish sound’. It is the scales which differentiate Polish folk music from other varieties, Panufnik explains. In a normal scale of ‘C’, for instance, the fourth note – the ‘F’ – will often be raised. ‘I always think it sounds like it’s being performed with a raised eyebrow, a cheeky question mark. It has a particular sound, and you can tell you are moving east somehow.’

Not the first composer to have been influenced by
Polish folk music, with Chopin and Szymanowski being prime examples, Panufnik’s interest stems back to a book of Polish folk music from the Tatra mountains which her father gave her. He was, she says, hugely encouraging, overjoyed by her interest in composition. Not that she paid any attention to him at the time. ‘I feel really bad now because I would play him something and as soon as he would start offering something constructive my ears would switch off as they do with parents.’

Roxanna Panufnik’s return to Poland this November for the performance of Faithful Journey – A Mass for Poland as a Polish citizen may have added significance for the family. ‘My father had such a traumatic time in last few years in Poland, he wanted to put it behind him,’ says Panufnik, who was in turn politically driven to reconnect with the country her father escaped from following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. ‘I was absolutely devastated by Brexit. It propelled me to secure my citizenship. I feel European,’ she says.

Today, Panufnik composes at her father’s piano, a baby Bernstein. ‘I feel as if he is still leading me in some way and I often dream about him in times of uncertainty,’ she says. ‘However, I only really appreciated who and what he was and what he had achieved when I was a grown up. Before then, I thought everyone’s parents were famous. It didn’t occur to me until I went to music college and people kept asking if we were related. What is so lovely is that today people often programme our music together.’

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