One of Poland's foremost musical figures, Andrzej Panufnik (1914–1991) remains one of the 20th century's most respected composers and conductors. He served as music director with Krakow and Warsaw Philharmonics in Poland and later with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in his adopted homeland of England. Panufnik's defection from Poland under the Soviet regime provides an arresting study of the desire for artistic and personal freedom.
A Musical Childhood
Panufnik was born in Warsaw on September 24, 1914. His father was an engineer and respected violin maker; his mother was a talented violinist, although she did not play professionally. Panufnik was thus exposed to music from birth; in his autobiography Composing Myself, Panufnik commented that "in my early years I never consciously listened to my mother's playing, but it was constantly in my ears, a background music, part of the fabric of my life … This music was an intrinsic part of my existence, like cleaning my teeth, eating my meals, even breathing." Panufnik began composing at age nine, inspired by a young musician who visited his home to take down Panufnik's mother's melodies, but did not begin formal musical training until his late teens.
Studied at Home and Abroad
In 1932, Panufnik entered the Warsaw Conservatoire to study percussion, but he transferred shortly after into theory and composition courses. As part of his studies at the Conservatoire, Panufnik composed his first recognized work, the Piano Trio. Panufnik graduated in 1936 and planned to travel to Vienna, a city he was drawn to because of its rich musical history and modern reputation for innovation. This plan was delayed, however, and Panufnik was forced to wait until the following year to commence his instruction in Austria. In Vienna, he studied conducting at the State Academy under the highly respected Felix von Weingartner, conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Opera. In early 1938, the Nazi German army occupied Austria, Panufnik's classes at the Academy were temporarily canceled, and the atmosphere in Vienna changed drastically. Weingartner was removed from his teaching post and Panufnik, as he related in his autobiography, "realized that I would henceforth be wasting my time in Vienna." He returned to Warsaw, but stayed only a short time before leaving for Paris.
With the intention of studying French music, something Weingartner had not focused on, Panufnik sought out conductor Philippe Gaubert in Paris. He studied with Gaubert briefly, describing these lessons as "few but incomparably valuable," and then decided to work more seriously on his own composition skills. Panufnik began composing his first symphony and spent much of his time attending concerts featuring pieces by other modern composers, which he described as "both instructive and useful in my search for my musical self." This time proved a formative and fruitful one for Panufnik; but after about six months in Paris, he crossed the English Channel to visit London. Despite being somewhat unimpressed by the current British musical climate, Panufnik enjoyed his time in London during the spring and summer of 1939. However, he believed his musical future lay in Poland; in spite of the turmoil brewing in Central Europe, Panufnik returned to Warsaw in late summer 1939, his reputation as a composer and conductor having begun to grow formidably.
Shortly following Panufnik's arrival in Warsaw, Poland was invaded by the German army. Panufnik remained in Warsaw during the years of war that followed, despite the heavy restrictions placed on the Polish arts community and the danger inherent in living in an occupied city. Primarily performing as a pianist with friend and fellow composer Witold Lutoslawski in small, underground concerts, Panufnik also composed and conducted several works, including two major symphonies. Following the liberation of Poland by the Russians, all the scores of Panufnik's early works were accidentally burnt, practically erasing the output of ten years. Grove Music reported that "after the war, Panufnik reconstructed several of these lost scores;" however, the majority of these early pieces remain lost to this day. The Polish Music Center noted that of the two-piano pieces composed and performed by Panufnik and Lutoslawski during the war, "only Lutoslawski's "Paganini Variations" remain from this bulk of music."
Growth and Repression Under the
Panufnik spent the years directly following World War II as a conductor. Moving to Krakow in 1945 was a relief after war-torn Warsaw, Panufnik commented that "to arrive in Krakow was like returning from Hades." Krakow—the former capital of Poland and still a major city—had become the artistic hub of the country. Panufnik quickly found a niche there, as the conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra. The new Soviet government, however, was no more accommodating of artistic freedom than the Nazis had been; Panufnik encountered resistance to a short film he had produced which showed the recent destruction of Warsaw. With this censorship, Panufnik began to feel the stirrings of frustration would ultimately lead him to defect. Also during this time, Panufnik reconstructed three of his lost pieces; through his work with the new State Music Publishers, he had his second symphony, The Tragic Overture, published using his own, clearer musical notation system, which would be adopted by several other modern composers.
Following his successful conductorship of the Krakow Philharmonic, Panufnik was appointed Music Director at the Warsaw Philharmonic in 1946. The concert hall in Warsaw had been destroyed during the war, and the orchestra itself lacked both musicians and support staff, making his title more hopeful than practical. Panufnik delighted at the challenge, however, and promptly began rebuilding the orchestra to its previous level of excellence. He recruited musicians from throughout Poland, traveled to France to acquire new music for the orchestra, and attempted to secure a new permanent location for the orchestra to perform. Yet, after only a few performances with the orchestra, Panufnik received disappointing news from the government: the apartments promised for his musicians were delayed, with no word on when they might become available. Disheartened, in 1947 Panufnik resigned his post with the Warsaw Philharmonic.
Panufnik, suddenly freed of his duties as Music Director, found time to return to the composition he had neglected for the past five years. He also spent much time traveling internationally to conduct other major symphonies and to act as a representative of the Polish music community. Over the next several years, Panufnik composed some of his best-known works, including the Sinfonia Rustica, which won first prize at the Chopin Competition in 1949, and the Symphony of Peace. However, Panufnik continued to have run-ins with the Soviet government over issues ranging from artistic freedom to fair housing allocation. He married a British woman, Marie Elizabeth O'Mahoney, and the couple had a daughter in 1952. The infant died tragically in May 1953 and Panufnik was devastated, all the more so because he was serving on a delegation in Beijing at the time. He quickly returned home to Warsaw, but felt artistically empty; in his autobiography, he claimed that he "was just a stuffed dummy of a composer." Yet, as the leading Polish composer, Panufnik continued to be loaded with requests from his government, and his frustration level continued to rise. Panufnik decided the time had come for him to leave Poland permanently.
Defection to England
In Tempo, Harold Truscott noted that "after conducting a concert in Zurich in July, 1954, [Panufnik] was ordered to return to Poland. Instead, he came to England, requested, and was granted, political asylum." In fact, this process was not nearly so simple. Panufnik had been planning his defection some time. His wife had previously left the country; while he awaited an opportunity to join her; she made contacts with officials in Britain to aid her husband's defection. When Panufnik was invited to conduct a concert of Polish music in Switzerland, his opportunity arrived. Panufnik packed only a few things and bid farewell to his homeland. In Zurich, he undertook the recording of his Sinfonia Rustica, all the while worrying that his plans to defect had been discovered. After the recording was finished, a friend drove him to the airport where he boarded a plane for London and began his new life on July 14, 1954.
The Polish government denounced him strongly and officially erased all of his works, banning any mention of them—or of him—from any printed materials. In the eyes of Poland, Panufnik ceased to exist. Panufnik and his wife struggled financially for several months before he found a patron and his works began to be performed again both in England and internationally. Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski led performances of Panufnik's symphonies in Detroit and Houston, raising awareness of Panufnik in the United States. After a few years in England, Panufnik secured the position of Music Director with the City of Birmingham City Orchestra (CBSO) commencing in 1957 and left London, a move that also dissolved his marriage.
An Active Musical Maturity
Panufnik's time at the CBSO was full; he conducted approximately 50 concerts during the performance season, managed orchestra personnel, and served as a public face for the orchestra. His first season was marked by continual disputes with Norris Stanley, the orchestra's concertmaster—the head of the first violin section and a figure of some authority to the musicians—which led to Stanley's dismissal at the end of the season. In the Birmingham Post, Terry Grimley commented that "this does seem to have been personal in that … Stanley believed [Panufnik] to be a Communist … despite the fact that he was a refugee that had given up an honored position under a Communist government to scratch a living in the West Midlands." Panufnik's second season included four of his own works, a programming selection the orchestra management requested but which he found somewhat embarrassing. At the end of this season, Panufnik's contract expired and he returned to London in 1959, hoping to focus on composing.
Panufnik composed several important works over the coming years, including the Sinfonia Sacra and Autumn Music. The Sinfonia Sacra was particularly well-received, winning first prize in a music competition in Monaco, but was banned by the BBC—the irony of which Panufnik found amusing. Panufnik also began a relationship with a young English photographer, Camilla Jessel, and the two married in 1963. After so many years of upheaval, Panufnik finally settled into a calmer, productive life in Twickenham, a suburb of London. He composed an array of music, including more symphonies, several concertos for many different instruments, choral pieces—indeed, Panufnik composed modern-sounding works in practically every standard format of classical music, a dichotomy which set his works apart. This mixing of tradition and innovation perhaps reached its peak in 1979, when Panufnik composed a piece for the London Symphony Orchestra that required no conductor.
Later Years and Achievements
In 1977, Panufnik's Universal Prayer was performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, the first time his music had been heard in Poland for over 30 years. After this, his pieces began to appear in the repertoires of orchestras throughout Poland, although Panufnik himself remained officially odious until the fall of the Soviet government. Throughout the 1980s, Panufnik continued to compose and conduct, including a concert on his 70th birthday with the London Symphony. Panufnik returned to his native country in 1990 to conduct the European premiere of his tenth and last symphony. In 1991, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Panufnik. Only months later, he died on October 27, 1991, at the age of 77.
Panufnik's tumultuous life is crowned by his achievements. Considered the most important Polish composer of the 20th century, his works laid the groundwork for essentially all the works of his contemporaries and current followers. Despite the general lack of interest in writing symphonies over the last century, Panufnik composed 12, including the two that were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. Many of his pieces drew from the traditional folk songs of his homeland, making his music uniquely Polish. In addition to his musical legacy, his brilliance as a conductor cannot be denied; one of the most respected conductors of his day, Panufnik worked with practically every major symphony throughout the world. Truscott, writing again for Tempo only a few years before Panufnik's death, called him "a world artist." A man with a remarkable life and notable talents, Panufnik seems assured to maintain his stature as one of Poland's foremost musical figures well into the future.
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"Panufnik, Andrzej." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/panufnik-andrzej
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