Panufnik (1914-1991) - Sinfonia Sacra
remained fully active as both composer and performer right through the
Nazi occupation of Warsaw, resisting by playing “forbidden” music. His
early compositions were lost in the Uprising of 1944 (the few “survivors”
being reconstructions). Although honoured by the post-war Stalinist state,
he couldn't cope with the all-pervasive political controls, and defected
slightly odd, because in his music, especially the symphonies, he seems
to enjoy self- imposed formal straitjackets. The structure of the Eighth
Symphony (1977), for example, relates to patterns of intersecting circles.
Even in this Sinfonia Sacra, his third symphony, he indulges in
games of symmetry, albeit only on the “local” scale. The second of its
two parts is based largely on the Bogurodzica, an ancient hymn of
enormous religio-patriotic significance to the Polish people, chosen because
the symphony was written to celebrate the millennium of Poland's Statehood
and Christianity in 1966. From this hymn a five-note cell is taken, an
extraction of philosophical as well as structural significance, as its
influence is pervasive even if sometimes less than obvious. The first part,
comprising three contrasted “visions”, lends the feel if not the fact of
I Four trumpets, distributed antiphonally at the points of the compass,
rattle the cell and its inversion around the otherwise silent orchestra.
II The tumult stops. Strings alone weave a slowly-turning, heart-stoppingly
serene tapestry from a “flattened out” version of the cell and its inversion.
III The calm is shattered by percussion. The tympani soon thunder another
version of the cell, initiating a complex percussion rhythm which looks
(on paper, anyway!) just like the cell, while the tympani (having pitch)
bang it out for real. Gradually the whole orchestra becomes embroiled in
a wild scherzo, the cell (and, of course, its inversion) being worked out
Reflecting the hushed serenity and slow, evolutionary turning of Vision
II, the music gradually intensifies, opening flower-like to reveal the
first version of the cell (and - yes! - its inversion) like some cherished
icon. The four trumpets again release their fusillades to cap a fervent
sensibilities will probably never fully comprehend the emotional depth
of that old hymn, a sobering thought as this extraordinary music alternately
brings a lump to your throat, and grabs you by it.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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