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Views And Reviews: Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra

Paul Serotsky informs us that Panufnik based part of his third symphony, Sinfonia Sacra, on 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.

To read more of Paul’s revealing words on the greatest music ever written please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/

Panufnik (1914-1991) – Sinfonia Sacra

Panufnik 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 in 1954.

This seems 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 four movements:

Part 1

Vision I. Four trumpets, distributed antiphonally at the points of the compass, rattle the cell and its inversion around the otherwise silent orchestra.

Vision 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.

Vision 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 furiously.

Part 2

Hymn. 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 climax.

Foreign sensibilities will probably never fully comprehend the emotional depth of that old hymn, which makes a sobering thought as this extraordinary music alternately brings a lump to your throat, and grabs you by it.

© Paul Serotsky, 1999

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