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Music: ‘I want my audience to feel what I feel’ — an interview with Roxanna Panufnik

14 May 2021

Roxanna Panufnik talks about her compositions and life to Susan Gray

Benjamin Ealovega Photography

Roxanna Panufnik

Roxanna Panufnik

ROXANNA PANUFNIK’s diary entry for 6 May is once-in-a-lifetime stuff: “Bristol Zoo, première of Heartfelt, in front of Albie.”

Albie is a European brown bear whose heartbeat forms the rhythm for Lament for a Bulgarian Dancing Bear, the final track on Heartfelt, her new album with the Sacconi Quartet. It was inspired by Witold Szablowski’s book Dancing Bears, about the sanctuary in Belitsa, set up in 2008 after the practice became illegal. “I’ve always loved Eastern European and Balkan music: that’s in my genes. It seemed like an amazing opportunity to tie in the emotion I got from the book, with a piece about the heart.”

Formal requests to record a bear’s heart met with silence. But a friend who taught music to the children of Bristol Zoo’s director pointed Panufnik to Albie, who was scheduled for minor surgery, and so could be recorded under anaesthetic. “I imagine, if the bear had been conscious, the heartbeat would have been faster. But the two beats are of an even stress. There’s an unbearable wait for the next beat to come. When you put that in the context of a bear that’s traumatised or desperately sad, it is compatible with writing a lament.”

Panufnik’s sacred and secular music is celebrated for the breadth of its sources and styles. Her father was the composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik, who defected to Britain from Poland in 1954, in the days of the Iron Curtain. Her mother, the photographer Camilla Jessel, came from an old English Jewish family.

Heartfelt’s sixth track, Canto, written for the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition, draws on Panufnik’s research into Ashkenazi music, and echoes Tertis’s father’s role as a Stepney synagogue cantor, discovered — uncannily —after the piece was written. “I love the sound of the viola: it’s got the most human-sounding voice of the string instruments, especially in the lower range. So it seemed to be a marriage made in heaven.’”

A Rye tourist leaflet inspired Cantator and Amanda about a monk with a beautiful singing voice, who fell in love, and was walled up for breaking his vows. “All a composer really wants is to be able to relate to people listening to their music. I want my audience to feel what I feel.”

In 2001, Panufnik was expecting her first child when 9/11 happened. “I was terrified about what sort of world we were bringing her into. But somebody reminded me that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all worship the same God.” Three years later, her orchestral piece Abraham, drawing on Christian, Islamic, and Jewish traditions, was given its première in Jerusalem by the World Orchestra for Peace, and was then performed at the Proms.

By her own admission, Panufnik has written “masses of Masses”. She was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 23. Her path to Rome began when a fellow student at Polish evening classes asked her to research Catholic hymns for his wedding; so she went to a modern church near by. “I didn’t understand anything that was going on, but I came away feeling absolutely amazing.”

As a child, she had occasionally gone to mass with an aunt, and watched family Passover and Bar Mitzvah celebrations from afar. She met her husband on pilgrimage to Lourdes, in the Bronx bar. Shortly after she started to attend church, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I felt every Sunday, when I came out from mass, I could cope.” Of her faith she states simply: “It’s my rock.”

The influence of her composer father has been huge. “Our music is very different, but I’ve inherited his love of simultaneous major-minor harmony. And we were both always looking for a way of playing an instrument that conveys a very human way of singing a tune.”

Streaming data reveals the popularity of Panufnik’s religious music over her non-religious, and the composer is heartened by the mushrooming interest in contemporary classical liturgical music. “It’s become amazing popular, and maybe it provides solace, or it’s comforting that it’s not just us: there’s something else.”

Gramophone magazine describes the 1997 Westminster Mass as Panufnik’s breakthrough work. “Both the Westminster Mass and Faithful Journey — A Mass for Poland are pivotal pieces in my life: when I wrote Westminster Mass, I was single, with no children, foot-loose, and fancy free. When I wrote Mass for Poland, I had turned 50, and was married with three children; so life was very different.’

Panufnik visualises the Mass in her head as she writes: “I’m always thinking about the ‘theatre’ of a religious service, what people will be seeing at that point, what the celebrants will be doing — ever since I wrote Westminster Mass and had a long conversation with the conductor James O’Donnell, and he said ‘You can’t have this bit of the Agnus Dei going on for too long, because the priest has his arms raised at this point.’ I’m very aware of what’s going on visually when the music is being performed, just as you would as a processional or recessional, and you’re thinking about the tempo at which the clergy might be moving down the aisle.”

Putting a face to the notes also shapes choral commissions. “It’s lovely because often when I have choral commissions I meet the choir before I write anything, and they’ll sing for me, and I’ll have their sound and their faces in my head as I write.”

Her approach to setting texts is the same whether they are secular or liturgical: “It’s always about word-painting and creating the atmosphere that those words convey.” If pressed to choose her favourite parts of the Mass, Panufnik opts for the Sanctus and Benedictus. “I always love the Sanctus and Benedictus: that’s got a magic of awe and wonder about it. It’s always the the bit where my soul soars, because of the words being said, and my personal feelings about my faith, and the whole concept of God and the Holy Spirit.”

And, as you cannot have too much of a good thing, she adds: “I do enjoy a Gloria as well. I’ve just written a Gloria for organ: I’m working my way very slowly through a Mass for organ, no voices. I’ve just written a Gloria for the St Albans National Organ Competition.”


Heartfelt is released on 21 May on Signum.


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