panufnik composing myself toccata

Composing Myself
by Sir Andrzej Panufnik
A New Edition & Collected Writings Volume One
477 pp., hardback

Published 2023
ISBN: 978-0-907689-90-4
Musicians on Music Series No. 11
Toccata Press

If you have a copy of Panufnik’s extraordinary autobiography published by Methuen in 1987, then you might be wondering if this new edition is worth the quite considerable expense. But there is much that is new and revealing about the composer. As Simon Callow readily admits in his fascinating and personal Preface, the book must rank as one of the most significant autobiographical writings by any composer, alongside Berlioz’s Memoirs and Wagner’s My Life.

Panufnik died only four years after the original publication. It is especially heart-warming to read the Post Scriptum by his second wife Camilla Jessel-Panufnik entitled ‘Panufnik’s Last Years’. She reminds us that his ‘last decade was a crescendo of musical success until he was engulfed by a hidden cancer’. In 1991, he received his knighthood from the Queen and famously broke protocol by kissing her hand in the Polish manner.

Martin Anderson, the brains behind Toccata Press with its enterprising catalogue of rare repertoire. adds an Editorial Introduction. He mentions meeting the composer and explaining that Camilla has ‘naturally kept a close eye on the preparation of this book’. That has meant retaining and adding a great many useful footnotes at the bottom of each page. There also are many more photographs taken throughout their happy lives, carefully placed at the appropriate places in the text. (The 1987 edition had them grouped together, as did most books at the time, rather randomly.) We also have programme covers and other items used for publicity and promotion and letters, as well as photographs of friends and teachers. The  index at the back also lists all of Panufnik’s known compositions.

Panufnik divided his book into twenty-six accessible, vividly recalled chapters. The first, ‘Arranged for Violin’, tells us of his family and especially his father’s genius for making violins. The most gripping are chapters seven to ten. Panufnik was in Warsaw at the time of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin alliance. He witnessed the horror of thousands of deaths and the razing of the city in 1944, after the tragic Warsaw Uprising. He had to endure the death of his brother and the destruction of the family home and all of his manuscripts. I find the detail of his writing extraordinary in a recollection from some forty years after the event. Even if all of the musical references were removed, it would still be gripping read for anyone with an interest in Polish history.

In chapter sixteen, Panufnik writes how his Sinfonia Rustica was awarded a first prize in the 1949 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and how not long afterwards the Polish minister of Culture (currying favour with the Soviet Composers’ Union) had to decree that the ‘Sinfonia Rustica does not exist’. Then, if you are into adventure novels with a tense script, chapter nineteen related Panufnik’s dramatic escape and the chase across Zurich in a taxi after a recording session. His first wife Marie Elizabeth O’Mahoney (they divorced in 1958) was in London looking after her ailing father. She was able to make overtures enabling her husband’s exile to be permitted without too much fuss.

Once he has escaped, he became a non-person in communist Poland for over thirty years, until it regained its political freedom in 1989. In London, he establishes himself as much as a conductor as a composer – that included the music directorship of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1957-1959 – and he never looked back.

Important in Panufnik’s writings are his meetings with fellow composers. For example, Szymanowski in the early 1930s was plainly ill and intolerant, so his character, Panufnik admits, did not fit his lush and warmhearted music. Then there is his friendship and strong musical association with Lutoslawski, his meeting with Nadia Boulanger and, surprisingly perhaps, with Constant Lambert in Warsaw. Later in the book, he writes about his association with Leopold Stokowski, who was a strong supporter, and Yehudi Menuhin, who commissioned his Violin Concerto.

It was the last chapter, the aforementioned Post Scriptum, that I found most intriguing. Camilla Jessel-Panufnik reiterates several points her husband made about politics and about some early performances of his works. They were married in 1963, so clearly she must have known him better than anyone. They had two children, Roxanna and Jeremy. The book has several happy family photos taken by Camilla. But music and politics are oh so closely aligned. We read of how Composing Myself had to be smuggled into Warsaw and how the chapters criticising the communist regime caused the translators and publisher’s considerable risk. We also read that Panufnik would have nightmares ‘and suddenly shout out from terror in his sleep’, dreaming that he was back in Poland expecting to die at any moment. I feel that this can be heard in much of his Arbor Cosmica for chamber orchestra, especially the highly nervous sixth movement.

The climax of the book comes when the Panufnik with his family visits Poland in 1990, the first time in almost forty years. It had a strong emotional effect on him. Twelve months later he received his knighthood, and six months after that he died quietly at home of cancer. But Camilla has a little revelation up her sleeve for the final pages, which I will not spoil.

I was proud and delighted when, in 1975, I met Panufnik with a small group of student post-graduate composers. I knew the vicar of nearby St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham who had procured the invitation. I remember young Roxanna running around the riverside garden, singing and calling out to us. And the man whom I met then is the man who I feel comes across in the book and in his music: a little reserved but warm-hearted, precise in his choice of words but also spontaneous and deeply spiritual.

It is correct to say that at present one is more likely to hear music by Panufnik’s wonderfully talented daughter Roxanna. It will be through more live performances of his works that audiences will be able to judge for themselves the value of this great musician. Failing that, reading through this extraordinary book will send you back to the recordings and help you listen with a far greater insight.

Gary Higginson

Availability: Boydell & Brewer