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‘I had no religious upbringing at all’

Everyone assumes Roxanna Panufnik is a cradle Catholic, says Michael White. But her path to faith was far from straightforward

By on Thursday, 1 July 2010

‘I had no religious upbringing at all’

There was a time when composers produced music for the Church almost by default. Now it tends only to happen out of conviction or, in the case of the robustly atheistic Peter Maxwell Davies, a sense of mischief. And as a result, the number of significant figures in this country writing for the liturgy is small – with that of significant Catholic figures smaller still.

If you rule out Stephen Hough on the grounds that he’s a pianist rather than a composer, the Catholic league-table homes in on just two high-profile names: James Macmillan and Roxanna Panufnik. And it doesn’t take a linguist to appreciate that the name Panufnik isn’t home-grown.

It in fact derives from the eminent Polish composer, Andrzej Panufnik, who fled the post-war Soviet oppression of his homeland, settled in England, received a knighthood, and produced a daughter – Roxanna – who grew up to be in many ways as English as it gets.
She lives in Barnes, beside the Common, in an enclave of sedate Edwardian villas with names like Forest Dell or Combhaven. And juggling her creative life with that of a wife and mother she has her own small haven of an office at the bottom of the garden where she generates a feisty eclectic range of work across most genres: chamber, opera, song, orchestral.

But through the past decade there’s been a growing emphasis on church music – starting with her phenomenally successful Westminster Mass in 1988 and taking in settings of Padre Pio, a Missa Brevis, and most recently a vividly imagined adaptation of the plainsong Missa de Angelis.

From such a concentration of work, and given her Polish roots, you’d probably assume she was a dedicated cradle Catholic; and having known her for years, I assumed it too. But sitting in that garden office – an urban response to Mahler’s woodland Komponienhut – I learned the truth. Which was more complicated.

“I was baptised,” she says: “but it meant nothing because my father wasn’t practising – he had some spiritual awareness but he associated the Church with Poland and the past and wanted to move on – and my mother is Jewish, though not an active believer. So I had no religious upbringing at all.”

It wasn’t until her early 20s, when she was exploring her own identity and having Polish lessons – “they didn’t work: I still can’t speak it fluently” – that she found the Church: “or more accurately, it found me, because I wasn’t looking for anything. There was no search. When it happened, my father was supportive. For my mother it was like I’d joined the Moonies, and she took time to come round to the idea – although when I wrote the Westminster Mass she did realise how important this was for me, and how right.”

Roxanna’s father died in 1991 when she was 23, leaving her with hard decisions as to whether she should follow his career path and negotiate the pros and cons of doing as a famous parent did before.

“I’d been composing since I was very young and of course showing the music to my dad; but he was only allowed to say how wonderful it was. If there were criticisms, I’d switch off. But I did then decide to go to music college, and found it wasn’t that easy.
“People would assume my name gave me unfair advantages in getting performances, or they’d say: ‘That was good, did you father help you?’ I got so hung up about it I actually changed my name for a while. And I left the Royal Academy after doing not too well in my finals.

“I wasn’t as experimental a composer as my teachers wanted, and in some ways they were right. I had players at my fingertips, I could have done more to explore new sound worlds. And in the 1980s there were certain kinds of music you had to write to be successful. I didn’t do that, so I wasn’t.”

Leaving the Academy, she went into television production and worked as a researcher for BBC Music and Arts. But she was still being asked to write things, in her spare time. And finally persuaded that she had to make a choice, she chose composition – initially on commercial terms for films, although that turned out not to be her strength.

“You have to be technically minded to write film music, which I’m not. And you have to be incredibly versatile, with the ability to adopt different styles and voices. With me it’s me: that’s all I can do.”

Being herself was more possible by the 1990s when new music became less circumscribed and adherence to the hard-line dogmas of modernism was no longer expected. But an issue remained: to what extent would she be working in her father’s shadow?

“The truth,” she says, “is that, although I loved my father’s music, I never studied it. And that was a conscious decision, made in my teens, in case his influence became too strong.

“It’s still the case: I’ve never really done any systematic analysis of his work. But I’m also more relaxed now about the whole thing.

“There are occasional connections: I wrote an Ave Maria that turned out rather like his Hymn to the Virgin Mary, and my first reaction was: ‘I’ll have to change that.’ But with hindsight it’s only natural: I’m part of him, he’s part of me, and I don’t run away from that now.”

Liturgical music wasn’t a major part of her output until an American banker called John Studzinski, prominent in arts funding circles and a devout Catholic, approached her with a commission to write a Mass setting for Cardinal Hume’s 75th birthday. To be sung by Westminster Cathedral Choir under their then director James O’Donnell, its combination of brilliance, charm and what you might call the “common touch” bridged many of the boundaries that separate new music from a wider audience.

The first performance, given around the time of her own 30th birthday, proved a landmark in her life and, as she says, “generated a lot of new work for me. There was an astonishing interest in that piece. It felt like I’d arrived.”

As the flow of new work included successive Mass settings, the only problem was how she’d be able to return to the same texts, over and again, without repeating herself. On her own admission it was hard: “But the Westminster Mass is in English, designed for a grand cathedral acoustic, and with the sound world of an accompanying orchestra in mind – which took me off in a particular direction.

“The Missa Brevis that followed is a capella and in Latin, so the words are treated in a different way. And the new Schola Missa de Angelis is plainsong – based around this famous ninth-century chant and with a brass octet accompaniment, which is what the commission specified.”

The commission in fact came from the director of the London Oratory School school, Lee Ward, who gave the premiere in a concert at St James’s, Spanish Place, earlier this year. According to everyone involved, it’s the first significant new plainsong Mass since the Duruflé Requiem of 1947. And while that sounds like a claim in need of qualification, Panufnik stands by it, more or less.

“People have certainly taken plainsong and put choirs beneath it, but so far as we know no one has reworked the plainsong on this scale since Duruflé. And the result is specific – not least because before writing it I talked to the Oratory schoolboys about what they liked or didn’t like in choral music; and they came up with an eloquent list of requests, most of which I’ve put into the score.”

The requests included a macaronic mix of English with Latin, a “really loud” and rhythmic Gloria, and a “miserable” opening to the Agnus Dei – all of which were granted. And the presence

of the brass octet supplies a sort of Grimethorpe Colliery earthiness, destabilising the harmonic implications of the chant.

Another feature, though, of the Missa de Angelis is that Panufnik has supplied alternative versions without the brass – for organ or string orchestra, and (in a easy-sing version) for congregational use, with or without SATB choir.

The congregational version comes with an organ accompaniment that Panufnik calls “so simple I can play it myself”. And her decision to make this modified version is not unconnected with her feelings – broadly negative – about the current quality of music being written for the average parish.

“I’m constantly disappointed by how banal and functional so many modern Mass settings can be, especially the ones that come with syncopation and a folk guitar. Syncopated music from a top-rank gospel choir is stunning, but an average parish congregation is a different thing. Generally it doesn’t work; and there’s a real need for something that does”.

Panufnik’s Missa de Angelis hasn’t made it on to disc yet – there’s a search for funding going on – but when it does it will be interesting to see what take-up there is for one or other version. Meanwhile, she’s about to move on to her next project, which is – you’ve guessed – Mass setting number four: this time commissioned by the Tallinn Philharmonic Orchestra and destined to feature three languages, with Estonian alongside Latin and English.

When she reaches number five there ought to be some Polish in it somewhere. But that might mean another stab at the lessons.