The life of composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik played out like a Cold War thriller

Panufnik Day
Kings Place, London

The name of the composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik is an odd combination of British and Polish that stands out when you see it – although until recently you wouldn’t have seen it very often, because he was a figure who fell from fashion. If you caught a performance of his music you were lucky.

But there was a time – in the late 1940s/early 1950s – when he was widely acknowledged as Poland’s leading composer. And as this year has marked his centenary, the story of what happened to him has suddenly become of interest – which explains the large audience that turned out last month for a Panufnik Day at Kings Place, London, organised by his surviving family.

With a schedule of talks, films and performances – by the Brodsky Quartet, pianist Clare Hammond, and others – the idea was to voyage around his life. And while the lives of many a composer are far duller than the legends that attach to them, his was the opposite. In fact, it played out like a Cold War thriller, starting in Poland, where he was born in 1914. He had risen to youthful prominence when the Nazis invaded in 1938 and cultural life collapsed. He survived the first years of the invasion by playing piano duets in bars with his fellow-composer Lutosławski. But after the Warsaw Uprising he had to flee. And when he returned in 1945, it was to find that all his manuscripts had been destroyed: his whole work, up to that time, wiped out.

Starting from scratch, he re-established his career and by the late 1940s was again at the forefront of Polish music – but under the control of a Communist regime that showered him with privilege at the price of freedom. He wanted out, and in dramatic circumstances he escaped to Britain, where he claimed asylum. But life in Britain wasn’t easy. His work – which was transparent, based on simple and repetitive triadic patterns – didn’t meet the expectations for complexity and challenge that pervaded British music in the 1960s. So he functioned at the margins, churning out new scores (eight of his 10 surviving symphonies were written in Britain) and recognised with a knighthood just before he died in 1991, but still essentially an exile pining for a lost home.

The Panufnik Day duly recorded all this. And the music played – including three substantial string quartets and a beguiling sextet To the Virgin Mary (he was a devoted Catholic) – left no room for doubt that this was a composer of significance, with an appeal to modern audiences more open-eared than those of 50 years ago. There are certainly a lot of new CDs on the market, one of them the Brodskys playing the quartets (on Chandos). They are worth exploring.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)