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Andrzej Panufnik
Sinfonia Sacra

Andrzej Panufnik

Andrezej Panufnik

  • Born: September 24, 1914, Warsaw, Poland
  • Died: October 27, 1991, Twickenham (London), United Kingdom

©Camilla Jessel Panufnik


Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony No. 3)

  • Composed: 1963
  • Premiere: August 12, 1964, Monte Carlo, Louis Frémaux conducting the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra.
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, snare drum without snare, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tenor drums, triangles, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s CSO premiere.
  • Duration: approx. 22 minutes

The symbolic birthdate of the Polish state is April 14, 966, when Duke Mieszko I converted to Christianity and, at the same time, imposed the religion throughout his entire realm. This move had great political significance, as it was the precondition of Poland’s acceptance as a sovereign nation among the countries of Europe.

When the 1,000th anniversary of this historic event approached, Poland was a Communist dictatorship. Although the Catholic Church was much stronger there than elsewhere within the Soviet sphere of influence, the religious character of Poland’s early history was something of a problem for the ruling Party, which tried hard to de-emphasize the Christian element and focus only on the political aspect of the nation’s founding. Elaborate celebrations took place all over the country, beginning years before the actual anniversary and spanning most of the 1960s.

Andrzej Panufnik, one of the leading Polish composers of the time, had been living in London since his defection in 1954. He was thus free to celebrate what the Poles called chrzest Polski, the “baptism of Poland.” His Sinfonia sacra (the third of his ten published symphonies) was written to honor this historic milestone. The symphony won first prize in an international competition held in Monte-Carlo and became one of the composer’s most-performed works.

Panufnik based his entire symphony on the medieval hymn Bogurodzica (“Mother of God”), believed to be the oldest surviving melody in the Polish language. Bogurodzica is both a religious song and a battle hymn, as a reminder that the young Polish state had to fight extended wars against the Holy Roman Empire and Kievan Rus. This is why the symphony begins and ends with loud military fanfares. (In his autobiography, Panufnik recalled that he first heard Bogurodzica during his wartime military service, while listening to the radio. He was completely transfixed by the experience.)

The actual hymn, and the variations on it, are preceded by three “Visions”: three distinct sections based on the predominant intervals of Bogurodzica. The first of these Visions is a vigorous fanfare, played by four trumpets placed in four different corners of the stage. The second Vision, in stark contrast to the first, is slow, extremely soft, and played by muted strings with bows on the fingerboard to create a more muffled, eerie sound (sul tasto). Vision III, the longest of the three, starts out as an energetic percussion solo, soon bringing in the entire orchestra in what feels like a violent war scene. Only after this triple introduction does the actual Hymn begin, soft and distant, with the mystical harmonics of the violins. The orchestra enters gradually, and the hymn gradually grows in volume and intensity. At the end, the hymn tune is combined with the trumpet fanfares from Vision I, to give the symphony a triumphant and grandiose conclusion.

—Peter Laki