Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik

black and white photograph, conductor leading a concert orchestra

Music and migration in the 20th century

Jan Topolski

Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik stands among the few composers who, having achieved national fame, decided to emigrate and start their career almost anew in another country. However, when freedom is at stake – as was the case in communist-ruled Poland in the 1950s – even the benefits received from the state seem worthless, especially considering the composer's rich biography.

Panufnik's grandmother, Henryka Thonnes, who was an important figure in his childhood years, claimed to be of English descent, but there is no evidence to prove it (some researchers suggest that her ancestors might have been Scandinavian). Even if that's the reason why the composer chose the United Kingdom as his refuge, he didn't look for any relatives, as there are virtually no 'Thonnes' in UK archives.

black and white photograph portrait of Andrzej Panufnik, a young man wearing a suit and a bow-tie

In his student years, Andrzej Panufnik made several trips across 1930s Europe, studying conducting with the great Felix Weingartner in Vienna and visiting Paris, just like many of his Polish contemporaries. In France, he experienced joi de vivre to such an extent that he could barely stand (and wasn't able to work anymore because of the noise his neighbours made). In Austria – by contrast – Panufnik witnessed brutal force and opportunism in reaction to Nazi German Anschluss and Hitler parades. When leaving for Austria in 1937, Panufnik reminisced:

The railway station evoked my childhood memories and my notorious vagaries from school (I didn't dare to show up to teachers as I was always rehearsing piano instead of doing homework). I used to buy platform tickets and touched – even caressed – wonderful long-haul trains with exciting cards like Warsaw–Berlin–Paris or Warsaw–Amsterdam or Warsaw-Geneva–Rome, dreaming that may be one day I’d become one of these bustling passengers and a train would take me to those unknown lands.

Andrzej Panufnik, Composing Myself, London, 1987

Tadeusz Panufnik, the composer's father, was an engineer, but he found his true passion in violin making – his collection of string instruments became famous in the 1930s and he run not only a little factory, but also a luthier school. As a true renaissance man, he became interested in music theory and number symbolism – elements that could also be traced in his son's mature works, for example in his last symphony (no. 10).

Long before that, Andrzej became a master of string instruments – just like his father – and tried his best to find an original style. In the meantime, however, he had to survive World War II and the German occupation of Poland. Because of the fact that musical activities were heavily restricted, Panufnik focused on composing at home. He often drew from Polish folklore and wrote several songs for the Polish resistance movement (including Warsaw Children).

black and white photograph, Andrzej Panufnik amd Witold Lutosławski embracing

He also formed a very successful piano duo with Witold Lutosławski, performing covers, variations and jazz improvisations in cafés. His only brother was killed by a bomb in their family home in the Warsaw Uprising. However, Panufnik lost more than that – even though his scores survived the fights and fires, the new tenant of the apartment where they were stored did not recognise their value and simply threw them away.

Panufnik had to start his work from scratch, not for the last time. He reconstructed some of his pre-war pieces – like the Tragic Ouverture – but later focused on old Polish music and folklore, which had sparked his interest already during the German occupation.

He reflected the symmetric paper-cut patterns of Northern Polish art in Sinfonia Rustica, used traditional dances in the Old Polish Suite and wrote Concerto in modo antico for a documentary film by Veit Stoss about a famous 15th century altar. Soon, this direction turned out to be a safe harbour from the dangerous waves of 'social realist' aesthetics favoured by the state and consisting of propaganda texts, simple harmony and grandiose orchestration. Some of his works conform this official style however – like the monumental Peace Symphony later revised as Sinfonia Elegiaca – and so Panufnik grew to become one of most important Polish composers of the 1950s.

black and white photograph, a concert with conductor in a museum photographed from above

Marriage and family

His high position and handsomeness drew the attention of a young and beautiful Irish woman, Marie Elizabeth O’Hanney, nicknamed Scarlett after the heroine of Gone with the Wind. She came to Poland after World War II as an army officer's widow and seduced many men, before eventually becoming Andrzej's wife and encouraging him to lead a rich social life.

At the same time, the communist authorities needed Panufnik to establish their new order and legitimise it abroad. He became the vice-chairman of the Polish Composers Union and took part in countless conferences and foreign missions, for example to China in 1953.

During this last journey, he received the message that his daughter Oonagh drowned in a bathtub, apparently because of Scarlett having an epileptic attack. Furthermore, the attitude of the ministry's deputies towards the composer was ambiguous. Many of his praised works were banned from concert halls (for example Sinfonia Rustica), which was a sign of the times. All that – together with limited time for composing and restrictions on artistic freedom – drove Panufnik to desperate measures in 1954.

It is not easy for a man to cut himself from his country and his people. It is perhaps even more difficult for one who, like myself, has made a certain name there and received recognition as a creative artist. But freedom counts for much, and indeed is so important, particularly for the artist, that life without it becomes almost unbearable. This is the case in Poland today. (…) The worker is asked only to use his lathe and peasant his plough; but the artist must subordinate his imagination and individuality to the demands of the Communist Party and create – if he wants to live at all – in a manner that serves the ends of the Communist State.

Andrzej Panufnik, A Composer's View of Life in Modern Poland. I – Hatred of Russian Control, in The Times, 12 August 1954.

At first, Scarlett was reluctant to give up the privileges (including an apartment and a car) granted to them in Poland, but ultimately played a crucial role in the escape plan. Officially, she left to visit her family living in the UK, but the main purpose of her journey was to make arrangements with the Foreign Office and contact composer Konstanty Regamey in Switzerland.

Escape and exile

He arranged an official invitation from the Swiss Radio Orchestra for Panufnik to conduct and record his own pieces – a letter which Polish authorities couldn't ignore. The composer had to leave almost all of his belongings behind (including his father's instrument collection) in order to avoid arousing suspicion. Also, he couldn't share his motives with the people closest to him (including his beloved niece, the daughter of his late brother).

When Panufnik came to Switzerland, he was under the surveillance of Polish embassy workers. On the second day, he managed to shake them off by leaving a restaurant through the back door and rushing to the hotel in a taxi. Regamey succeeded in delivering a plane ticket to London and drove the composer to the airport. At last, Andrzej Panufnik joined Scarlett on 14 July 1954.

Although he became quite recognisable after several interviews and newspaper articles describing cultural life behind the Iron Curtain, it soon became clear that he had to start over once again. Year after year, he slowly – but consequently – established his position in British musical life, mostly thanks to his conducting skills and new acquaintances.

black and white photograph, a conductor and orchestra in a busy concert hall

His marriage broke down as a result of personality differences. Soon after, Scarlett published her memoirs on Warsaw and Andrzej's escape under the meaningful title Escape out of City of Fear. After the divorce, the composer met other women, including the love of his life, Camilla Jessel, a young, independent photographer and traveller from a distinguished English family. As Panufnik recounts in his autobiography, he proposed to her after seeing a powerful oak at a car ride.

Trees can inspire anywhere

Trees and nature were one of the key inspirations also for his music. It is clearly visible in Arbor cosmica for 12 string instruments or a string orchestra, which – like many of his mature works – has a single 'root' cell of the notes that appears in twelve variations or Evocations, as they are named in the score.

The newlyweds received a valuable gift from Camilla’s mother: Riverside House in Twickenham, a wonderful 18th century residence in need of a careful restoration. There the Panufniks found their home – the surrounding nature and the shore of the river Thames had a great impact on the composer’s creativity. He loved to go on walks to think, and he frequently transcribed the process into music, for example in the orchestral, impressionistic Nocturne from 1947 created during a night stroll in Kraków or in the cloudy, microtonal Lullaby written during his stay in London after he was moved by Thames in moonlight.

Twenty years after that, Panufnik wrote Landscape for string orchestra as a homage to the melancholic flatlands of Poland and Suffolk with references to a Masovian folk song. Such traces of history and tradition were a permanent part of his music in the 1950s and 1960s, and can be found – for example – in the hymn Bogurodzica in Sinfonia sacra, in some dances in the Rhapsody and in the Katyń Epitaph, dedicated to army officers who were executed by the Soviets in 1940.

Later, the composer felt the need to abandon these references and create more universal works. The symmetry and basic simple cells (like the three notes f-b-e) that resulted from this change became a trademark of his mature output although Polish folklore themes still appeared in many of his works).

Later years and legacy

The title of Andrzej Panufnik’s autobiography – Composing Myself – is strikingly true to life.

He had to start over at least twice: in 1945, after he lost of all of his pieces during World War II, in 1954 after emigrating from Poland to Great Britain, and – to some extent – in 1968, when he invented his 'geometrical' musical language based on simple cells, main intervals, figures and symmetry. The decision to leave his homeland was not only painful, but also sealed his musical fate in Poland, as Panufnik’s name virtually disappeared from festivals and lexicons until the late 1970s. The instruments carefully designed by his father remain lost, his nephew was expelled from his studies, while the press accused Andrzej himself of betrayal and thievery.

colour photograph, plaque on location where Sir Andrzej Panufnik lived

However, some independently thinking artists remembered his music, which helped it reappear in concert programs in the last decade of the Polish communist state. It was only when Andrzej Panufnik made a great come back to his homeland for the 1990 Warsaw Autumn festival that the realms of his life and work joined into one. It happened to be just one year before Sir Andrzej Panufnik passed away in Twickenham – loved and fulfilled, with two children and a knighthood from the country where he had made his new home.

This blog post is a part of the Migration in the Arts and Sciences project, which explored how migration has shaped the arts, science and history of Europe.