Arbor Cosmica, 12 evocations for 12 strings (or string orchestra)
Arbor Cosmica was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation based in New York City. The title reflects the composer’s love for trees, which went back to his childhood.
Panufnik wrote about the origins of the piece years later:
My Arbor Cosmica (Cosmic Tree) was a work which brought me great happiness and contentment during the many months I was absorbed in its composition. It grew organically out of my passion for trees, dating back from my childhood expeditions to the Warsaw park with my beloved grandmother. Still today I am entranced and comforted by the extraordinary individual beauty of each tree; by the endless variety of shapes and colours. Always I find delight in watching the dance-like rocking branches in the wind, in listening to the song-like groaning and sighing, or the leaves rustling and whispering their mysterious secrets. Beauty, harmony, strength and order are the aesthetic qualities which seem to me dictated by the form and the life of trees: but they also communicate to me something much more than sheer physical presence. Beyond the aesthetic pleasure and sensual delights of appearance, touch or smell, trees seems to me exude some mysterious power through their moods, and through their soul.
In transferring these thoughts and deep feeling into, first I had to think of a structure for my work. Though my music, coming as it did from an earthbound, human conception, would have its roots in the ground, my mind kept coming back to the curious symbolic image of the cosmic tree, which in art and literature is often depicted upside-down with its foliage running into the earth, its roots stretching up towards heaven.
A graphic image of that tree became a reflection of the structure of the piece. A three-note cell, C-D-E flat, constituting the root of the tree, as it were, determines the musical language of all 12 parts of the piece, called evocations by the composer. From this cell grow combinations of the second triad, E-F-B, graphically represented by an image of the trunk of the cosmic tree. The cells and their permutations provide the basis for the sound material of all movements of the work, represented as the branches of Panufnik’s tree (see diagram).
Arbor Cosmica – diagram
Successive evocations within Arbor Cosmica bring to mind various moods and emotions – from anxious or even gloomy through calm and lyrical, to joyful, lively, almost dance-like. In a masterful way the composer shows off the technical and expressive capabilities of a string ensemble, introducing devices like rhythmic aleatoricism (in Evocation No. 6), which leaves aside the bar-line (the instruments play senza misura) and uses short, indeterminate pauses. These pauses, present in the figurative solo parts of the various instruments, introduce an element of restlessness to their expression. The remaining fragments of this movement maintain the mood of anxiety and mystery, thanks in large part to the use of long “whispering” tremolos for all instruments.Arbor Cosmica is undoubtedly one of Panufnik’s important works, combining the brilliant execution of an extraordinarily precise form with depth and wealth of expression from a small string ensemble. At the same time it is one of the longest works in Panufnik’s catalogue – its full version lasts about 40 minutes, though the composer authorized performances of only 6 of the 12 evocations (I, II, III and X, XI, XII), which cuts the duration by half. Arbor Cosmica is written for 12 solo strings – 3 first violins, 3 second violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass. The composer also allowed performances featuring a string orchestra comprising 24, 36, 48 or 60 musicians, provided the proportions between instruments were observed.