Song to the Virgin Mary for string sextet
Song to the Virgin Mary is Panufnik’s first piece composed after his marriage to Camilla Jessel and after settling in Twickenham, near London. The composition was commissioned by the Lake District Festival for the Geraint Jones Singers vocal ensemble.
As the Panufniks’ new home was unfit for habitation yet, with the young couple living in a small cottage in the garden till the end of renovations, the composer worked in nearby St. Mary’s Church. This was where he wrote his Song to the Virgin Mary, a simple choral prayer to the Virgin. The work was inspired by the composer’s memories of Polish peasants praying ardently in a village church. Panufnik made a conscious reference here to the Polish Middle Ages, choosing a Latin poem by an anonymous Polish poet from the period, beginning with the words: “Tu luna pulchior, tu stellis purior, tu sole clarior, Maria!” (“Thou are more beautiful than the moon, purer than the stars, brighter than the sun, Mary!”). The melody of the song draws stylistically on plainchant and on Polish folk music too, thanks mainly to the use of the pentatonic scale combined with chords referring to the tonal system (major-minor chords, with a simultaneous major and minor third).
The formal structure of the work testifies to the composer’s increasing predilection for mirror symmetry – once again we deal with a clear 3-part structure, described by the composer:
In 1969, the composer revised the piece, changing the distribution of the voices – only in this version did he introduce a clear division into six voices, soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass. In the original version, the musical material was notated in accordance with the traditional choral division into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses – and these voices were further divided within the piece. Now, thanks to the changes, the composer achieved a greater clarity of texture in all voices.
The song opens in the first part with soprano and mezzo-soprano only, singing pianissimo, a most humble invocation to the Virgin. The other voices gradually join in, slowly swelling into a warm fortissimo climax. In the middle part of the work, in pianissimo, the voices intone (almost parlando) rather than sing, with much emphasis on the rhythm of the words, characterising a peasant congregation in a country church. The third part is a reflection of the first as regards musical material, but dynamically it leads to a much stronger fortissimo. The prayer has become more urgent, and it intensifies in its ardour until it reaches final ecstatic shouts on the name 'Maria'.