Sinfonia di Speranza (Symphony No. 9) for orchestra
In 1985, Panufnik received a very prestigious commission – the London Royal Philharmonic Society asked him to compose a symphony to celebrate the Society’s 175th season, 1986–87. The Society is one of the most venerable musical institutions in Britain; it was for the Society that Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 9 in the early 1820s. It is therefore not surprising that the composer felt greatly honoured by the commission, especially given the fact that his own Symphony No. 9 was to emerge as a result.
As a matter of fact, Panufnik decided to draw on Beethoven’s work or, to be more precise, on the idea of brotherhood and peace contained in it. However, unlike his great predecessor, he did not use words for the purpose, but composed a purely instrumental work for his Symphony No. 9, to which he gave the title of Sinfonia di Speranza, or Symphony of Hope. He presented the structure of the work in a diagram by means of the rainbow, a universal symbol of optimism and hope. He explained his choice, commenting on his symphony as follows:
Having taken hope as my theme, I chose the rainbow as my guiding symbol, not only because, since ancient times, it had inspired contemplation and philosophical thought, but because of the extraordinary properties it offered me in designing the structure of my new symphony. I wanted to translate into my musical material the laws of geometric optics, those mysterious hidden relations such as refractions within reflection and symmetries within symmetry. The shape and colours of the rainbow dictated to me the framework for this work, which is composed on two planes: a continuous, flowing melodic line, and, in contrast, the simultaneous progression of a 3-note cell with its perpetual reflections and transpositions.
The rainbow arch also determined the formal structure of the symphony – it strictly follows the principles of mirror-reflection symmetry. We can precisely define the central point of the symphony, its axis of symmetry, in other words the place from which the musical action begins to evolve backwards, in a sense, towards ideas and themes introduced by the composer at the beginning of the work. Following the score carefully, we can notice that this return has its reflection not only in the general expressive mood of the successive sections of the work – as is often the case in Panufnik’s earlier pieces (Nocturne, Autumn Music and others) – but also in the actual musical material. The composer restores almost exactly the various themes and motifs, which are now run backwards by the same instruments. Of course, laws of music cannot be treated as laws of mathematics, hence certain melodic or rhythmical “inaccuracies” appear in the returning material, which in any case shows that this symphony is a living work, an expression of feelings and emotions, and not only a result of cold mathematical calculation.
The musical language of the symphony is based on a broadly evolving melodic line with harmony based on chords stemming from the 3-note E-F-B cell, along with its reflections and transpositions. A combination of these two harmonic layers in one work had appeared earlier, for the first time in Panufnik’s oeuvre, in his Sinfonia Votiva and then remained in his subsequent compositions . It testifies to a certain relaxation of the strict rules of musical language based on a selected sound cell (present in Panufnik’s music since the late 1960s) in favour of a search for new sound qualities. The extraordinarily precise formal and harmonic structure of Sinfonia di Speranza is also combined with strong expressive and emotional qualities of the work, which the composer intended to be a “message of hope” for listeners in the late 20th century. It is worth adding that the full one-movement symphony, lasting about 40 minutes, is one of Panufnik’s longest compositions.