Sinfonia Rustica (Symphony No. 1) for orchestra
Sinfonia Rustica is the first symphony in the catalogue of Panufnik’s works, although it must be noted that two earlier works in this genre written by Panufnik during the Second World War were destroyed in the Warsaw Uprising, along with the manuscripts of all his other works written before 1944.
Sinfonia Rustica was written in 1948. Panufnik composed it thinking about a competition organized as part of the Chopin Year in 1949, when the centenary of that composer's death was to be commemorated. This is one reason he used folk melodies in it, alluding in this way to his great predecessor. However, Panufnik, unlike Chopin, used folklore from the Kurpie region in Poland, specifically melodies collected in the early 20th century by Father Władysław Skierkowski, the same man who had inspired Karol Szymanowski to write his Kurpie Songs. In Panufnik’s symphony, folk melodies appear as practically unchanged quotations, though they are presented in an original harmonic or chromatic context. Using Kurpie folklore, the composer was inspired not only by melodies, but also by symmetrical paper-cuts typical of this region:
My Sinfonia Rustica emerged as an expression of my love for the Polish peasant music from the northern part of our country where the songs have exceptional charm. The art of the region is also outstanding, with imaginatively carved wood-work, brilliant folk costumes, and intricate, colourful paper-cuts, either abstract or semi-abstract, often of symmetrical design. I decided that I would reflect these naïve but aesthetically appealing features in my new symphony. The symmetry of the paper-cuts was to enter into all aspects of the composition. Even the orchestral layout was symmetrical, for acoustic reasons as well as for visual effect, with eight wind instruments in the middle of the concert platform and two small string orchestras on either side carrying on a dialogue.
Sinfonia Rustica is classically written in four movements. Con tenerezza is a two-subject sonata allegro, Con grazia has the form of a freely treated rondo, Con espressione presents lyrical variations, and Con vigore, like the first movement, is a two-subject sonata allegro. The spatial layout of two string ensembles separated by winds, mostly treated as solo instruments, adds an element of dialogue and competition to the work, a device that was seen as a reference to the baroque concerto grosso or to two folk bands playing simultaneously. The composer drew on the way village musicians played, using in his orchestration empty-sounding ostinatos in the lower strings (cellos and double basses), similar to those in folk music. Thanks to the introduction of folk melodies, the symphony acquired a singing character, full of charm and carefree joy, not often encountered in Panufnik’s works.
At the 1949 competition for composers, Sinfonia Rustica won first prize, and its premiere, in Warsaw on 13 May 1949 by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer, was a great success.After he had left for England, Panufnik made slight changes in the score in 1955, giving up for example the introduction to the slow third movement. Today we can compare both versions of that movement, thanks to a recording by the Polish Radio Orchestra conducted by Łukasz Borowicz released by CPO, which in addition to the official version of Sinfonia Rustica includes the original version of the third movement.