Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony No. 3) for orchestra
Sinfonia Sacra, the composer’s third symphony, was commissioned by the Kościuszko Foundation in New York City to commemorate Poland’s millennium of statehood and Christianity, celebrated in 1966. In his programme note, the composer wrote:
Because of the source of inspiration, I wanted this composition to be very much Polish in character and also to emphasise the Catholic tradition so deeply rooted in the country of my birth. Therefore I based Sinfonia Sacra on the first known hymn in the Polish language, the Bogurodzica, a magnificent Gregorian chant. Through the Middle Ages, Bogurodzica, like a national anthem, was sung not only in church as a prayer to the Virgin, but also as an invocation on the battle-fields by the Polish knights. Both these factors, heroic and religious, I have endeavoured to incorporate into my symphony, stressing their emotional power.
Therefore, without reading too much literary, programmatic meaning into the music, the listener might still feel the atmosphere of the battlefield and of prayer, these two persistently repeated elements having dominated Polish life throughout all the thousand years of its tragic history.
Despite such a huge emphasis on its emotional content, Sinfonia Sacra is very precisely constructed. It consists of two equal movements (each lasting about 11 minutes), with the first comprising three contrasted Visions, and the second, Hymn, being based on the melody of Bogurodzica. Vision I, which begins the symphony, is a fanfare by four trumpets drawing on the tradition of medieval military fanfares. Vision II introduces a mystical and contemplative mood, while Vision III is a dramatic tutti creating an atmosphere of the battlefield (thanks to suggestive use of the percussion). This battlefield noise is suddenly cut, only for the symphony to return after a moment of silence to prayerful quietness and contemplation, now developed in the Hymn.
The reference to Bogurodzica in the first part of the symphony is purely structural; the composer based the harmonic-melodic material of the Visions on intervals found between the first four notes of the song (a perfect fourth in Vision I, a major second in Vision II and a minor second in Vision III). The full melody of Bogurodzica appears in the second part of the work, the Hymn, where, developed gradually from almost inaudible notes of the strings, it leads to an impressive climax, at the end of which the composer brings back the initial fanfare-like trumpet motif, joining the work together formally and emotionally.
Sinfonia Sacra was finished in March 1963. The composer sent the score to the Prince Rainier Competition in Monaco, when it won first prize. The premiere took place in Monte Carlo on 12 August 1964, with the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra conducted by Luis Frémaux.Sinfonia Sacra won recognition in short order among both critics and listeners. The deeply emotional character of the piece combined with its masterful structure still rouses audiences, making the symphony one of the most frequently performed and best known of all compositions by Andrzej Panufnik.