Andrzej Panufnik, one of the most important Polish 20th-century composers, a year younger than Witold Lutosławski – with whom he founded a piano duo during the Second World War – has yet to take his rightful place in the collective mind of the Poles. We do not remember the composer of Arbor Cosmica well mainly because after his dramatic decision to leave communist Poland in 1954 Panufnik was proclaimed a traitor to the nation, and his name and his music were blacklisted for more than two decades. Although the ban was lifted in 1977, it has proved difficult to recover after those lost years. Fortunately, the composer’s music keeps attracting young performers and new recordings of it keep being made – this means not only that his works remain alive and inspiring, but also that we can hope that they will be a constant presence in Polish musical life.

Panufnik was born on 24 September 1914 in Warsaw, in a family with musical traditions. His father, Tomasz, was a highly regarded violin maker, while his mother, Matylda Thonnes, was a fine violinist who, though she did not perform in public, spent hours every day practising. Thus music surrounded Andrzej from the beginning and that atmosphere at home made him not only determined to study composition, but also made it so that throughout his life he would cast his mind back to his childhood, filled with his mother’s playing and the smell of instruments wafting from his father’s violin-making workshop. These associations with the composer’s family home must be the reason why the strings in his works always sound unique.

Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, Panufnik received a thorough musical education, studying from 1932 to 1936 at the Warsaw Conservatory, in composition with Kazimierz Sikorski and in conducting with Walerian Bierdiajew. He continued his conducting studies in Vienna with Felix von Weingartner and in Paris with Philippe Gaubert. In 1934 he composed his first serious piece – Piano Trio. The premiere of the work in 1936 drew the critics’ attention to the young composer, suggesting the prospects of a successful career. During the war Panufnik wrote a charming cycle, Five Polish Peasant Songs, and Tragic Overture, of which a performance held during the German occupation was a memorable experience for listeners. It is worth noting that during the war Panufnik composed probably his best-known piece – the song Warsaw Children is performed every year to remind people of the tragedy of the Warsaw Uprising. The Uprising was a painful personal experience for Panufnik, too, as it marked his life with two tragic losses – the death of his only brother, Mirosław, and the loss of all the works he had composed to that time. The scores, left in his Warsaw apartment after he left the city with his ailing mother, were all burned out. After the war, the composer managed to reconstruct from memory the three works that have just been mentioned. 

In the late 1940s, Panufnik led the way among modern Polish composers and works he wrote then, like Lullaby for 29 string instruments and 2 harps and Nocturne for orchestra, remain a testimony to the most advanced sonic experiments carried out in Poland at that time. In addition, Panufnik was very active as a conductor – from 1945 to 1946 he served as first conductor of the Kraków Philharmonic and in 1946 he was appointed the first post-war Director of the Warsaw Philharmonic. He also conducted concerts abroad, receiving excellent reviews for his performances.

Thanks to the success as a composer and conductor he enjoyed in those first years after the war,  in the early 1950s Panufnik was seen as "composer No. 1" in Polish musical life. Paradoxically, this exacerbated his political problems – Poland’s communist authorities had their own plans for the composer as he was increasingly recognized in Poland and abroad, and tried to coax him into collaborating with them. With time, Panufnik found it increasingly difficult to avoid compromises – for instance, he wrote several mass songs for official public occasions as well as the Symphony of Peace, which he later withdrew. 

At the same time his works, praised on one hand, were constantly criticized on the other. Today, we may find it bizarre for example that his Symphony of Peace was criticized for not being "ideologically pure", because Panufnik was apparently praying too much for peace instead of fighting for it... The situation was made even worse by the social aspirations of the composer’s wife, Scarlett, who liked to shine at her husband’s side in Warsaw’s high political circles. Panufnik felt increasingly uncomfortable psychologically, forced as he was to speak on matters far removed from music; constantly dragged away from composing, he plunged deeper and deeper into a creative crisis. Further depressed by the death of his daughter, who was barely a few months old, he finally decided to leave Poland illegally and start everything anew. Thus in July 1954, taking advantage of a brief visit to Zurich to make some recordings, he flew from there straight to London, where he asked for political asylum. 

In Poland, he was immediately proclaimed a traitor. The authorities tried to erase him from people’s memories, banning performances of his works and even forbidding his name to be mentioned in print. Meanwhile, in the U.K., after the initial interest of the press, Panufnik had to build his position as a composer practically from scratch. The first several years were exceptionally difficult, marked by financial and personal problems (in the late 1950s, his first marriage broke up). For two seasons – 1957/58 and 1958/59 – he accepted the position of Artistic Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but then decided to devote himself entirely to composition and never to accept any permanent post again.


A breakthrough came only in the early 1960s, with the appearance in the composer’s life of Camilla Jessel, many years his junior, who in 1963 became his second wife and created their home in Twickenham, near London, as well as ideal working conditions for him. That same year, Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra, written with the upcoming millennium of Poland in mind and filled with patriotic allusions, won first prize at the International Composers’ Competition in Monaco, reviving his hope for a better future. Indeed, the following decades brought magnificent compositions, often associated with his homeland (Katyń Epitaph, Sinfonia Votiva dedicated to Our Lady of Częstochowa, Bassoon Concerto dedicated to the memory of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, and many others) and increasing recognition in the British and international musical world. Most of these works were commissioned by eminent English and U.S. musicians and institutions: Triangles was written for the BBC Television, Sinfonia Votiva for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony No. 10 for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Arbor Cosmica for the Koussevitzky Foundation, Violin Concerto for Yehudi Menuhin and Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich. 

Hugely important to the composer were his friendships and artistic collaborations with artists and institutions of the stature of Leopold Stokowski, Yehudi Menuhin and the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he began to work in the early 1970s and which commissioned three compositions from him. Suffice it to say that at the beginning of 1991, a few months before his death, Panufnik was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to musical culture in Great Britain. Sir Andrzej Panufnik died on 27 October 1991 in his home in Twickenham near London, surrounded by his wife and their children, Roxanna (b. 1968) and Jeremy (b. 1969). He was posthumously awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta by the Polish government, which is among Poland's highest civilian and military Orders.


Panufnik’s oeuvre is absolutely dominated by symphonic works. He composed ten symphonies, two overtures (Tragic and Heroic), works for symphony and chamber orchestra (including Landscape, Autumn Music, Concerto Festivo and Arbor Cosmica), as well as four solo concertos – for piano, violin, bassoon, and cello. All these compositions reveal their composer’s symphonic nature. In addition, the catalogue of Panufnik work includes pieces for solo piano, chamber ensembles (among them three string quartets) as well as vocal-instrumental works (including the cantata Universal Prayer). All are characterized by formal order and varied emotional hues. The combinations of these two elements constituted an enduring value of art for Panufnik. As early as 1952, he wrote:

Music expresses emotions and feelings. My ideal is a work in which poetic content is combined with musical craftsmanship. Poetry alone does not determine the musical value of a work, just as craftsmanship on its own carries a risk of descending into lifeless and dry formulas. Everlasting beauty is born only when these two elements are balanced.

This artistic creed remained true till the last days of his work. Neither the vicissitudes of the composer’s life nor the evolution of his musical language made him abandon the ideal which, for Panufnik, was embodied by Mozart’s music. Like that great composer, in his works Panufnik sought to maintain a balance between feeling and intellect, the heart and the mind.

Panufnik’s music occupies an important place in Poland’s 20th-century musical culture, and in that of the world. Full of inner warmth and always exquisitely structured, it maintains its distinctiveness and originality, a quality characteristic of great masters. Panufnik was not an avant-gardist trying to build a new order on the ruins of the old world – tradition was far too important to him. That is why he created his own sound world, preserving traditional values such as melody and harmony. It is a thoroughly modern musical world, which simultaneously enchants with the beauty of its sound and the depth of its expression, and draws admiration with the precision of its always intricate formal structure, well thought out in its smallest details.

Beata Bolesławska-Lewandowska