Tallinn is Worth a Mass

No longer in her father’s shadow, the composer Roxanna Panufnik is scaling new heights

Jessica Duchen

In a studio at the bottom of a west London garden, one of Britain’s most individual and recognisable composers is hard at work. Roxanna Panufnik, now in her forties and a mother of three, manages her schedule with a quiet determination that on the surface scarcely indicates the vibrant inner life and intensity of her art.

This month sees the world premiere of perhaps her most extraordinary task to date: Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life, a cantata incorporating both the Latin Mass and 19 poems in Estonian — a language she doesn’t speak. Its first performance on June 30, in Tallinn, celebrates the city’s tenure as European Capital of Culture. Talking it through over a well-earned cup of tea, she confirms that it has been “one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced in my professional life.”

Panufnik explains that she has fitted the poems around the movements of the Mass to reflect and amplify their meaning. The process has involved rigorous exploration of the language to make sure she is using the correct stresses and meanings; and throughout she has drawn strongly on Estonian folksong melodies. The instrumentation includes the kannel, a dulcimer-like folk instrument, plus an evocation of the church bells of Tallinn. 

She has never been one to shirk a challenge: that research process, if unusually demanding, is typical of the way she likes to work. Last year she asked me to write the words for a new piece commissioned from her by the acclaimed male-voice choir Chanticleer in San Francisco, to form part of a programme of choral works telling the story of Jesus’s life. Panufnik’s chosen section was the childhood of Christ. She was drawn to a story from the Gnostic Gospels in which the boy Jesus restores to life the dead child of a grieving mother. 

We decided to root the work’s imagery in the ancient Jewish community in which it might have taken place. But this would need to be matched with appropriate music. Consultations with the Jewish music expert Alexander Knapp and a visit to a synagogue cantor brought Panufnik to some ancient Yemenite melodies for the Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead), the oldest of which duly became a vital component of the work. Despite having written its libretto, I was bowled over by the finished piece of music, Let Me In: Panufnik’s setting has an emotional gutsiness and an anguished, bitonal harmonic language that combines with the energy of the ancient chant to pack a hefty punch.

Panufnik’s professional life has often found her up against two perennial issues: first, the fact that her father was Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), the great Polish composer who fled to Britain at the height of the Communist era; and secondly, the question of why women composers are still relatively few and far between. Today, though, it’s interesting that both matters seem to be receding in importance at last. 

Real equality for women in music is still a long way off, of course, especially for composers and conductors — and Panufnik has never yet had a commission from the Proms, something that’s decidedly overdue. But the runaway popularity of the Westminster Mass, which was her “breakthrough” work, written for Westminster Cathedral in 1997, more than proved she could hold her own. She has scarcely had a spare moment since. 

Nor does her father cast such a long shadow, though it would be easy for any composer to be inhibited by such a heritage. “I don’t think he ever had a direct influence over me musically,” Panufnik says. “The only thing I’ve taken from him is his love of simultaneous major-minor harmonies, and I use that much more excessively than he did. He was very economical with his harmonies. When I was writing Westminster Mass in the Malvern Hills, I was figuring out a chord progression for the Kyrie and suddenly it was as if I heard my father’s voice speaking to me very clearly, saying: ‘Roxanna, clean up your harmonies!'” He was primarily a symphonic composer and wrote little for the voice, she adds — “a pity, because the stuff he did write is gorgeous. But because I love words and the voice so much, that’s a big feature of what I do.”

Narratives are often at the heart of her works. Try her delicious settings of Vikram Seth’s fables in Beastly Tales; her Violin Concerto “Abraham”, written for Daniel Hope, which incorporates elements of traditional music from the three major monotheistic faiths; or the witty evocations of different types of concertgoer in The Audience, a collaboration with the poet Wendy Cope, commissioned by the Endellion String Quartet for its 30th anniversary and currently touring around the UK. 

“I love to have an external stimulus for a work,” Panufnik says. “Before I start a piece, I need to go through a research period in which the piece slowly forms in the back of my mind — it can fire me up so much. For instance, I’m writing four violin concertos for Tasmin Little: four ‘seasons’ each evoking a different part of the world.” To date, these are “Indian Summer”, “Tibetan Winter” and “Spring in Japan”. “It’s incredibly inspirational for me to research the appropriate music, then find a way of expressing it in my own harmonic language, within the context of a season and all that that might conjure up visually.”

She has also just completed a quintet entitled Cantator and Amanda for bassoon and string quartet, for this year’s Rye Festival: it tells in purely musical terms the local legend of a friar who was punished for a love affair by being bricked up alive. The Wihan String Quartet and bassoonist Julie Price give the world premiere on  September 17.

Panufnik’s diary is chock-a-block with commissions and she is currently composer-in-residence for the London Mozart Players (though that superb chamber orchestra is fighting for its financial life after the Arts Council pulled the plug on its funding). Compositional dreams remain: not least, she’d love to write a full-length opera. And since she identifies strongly with her father’s roots, another dream would be a similar work to the Tallinn Mass, but in Polish. 

Last but not least: is she inspired by her Catholic faith? “Yes and no,” she says, “because I approach the setting of both sacred and secular words in exactly the same way.” She’s in good company: J.S. Bach had a similar philosophy. What better forerunner could there be?

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