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Symphony No 8 'Sinfonia votiva'

written to commemorate the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1981

Panufnik’s approach to composition was perhaps unique in his time, when composers agonized over systems and styles. Panufnik was never a devotee of any compositional ‘system’, and his music ranges widely in mood and character, yet there is never any doubt that it is the product of a contemporary sensibility. He admired the dictum of Alexander Pope (whose poetry he has set to music and who lived—two centuries before—near Panufnik’s own home on the Thames): ‘Order is Heav’n’s first law’. Panufnik’s music is always carefully controlled from the outset, even planned in strict geometrical terms. But the precompositional plan did not become a straitjacket to the imagination; rather it provided the framework within which the artist moved with complete freedom. By imposing limitations on himself he paradoxically created the necessary precondition for a freedom of invention that still had a perceptible unity. More and more, Panufnik’s music grew from the most seemingly restricted musical ideas—often no more than a figure of three or four notes, employed exclusively but with the greatest variety of treatment to obtain an extraordinary range of textures and harmonies, from the sImplest to the most dense and complex. At the same tIme, his music seems always to have behind it an underlying ‘impulse’. His works are not, at bottom, mere abstract patterns, however striking may be the structural basis. They were composed with an expressive goal in mind—and even a moral goal. His music responded to the ethical questions of our day.

Andrzej Panufnik knew from personal experience what humankind can do at its worst; and yet his music, which has at its core a basically religious viewpoint, combines the melodic and rhythmic gestures of his native Poland with formal systems that reflect the Catholic intellectual tradition of his background, and in so doing aims to express the highest aspirations and the deepest feelings that we can know.

The Sinfonia Votiva is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, three each of triangles, cymbals and tamtams in small, medium and large sizes, harp and strings. The composer strongly recommends doubling the harp part in the second movement with another placed on the opposite side of the platform. That arrangement was followed in this recording.

The following note on the Sinfonia Votiva was provided by the composer:

My Eighth Symphony is an abstract work without any programmatic content. It nevertheless carries a spiritual and patriotic message. It is a votive offering to the miraculous ikon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in my native Poland. This famous Madonna is said to have been painted by St Luke on a piece of cypress wood used as a table top by the Holy Family in Nazareth. It was brought to Poland by way of Byzantium and is still preserved at the Monastery of Jasna Góra, which celebrated its 600th anniversary in 1982.
This picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa (as she is popularly known) is reputed to have supernatural protective powers; it has always been, and still is, the sacred symbol of Independent Poland. For many centuries she has been worshipped by the Polish people; it is to her that they offer their prayers in times of national crisis, especially when their country is under threat from the invader.
The votive offerings made as tributes to the Black Madonna include numerous works of art and objects of great value, some given by ordinary men and women of the land, others by such famous heroes as General Kazimierz Putlaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who once fought bravely for American independence. My Sinfonia Votiva is a personal offering, profoundly influenced by my deeply-felt concern over the events that were taking place in Poland throughout the period of its composition. By chance I started work on this symphony in August 1980 when the shipyard workers in Gdansk had the courage to strike in the cause of justice and human dignity. For the whole year that I took to write this work, Poland was in turmoil, and I completed the symphony as the men, women and children of Poland began a series of desperate hunger marches.
As well as expressing my patriotic and spiritual feelings, the symphony is intended to show off the full splendour of the Boston Symphony Orchestra not only as an ensemble but as an assembly of brilliant individuals. Although the work is symphonic in structure it may also be regarded as a ‘concerto for orchestra’, allowing the players to show not only their technical skill but also their expressive and poetic qualities.

from notes by Andrzej Panufnik © 1981


Panufnik: Symphony No 8; Sessions: Concerto for orchestra


Movement 1: Andante rubato, con devozione
Movement 2: Allegro assai, con passione

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