ROXANNA PANUFNIK in conversation with JESSICA DUCHEN

JD: How did you start to compose?

RP: I was three years old, watching the violinist Ida Haendel on TV, when I said to my mother, ‘Mummy, I want a violin with a stick to make it sing!’ In childhood I started violin, piano and flute. But I only wanted to make up my own music. When I was 12, Oliver Knussen, visiting my parents, told me I should write down my improvisations. It all went from there.

At the Royal Academy of Music, my professors wanted me to look to composers like Boulez and Stockhausen, but I just wanted to write what I liked to listen to. My final report said I had a great gift for melody, but my music was ‘naïve’. I wondered if composing wasn’t for me after all.

What happened at music college…?

At the Royal Academy of Music, my professors wanted me to look to composers like Boulez and Stockhausen, but I just wanted to write what I liked to listen to. My final report said I had a great gift for melody, but my music was ‘naïve’. I wondered if composing wasn’t for me after all.

Still, your next move proved instructive?

I worked for three years as a researcher at BBC Music and Arts. It was fantastic experience – I learned everything about the music world. But instrumentalist friends continued to commission me. I remember my boss, the late, great Dennis Marks, telling me: “You can’t do composition and TV production". Then my father died. Just before, we had an amazing conversation where I realised life is too short not to be doing what you really want to do.

I got into the National Film and Television School, thinking fondly that I’d make my millions as a film composer, but it wasn’t for me – and I had a fair number of concert commissions. So I took a brave leap into full-time composing and I’ve never looked back.

Many people associate you with choral music: you’ve worked with world-renowned choirs such as The Sixteen, BBC Singers and a great many prestigious cathedral and university ensembles, here and abroad. Why do you enjoy writing for choirs?

In my teens I loved singing in choirs, so I wrote a lot for them. One commission often led to the next. An anthem I wrote for the Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition opening service led to more choral commissions, which led to Westminster Mass, which really launched me. It was premiered in Westminster Cathedral, a 75th birthday present for Cardinal Basil Hume from John Studzinski, who was setting up the Genesis Foundation. It generated a huge amount of interest – and more choral commissions. Today probably 70% of my music is choral. But I’ve also written lots of song cycles and opera: I love the human voice.

Your music often has a wonderful, twinkly humour – how important is that to you?

My music is me. I’m not just this serious, religious, spiritual person; I also love comedy. In my settings of Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales, or my many collaborations with Wendy Cope, the words are really funny and I wanted the music to reflect that. And in the opera Silver Birch, humour enhances the opposite emotions, creating a much harder impact.

You’ve also written heaps of string quartets…

Yes, I’ve worked with some amazing ensembles, including the Maggini, Dante, Endellion and Brodsky Quartets. I find the medium incredibly expressive, also when combined with other instruments. I wrote a piece for bassoon and string quartet for the Wihan Quartet and Julie Price, and Letters from Burma for oboe (Douglas Boyd) and (Vellinger) string quartet – the sonorities were amazing, like a mini-orchestra.

Your father was the famous Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik. How has his presence in your life affected you, in terms of both musical influence and your personal outlook and creativity?

It’s inevitable that my heritage will be fundamental to who I am – as a composer, as much as a person. My father had enormous integrity, always teaching me to be myself and maybe that’s why I ran aground at music college – because I couldn’t write music that wasn't 'me'. Early in my career I was very sensitive to being compared to him and a few stray remarks about nepotism dented my confidence. However, I plodded on and now I’m thrilled to be regularly programmed alongside him and I’m so proud of where and who I came from – and my Polish roots. Stylistically, I have inherited his love of simultaneous major-minor thirds and run wild with that but otherwise I think we’re quite different.

The piece you co-wrote with him, Modlitwa, is very popular…

Modlitwa (‘Prayer’) sets words by the Polish poet Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, a friend of my father’s. It was among the last things my father wrote before he died. He set the shorter of its two verses, but had the long verse narrated so that music wouldn’t obscure the words. Later Jerzy told me he thought that if Dad hadn’t been so ill he’d have set that verse too, and asked if I would do it. I hesitated. Then I had a dream in which my father and I were improvising together at his piano; when I woke up, I knew it was OK. The piece now exists in many versions – from piano solo to voice and string orchestra.

You’ve set a number of unusual languages, including Estonian?

That was scary! The Estonian commission, Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass, involved the Latin Mass…and 19 short poems in Estonian. I thought the language might be similar to Polish – but no…

Setting any language is prosody: you look for the rhythm of the words and the natural accents. From a recording of the two poets reading their words, I noted down the rhythm and pitch of their voices, then worked with that and a word-for-word translation. It was so intense I got tendonitis in my shoulder. But I was very happy to work with Estonian folk musicians and a folk instrument, the kannel. I loved it. Lately, I've been composing an oratorio "Faithful Journey - a Mass for Poland", co-commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Poland, setting Polish poems in English and Polish simultaneously (along with the Latin Mass and a smattering of Hebrew). The music of the languages themselves seems to blend beautifully.

You often assimilate folk musics into your own distinctive language…

My father gave me a book of Polish folk music from the Tatra Mountains, which drew me to work with those very particular sounds. That sparked my curiosity towards music from different countries, cultures and faiths. It provides a wealth of ideas and inspiration.

Your Four World Seasons for violin, string orchestra and Tibetan singing bowl is one example – respectively about Albania, Tibet, Japan and India?

That was a huge joy. Tasmin Little wanted a new, contemporary Four Seasons, and what could be more modern in our globetrotting world?

Silver Birch, our ‘People’s Opera’ for Garsington, was premiered in 2017 and shortlisted for the International Opera Awards. What did this project mean to you?

It was the culmination of everything I wanted to do. Composing is a lonely job and it was amazing to work in a team, sparking ideas off each other, meeting people with different roles in opera production – and the wonderful luxury of writing especially for the cast of singers. I will always cherish that total immersion in those onstage and offstage families and I’m now longing to write more opera!

You’ve been commissioned to write for the 2018 Last Night of the Proms…

Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light commemorates the centenary of the end of World War I while looking optimistically towards the future. It combines a poem by the English-Jewish war poet Isaac Rosenberg, ‘In the Underworld’, with lines from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran: the Gibran seems to soothe the fears of the Rosenberg, which, though written in 1913, is almost prescient of the trenches. The two poems and choirs (BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus) are in conversation. I use a beautiful Ashkenazi prayer mode for the Rosenberg, and for Gibran, some Maronite Syriac chant from his native Lebanon. When Gibran wrote The Prophet in 1920s USA, he was interested in Islam, especially Sufism, so accidentally I included the three Abrahamic faiths in one work.

Tell us about the multifaith aspect of your work?

On 9/11 I was pregnant with my first child and I became terrified about what sort of world I was bringing her into. Daniel Hope had commissioned a violin concerto – and someone reminded me all three Abrahamic faiths believe in the same one God. The chant for these faiths shared a musical and geographic basis in one area in the Middle East: this seemed a great starting point. The story of God testing Abraham’s faith by demanding the sacrifice of his son Isaac appears in all three of the Koran, Torah and Bible. The concerto is called Abraham. The World Orchestra for Peace then commissioned an arrangement as a symphonic overture, Three Paths to Peace, which was premiered in Jerusalem and then the BBC Proms, under the baton of Valery Gergiev.

I’m on a mission to shout from the rooftops the beauty of all these different faiths’ music. It’s about bringing us together. Too often we don’t think about what we have in common, but instead about our tiny fraction of difference from each other.

Roxanna Panufnik’s music is published by Edition Peters. Recordings of her works are available on the Chandos, Signum and Warner Classics labels, among others

Listen to Act IV from Roxanna's The Hare & the Tortoise
The Hare & the Tortoise