Polish composer and conductor Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) was born in Warsaw at the start of the First World War to an engineer-cum-violinmaker and violinist. He studied percussion and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory, graduating with distinction in 1936, and was thereafter called up for National Service. He failed the medical and instead travelled to Vienna to study conducting with Felix Weingartner. Whilst there he studied the Second Viennese School and composed music for film. An anti-Nazi, Panufnik cut his studies short when Germany annexed Austria and returned to Poland where he formed a piano duo with Witold Lutosławksi. The pair performed in cafes, raising money for Resistance workers and Jewish artists and composing resistance songs. During this time Panufnik wrote his Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, his Heroic Overture and Tragic Overture (later titled Sinfonia Elegiaca), which contained musical representations of falling bombs, aeroplanes and machine guns, and which, according to the composer, ended with “an agonising wail of despair.” Unfortunately the majority of Panukfnik’s scores, including the Tragic Overture, were lost during the Warsaw uprising in 1944.

After the war Panufnik settled in Kraków and was later made musical director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, where he recreated many of his compositions, including Tragic Overture, from memory. Frustrated with socialist realism, Panufnik fled Poland in 1954 for England where he spoke about the creative control exerted by the government on Eastern bloc composers. The Katyń Epitaph was written in 1967 (revised in 1969) as a memorial to the 15,000 Polish prisoners of war murdered by the Soviets in 1940 in the Katyń Forest. Panufnik wrote that he felt it his duty to write a tribute to these victims, as socialist realism had prevented any memorial to the victims in Poland. The composer described his seven-minute orchestral composition in the following way:

It was in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1943 I heard the shattering news that in Katyń Forest in Russia many thousands of defenceless Polish prisoners-of-war had been brutally murdered, their hands tied behind their backs, shot one by one, a revolver fired into the nape of their necks at the brink of their mass grave which they had been forced to dig for themselves. At the time the Germans pronounced that this massacre was committed by the Russians, while the Russians insisted that it was a Nazi crime. After so many years, long after all possible other major war criminals had been found and punished, I felt haunted by the spectre of that massacre at Katyń, which remained still unspoken of and officially unresolved in spite of numerous documents and other indications of Russian guilt. I composed Katyń Epitaph to express my personal sorrow that the Western civilised nations have allowed this crime to remain forgotten, and I dedicated this piece to the memory of the 15,000 Polish patriots who were slaughtered while completely defenceless, and who had committed no other crime than to wish to defend their own country. 

This Epitaph has a most simple structure: after an introduction by the solo violin a long passage is played by the woodwinds; in the second half of the piece, the soloists of the string orchestra start a gradual crescendo building up to the tutti fortissimo. The whole piece is a continuous thread made out of a 3-note cell - just two intervals: a major and a minor second.

By Daisy Fancourt

Sources

Boyesławska, B. (2015) The Life and Works of Andrzej Panufkin (1914-1991) (UK: Ashgate)

Jacobson, B. (1996) A Polish Renaissance (London: Phaidon Press Ltd.)

Panufnik, A. (1987) Composing Myself (Great Britain: Methuen London Ltd.)

‘Katyń Epitaph’ (n.d.) Panufnik Website. Retrieved from [www.panufnik.polmic.pl.com] 8/1/2015.