Some years back Roxanna Panufnik was asked to write a choral work mixing the Latin Mass with a selection of Estonian poems. The result was Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life, in which the Latin Mass movements were interspersed with Estonian poems. Her big dream thereafter was to create a Polish equivalent. Now it's here, and its title is Faithful Journey. The piece is the latest in a massive year for her - no better way to celebrate her half-century - so I asked her a few questions about it, and you can hear an extract and preview in the CBSO video above.
The oratorio is a co-commission from the CBSO and the Polish Radio Orchestra and had its world premiere earlier this month in Katowice. It will be heard for the first time in the UK at Symphony Hall Birmingham on 21 November, with soprano Mary Bevan and the CBSO and Chorus conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (her first concert back from maternity leave). I'll be off to hear it.
You can read the rest of her programme note online, here: https://cbso.co.uk/news/faithful-journey-a-mass-for-poland-programme-note
JD: What is Faithful Journey? Why this, why now?
RP: It's an oratorio, marking a centenary of Poland’s re-Independence after WWI.
JD: How did the commission come about?
RP: The concept was my idea (modelled on something similar I did for Tallinn Philharmonic when Tallinn was European Capital of Culture). I also wanted to do something really profound and significant to mark my half centenary this year and my new Polish citizenship.
JD: What does the title signify?
RP: It’s taken from the last poem “Save me, Guide me, faithful Journey” but I think beautifully sums up the journey of faith (religious and secular) driving Poles through tumultuous times.
JD: I know the piece is deeply meaningful to you and you’ve been wanting to write such a work for a long time. Did that emotional weight, the sense of e.g. “here’s my dream piece, finally going onto the page...” affect you at all when you were actually writing the music?
RP: I spent so long researching the texts and the Polish folk music that once I started writing it felt very organic and every part of my heart and soul has gone into this.
JD: You’ve set the words of the Latin Mass many times before. Do you have somehow to "clear out” the echoes of the others in order to create a new version? If so, how do you do that?
RP: Because I was starting with Polish folk songs for the Mass part I don’t need to “eject” any previous music I’d written!
JD: How close do you feel to the Poland’s musical culture and how is that reflected in this work?
RP: Poles express themselves culturally through 110% emotion - that’s me, too!
JD: Your father’s escape from Communist Poland was very dramatic and dangerous, and its echoes must have had a major impact on you as you grew up - could you tell us something about that, please? Is there a sense of coming full circle now, or is it more a matter of fresh perspective from 2018 with the Brexit negotiations in, er, the state they're in.
RP: I didn’t really understand what he had gone through, when I was a child, and it’s only in recent years when I’ve had my own children that I’ve really begun to be able to imagine what it must be like trying to look after vulnerable loved ones in times of great danger. When ever I am scared of something, I think about his courage - and it rubs off on me.
JD: How did you choose the texts for Faithful Journey?
RP: I worked with two translators who had worked extensively with Polish poetry - we discussed what I wanted from each poem (which depicts a historical or atmospheric moment in time, each decade since 1918) and they’d source poems for me to choose from.
JD: The Polish language is rather challenging [Faithful Journey is sung in Latin, Polish and English, sometimes the latter two simultaneously]. How have you dealt with it?
RP: Well, I speak a little and therefore have a headstart with pronunciation and prosody - I had hoped it would help my grasp of its impossible grammar but I’m still waiting…!
JD: This has been quite a year for you: this piece, the Last Night of the Proms commission, the CD ‘Celestial Bird’ being received with open arms, and of course the after-echoes of Silver Birch (Garsington Opera, 2017). Where to next?
RP: Bed - I’m exhausted! But it has been brilliant and my next ambition is to write a full-length EPIC opera!
Faithful Journey by Roxanna Panufnik is at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Wednesday 21 November. Tickets here.
Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light - an extract from Roxanna's piece for the Last Night of the Proms