Andrzej Panufnik was born on 24 September 1914 in Warsaw. His parents were Tomasz Panufnik and Matylda Thonnes. His mother was a talented violinist and his father, an engineer by profession, devoted much of his time to the construction of violins. The parents’ passionate interest in music meant that their sons – Andrzej and his five years older brother Mirosław – had contact with the subject from their earliest childhood. The atmosphere at home had an enormous influence on Andrzej’s musical interests, and his in-depth knowledge of string instruments became apparent in his later life in the special treatment that these received in his orchestral works. Little Andrzej often hid under the piano and listened to his mother playing:
In my early years I never consciously listened to my mother’s playing, but it was constantly in my ears, a background music, part of the fabric of my life, so that I knew in my head the concertos of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, as well as Bach, and contemporary Polish music such as Wieniawski and Karłowicz. This music was an intrinsic part of my existence, like cleaning my teeth, eating my meals, even breathing.
The boy’s love of music was first discovered by his grandmother, Henryka Thonnes, and she became his first piano teacher. Little Andrzej soon also began to try to use music notation to record his own musical ideas, and wrote down his first composition, with the somewhat grandiose title Sonatina, at the age of nine. When he was eleven, already as a pupil at secondary school, he began to attend Wiktor Chrapowicki’s piano class at Warsaw Conservatory. However, after a year’s study, a paralysing attack of stage fright meant that he did not pass the final exam and was removed from the list of students. Broken-hearted, the future composer gave up musical education for a number of years, and concentrated on completing his secondary schooling. He even tried an engineering vocational school, preparing for the profession of aircraft engineer (aviation was also his passion at that time). However, it was then that he finally realised that music was his vocation:
I had recognised that a great number of years of gruelling study lay ahead of me before I would come near to designing even the humblest part of an aeroplane. Reality extinguished any remaining glimpses of glamour or hope. Overworked and undermotivated, I became hopelessly depressed. It was not just having to acknowledge that my choice of the engineering school was a mistake; I felt in a kind of a spiritual and emotional vacuum.
Battling with this sense of void, the cause became increasingly clear to me. I had lost touch with music – and yet without music I myself was lost. With this shock I had to recognise that composition was still part of the fabric of my dreams for the future, though at that moment these fantasies seemed so unattainable that I hardly dared to admit the truth.
However, he did convince first his mother, and then also his father, to allow him to try once again for the Music Conservatory. But it turned out that, at sixteen, Andrzej Panufnik was already too old for the piano class; also he could not be admitted to the theory and composition class, because of inadequate musical knowledge. Under these circumstances he decided to try, as far as possible, to catch up: he extended his theoretical knowledge by reading books on the history and theory of music, and he diligently practised the piano. During this practice he would often distort original compositions, and liked to improvise.
While freely improvising, he gradually moved from classical music towards jazz, which by then he already knew and enjoyed. He even began to compose short jazz pieces, inspired by the works of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. Panufnik’s mother showed one of these tunes to the owner of the music shop where she usually bought her music. He, in turn, brought it to the attention of a poet, Marian Hemar. The latter not only wrote the words to this tune, but included the finished work in the programme of a revue he was then preparing, to be performed by one of the most popular actors of the day, Adolf Dymsza. This was the origin of the song Ach, pardon, which quickly became a popular revue hit, even followed by a recording. The composer did not hear its first performance since, being under age, he was turned away from the premises. This was Andrzej Panufnik’s first success as a composer.
He, however, still wanted to compose serious music. To achieve this goal, he finally had to begin a serious music education. Andrzej’s mother, trying to help her son, asked Eugeniusz Morawski, Rector of Warsaw Conservatory, for his advice. Morawski suggested that Andrzej should try to enroll in the percussion class, since the qualifying exam was not difficult and he could easily obtain a pass; moreover, the candidate’s age did not constitute an obstacle here. Once admitted to the Conservatory, Andrzej could attend classes in the theory and history of music at the same time, and after a while he might be able to transfer to the longed-for composition class. The seventeen-year-old willingly accepted this plan and, having passed the entrance exam, in February 1932 he again became a student at the Warsaw Music Conservatory.