On the morning of 14 July 1954, Andrzej Panufnik landed at Heathrow airport in London, thus beginning the second, English, stage of his life.
The news of his escape caused a great sensation in Poland. Public opinion mostly interpreted it as 'cocking a snoot' at the communist authorities, particularly on the eve of the celebrations to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic in Poland. Here was the 'blue-eyed boy' of the communists, the leading Polish composer and conductor, pride of People’s Poland, 'choosing freedom', 'betraying' the socialist fatherland and leaving in order to serve capitalism. Such a step had to be severely censured. The composer’s music and even his name were to be censored for over 20 years, performances of his works and publication of any information about him were banned. The Polish Composers’ Union issued a short press release with the information that Panufnik was being excluded from its membership.
In Britain, after the initial sensation caused by his arrival and his interviews, Panufnik began a normal existence as a man and as a composer, in the new circumstances. Overjoyed to be free from all pressure and able to return quietly to the world of music, he did not make any attempt to use his escape and the fleeting popularity to further his career. His greatest desire was to concentrate on creative work, and above all to regain his emotional balance.
He also intended to return as soon as possible to the international world of music. In September 1954 he applied for membership of the British Performing Rights Society (having previously been a member of its Polish equivalent), and in November of that year he signed a contract with the largest British music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. Since until then the copyright to his music was held by the PWM Edition (Polish Music Publishers), the new publisher asked him to make minor changes in his earlier compositions. Hence the differences in Panufnik’s published scores before and after his departure from Poland.
It might have appeared that Panufnik’s life as a composer would now smoothly move forward, but in fact his position was not at all secure. The British musical community did not seem as receptive as he had expected. It looked as if he might have to try to establish his reputation all over again, and he soon realised that he and Scarlett would at any moment be destitute.
The first person to lend a helping hand was Sir Stuart Wilson, Administrative Director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. He not only gave Panufnik financial support, but put him in touch with one of the largest British concert agencies, Harold Holt Ltd., which undertook the organisation of the first concert to be conducted by Panufnik after his arrival in Great Britain. The concert took place on 4 October 1954. Panufnik conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the programme, apart from works by Beethoven and Rachmaninov, included his own Nocturne (which replaced the Heroic Overture, already announced at the posters). However, in spite of the enthusiastic reception, Panufnik’s collaboration with the agency came to an abrupt end as a result of a misunderstanding. A few days later Panufnik again demonstrated his skills as composer and conductor: he conducted a charity concert organised at the Royal Albert Hall by the Polish community in London. The pianist Witold Małcużyński also took part, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. These two concerts were Panufnik’s first encounters with English audiences after his decision to settle in England.
In December 1954 Panufnik was invited to conduct in Belgium, and in February 1955 in Detroit, where Leopold Stokowski was planning a performance of Symphony of Peace. Stokowski already knew Panufnik’s works and regarded them highly, and he wanted to meet the composer in person. On meeting, both felt an immediate affinity and they remained friends until the end of Stokowski’s life. Stokowski also continued to admire Panufnik’s music.
After returning from the US, the composer was invited to present Sinfonia Rustica at the Promenade concert organised by BBC Radio in July 1955. Soon after that performance, the management of BBC Radio commissioned from Panufnik a composition to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its Third Programme. This commission resulted in a short orchestral work entitled Rhapsody. Not long afterwards the BBC approached Panufnik with another commission; this time the requirement was for a suite of Polish dances, which might be included in a programme of dances from Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe. Such a concert was to be presented to London audience in the summer of 1959, during the Festival of Light Music being organised by the BBC. This was the origin of the Polonia suite, inspired by Elgar’s composition bearing the same title.
The perfomance of this work under Panufnik’s baton in August 1959 was also to be his last appearance at the BBC Proms for many years. Towards the end of 1959 there was a change of management at BBC Radio, which led to a radical change in its programming strategy. The BBC began to promote avant garde music which continued the programme of the Second Viennese School; thus Panufnik’s work came to be censored not only in Poland (for political reasons), but also in England (this time for artistic reasons). In later years the composer used to comment ironically that he was 'banned in Poland and at the BBC'.
Unfortunately, Panufnik’s return to creative work coincided with a growing marital crisis. Scarlett Panufnik, accustomed to the prominent social position accorded to the wife of a leading composer in Poland, did not intend to forego the attractions of social life after settling in England. This time, however, the composer was not going to give in to his wife’s demands, especially as he wanted to devote all his time to composing. The situation was made any better by the publication of Scarlett’s book (published in 1956) about their life together in communist Poland, and the breakdown of the marriage was sealed by Panufnik’s decision to accept the appointment as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which was followed by his move to Birmingham in September 1957. The marriage finally ended in divorce in 1958.
After arriving in Birmingham, Panufnik devoted himself to working with the orchestra. The terms of his contract with the CBSO management stipulated that he should conduct fifty concerts a year, as well as planning all the concert programmes, which included issuing invitations to guest conductors and soloists, not to mention any number of administrative tasks. Panufnik wanted to carry out his duties as well as possible. He was eager to raise the standard of the orchestra’s playing, and to present Birmingham’s music lovers with interesting concert programmes. He devoted a lot of space in them to the music of early British composers, such as Avison, Byrd, Purcell and Boyce, with which he had become familiar during his first visit to England in 1938. Alongside these there were the works of Vivaldi, Malipiero and Bach, juxtaposed with Classical and Romantic music, as well as works by contemporary composers. However, he purposely did not include any of his own compositions in the programmes for the 1957/58 season. He only did so later at the express request of the orchestra’s management, which also expressed the expectations of the city’s community, who wanted to hear the music composed by the Director of their orchestra. This did not take place until the 1958/59 season, when Panufnik presented local audiences with four of his compositions: Sinfonia Elegiaca, Tragic Overture, Sinfonia Rustica andFive Polish Peasant Songs.
After two years of intensive work, Panufnik decided not to renew his contract in Birmingham, feeling that he must return to composing. With the support of the Chief Executive of the CBSO he received, prior to his departure, a commission to finish his Piano Concerto, which he had begun in 1957.
From Birmingham Panufnik went back to London, wanting once again to concentrate only on composing. For a while it seemed as if his life – including his private life – was to become brighter. In the autumn of 1959 he met Winsome Ward with whom, as he himself admitted, he experienced for the first time a relationship which brought him harmony and peace of mind. Happy in that situation, he was at the same time trying to return to creative work. Since he did not feel himself ready as yet to finish his Piano Concerto, he decided to write a smaller composition, inspired by the mood of the current season, a beautiful autumn. This was the origin of Autumn Music for orchestra without violins, one of Panufnik’s most beautiful works, and also one of the very few not written as a commission. Unfortunately, a short time later Winsome was diagnosed with advanced cancer and not given long to live. In these circumstances, Autumn Music took on a new expression, becoming a homage to the dying friend, a mourning dirge bringing to mind a premonition of the inevitability of human fate.