Seeking inspiration in folk music became a natural compositional procedure among Polish composers even before the Second World War; the best example of this trend was provided by Karol Szymanowski. However, Andrzej Panufnik reached towards folklore only during the war – finding among the books at home a collection of folk melodies provided the impetus to immerse himself in a world of music far from the nightmare of the surrounding reality. This was the origin of Five Polish Peasant Songs. Panufnik dressed the original folk melodies in a tissue of delicate and slightly dissonant chords which, combined with the selected group of instruments (woodwind), create an atmosphere of peace and natural, rustic warmth.
The composer continued this approach in works written towards the end of the 1940s, Lullaby and Sinfonia Rustica. In Lullaby the folk melody from the Krakòw region emerges from the web of polyphonic convolutions (including quarter-tones) of a string ensemble, coloured with the sound of harps. Its polyphonically dense, but at the same time timbrally subtle texture was ahead of the sonoristic explorations of Polish composers by more than a decade. On the other hand, Sinfonia Rustica became a homage not only to the music, but also to the folk art of the Kurpie region, since the main inspiration for writing this composition were the Kurpie paper-cuts:
I decided that in my new symphony I would reflect the character of that naive but charming art. All the elements of the work were to be characterised by the symmetricity of a paper-cuts.
The composer introduced symmetry even into the spatial arrangement of the orchestra on the stage, with two groups of string instruments placed on each side of the group of wind instruments in the middle. This, again, was one of the first examples in Poland of spatial distribution of the orchestra – a concept which was later used on many occasions and in various ways by other artists. Interestingly, Panufnik went back to the motif of the Kurpie paper-cuts towards the end of his life, dedicating (if that is the right expression) to them his String Quartet No. 3 'Wycinanki' [Paper-cuts], the structure of which reflects the symmetry of paper-cuts.
The folk music of Mazowsze found its place in Hommage à Chopin, a cycle of vocalises for voice and piano. Panufnik wrote this work to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Chopin’s death; it was also an expression of his highest regard for the music of Chopin.
After Panufnik left Poland, national folklore did not disappear from his field of interests, but its presence was no longer so directly and clearly apparent – apart from the suite Polonia, an arrangement of popular Polish dances composed as a commission for the BBC. What we find in later compositions might be better described as reminiscences, or the atmosphere of folk melodies (e.g. Landscape, Violin Concerto, Bassoon Concerto), transformed and blended into the composer’s individual musical language.
It is beyond doubt that, in his approach to using and transforming folk material, Andrzej Panufnik continued the best traditions of Polish music, those of Chopin and Szymanowski, creating a new aspect of Polish national style in the second half of the twentieth century.