Tragic Overture for orchestra, 1942 (reconstructed in 1945), 7'


Tragic Overture /excerpt/

Performers: National Philharmonic Orchestra, Wojciech Michniewski - conductor; 1990 "Warsaw Autumn", Polish Composers' Union

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Tragic Overture was written in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, in an atmosphere full of horror of the daily life in Poland’s capital. Contrary to the composer’s intentions, echoes of this atmosphere were reflected in the work:

I decided to write a Tragic Overture, and began with the firm intention that it should be totally abstract, with no literary implications. I returned to my plans of a year before to search for a new musical language, rooting in the ideal of a stringent economy of means of expression, and chose a sequence of just four notes which would run from the beginning of the overture right through to the end. It was my intention to explore this four-note cell to the very limit. (...)

Once the work was finished, however, I could not help sardonically smiling at myself; though ostensibly I had kept to my rules, I realised that my intellectual discipline had failed to control my unconscious, that the overture was interspersed with startlingly onomatopoeic passages – for example, the sound of a falling bomb (percussion); the soft engine noise of an aeroplane disappearing in the distance (trombones’ glissando); a volley of machine guns (the burst of percussion in the final bars); the final chord shrieked out by the full orchestra, an agonising wail of despair.

The dramatic relevancy of the work made a huge impression on the audience at a charity wartime concert during which the Overture was premiered on 19 March 1944 at the Warsaw Conservatory. Today, too, the precision of the formal structure of this short composition and the ascetic nature of the musical language used in it, combined with an incredible expressive charge, do not leave the listener indifferent. 

When it comes to the structure of the work, its author described it as follows:

As regards the musical material, the whole work is constructed on one four-note cell which runs through from the beginning to the very end. Starting with this four-note cell motif played by the whole orchestra, the bassoon then introduces the first thematic idea, supported by the double-basses constantly transposing the same motif, now augmented. After a tumultoso of the whole orchestra, the flute introduces the second thematic idea, long notes cantabile, above a dialogue between the violins using the same motif, together with a related dialogue between violas and cellos who play only the rhythmic element of the motif in augmentation. In order to build up a tension in the middle of the overture, the same four-note cell motif is used both inverted, and doubly and quadruply augmented.

The third part of the Overture consists mainly of a modified repetition of the first part, but as a tutti fortissimo throughout. Towards the end, the percussion instruments enter in canon, repeating rhythmically the first thematic idea which was stated at the beginning of the overture by the bassoon. At the very end, the drums left alone drive the work to a violent, desperate last 'shout' by all the instruments of the orchestra.

The score of the Tragic Overture, like the scores of all Panufnik’s compositions written in the first thirty years of his life, was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising (1944). After the end of the war, in 1945, the composer decided to reconstruct the work from memory. This reconstructed version of the Tragic Overture was performed in June 1945 in Kraków. The composition is dedicated to the memory of Andrzej Panufnik’s only brother, Mirosław, who was killed in the Warsaw Uprising.