12 Miniature Studies (Circle of Fifths) for piano, 1947 (rev. 1955/1964), 20'

Circle of Fifths /excerpt/

Performers: Szábolcs Esztényi - piano; 1990 'Warsaw Autumn', Polish Composers' Union

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Written in 1947 as Circle of Fifths, the piece is a cycle of 12 miniatures for piano solo. It is Andrzej Panufnik’s first work composed after the end of the Second World War (before writing it, he had reconstructed some of his scores lost during the war), and the first for piano solo (Panufnik wrote only three such pieces in his life, though the piano often plays a prominent role in his orchestral works). Working on it became a kind of return to composing, as Panufnik later remembered:

Meanwhile, theories apart, I had to know if I could still compose at all. I began tentatively to improvise on the piano, exploring harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas, gradually making additional searches to extend some purely pianistic possibilities. (...) Before long, to my great relief, musical ideas, orchestral as well as pianistic, began to surge into my imagination.

This is how he wrote twelve piano studies, making up his Circle of Fifths. The title of the cycle stems from the fact that when it comes to their keys, successive pieces – like Bach’s fugues – are composed in key tonalities separated by a fifth, in accordance with the principles of the circle of fifths. The composer even uses key signatures corresponding to successive tonalities – the cycle opens with Prelude in C sharp minor, followed by Interlude in F sharp minor, Etude in B minor, Interlude in E minor, etc., up to the closing Postlude in A flat minor. Inside the miniatures, however, the composer often abandons indicated tonalities, treating them in ambivalent, major-minor, way and using a fairly free musical language, full of dissonances and ‘rough’ chords. There are plenty of accidentals, usually determined by semitone moves of successive notes, interweaving with the basic notes of the melody. In addition, the composer decided to alternate the pieces in terms of tempo (slow-fast), dynamics (forte-piano) and character (turbulent-meditative). To achieve unity throughout the cycle, Panufnik introduced in each part, more or less obviously, the same melodic line, interweaving with the structure of successive miniatures. 

Thus he wrote a cycle of virtuoso piano pieces, which was a reference, as it were, to the works of Bach and Chopin – full of extremely difficult, technical ideas for the piano as well as original sound ideas in the slow parts. Given its artistic quality, the cycle fully deserves to be more strongly present in the 20th century piano repertoire.

It is worth noting that after revising the work in 1955, the composer decided not to call successive miniatures 'etude' or 'interlude', nor specify their key, leaving only ordinal numerals. He also changed the title of the whole cycle to 12 Miniature Studies.

We have no information about the first performance of the Circle of Fifths; it may have taken place in 1948 in Kraków.