Heroic Overture for orchestra, 1952, 6'


Heroic Overture /excerpt

Performers: London Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein - conductor; 1993 UNICORN-KANCHANA

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The origins of Heroic Overture go back to the first days of the Second World War, which Andrzej Panufnik spent in Warsaw, helping to defend the Polish capital against the attack by Nazi Germany. This is how the composer remembered that period many years later:

My idea for Heroic Overture with its triumphant conclusion came to me in 1939 in Warsaw, after the Germans first attacked and met with the most heroic resistance from the Polish nation. At once my thoughts turned to the rousing widely sung patriotic song, Warszawianka which seemed to embody the desperate yet still optimistic spirit of the moment. I did not wish to actually quote the melody or even to use elements of it in my overture— but I wanted to allow its spirit to pervade my own invention.

Unfortunately, however, I got no further than the outline sketches. Just at that time Poland was unexpectedly stabbed in the back by the Stalin-Hitler pact (in September 1939), so that I lost all my optimism about immediate defeat of the Nazis, and my idea to compose a work with a victorious conclusion disintegrated.

However, in the early 1950s, when the musical world in Poland was increasingly fettered by socialist realism and artists, including Panufnik, were looking for ways to express their artistic ideas, the abandoned theme returned to the composer once again:

I was once more haunted by the echoes of my unfinished Heroic Overture of 1939. The theme and the harmonic and rhythmic elements came drifting back, reminding me that this overture had been intended as an expression of my confidence in my fellow countrymen to survive as an independent nation in the face of the Nazi invasion. This time the nature of our invasion was more psychological than physical, but the need to assert defiance and faith in our future was greater than ever.

I was able to resuscitate from my memory its 1939 structure: not only the first thematic idea but also the second one, which is introduced by the violins, with woodwinds entering two bars later with the same melodic line but inverted. These two voices build up together - and then return to the point of departure in reverse: all the time on the rhythmical pattern of the basic theme but augmented to 3/2 meter. Following a succession of sharply dissonant clashes played fortissimo by the whole orchestra, at the end the victorious climax finally emerges in 'heroic' E flat major chords.

This is how Panufnik’s several-minute-long, very dynamic Heroic Overture came into being. Its original version was performed in Kraków in 1950, but later the composer thoroughly changed it and the score he regarded as official was completed in 1952. 

The work was enthusiastically received. It was premiered on 16 May 1952 in Warsaw, with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Witold Rowicki. In late July that year Panufnik conducted a performance of it in Helsinki, where the Heroic Overture was featured in a programme comprising works which had won prizes in national pre-Olympic Competitions organised in connection with the summer Olympic Games taking place in 1952 in Finland’s capital.