Rhapsody for orchestra, 1956, 17'


Rhapsody /fragment/

Performers: National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jacek Rogala - conductor; 2000 Polish Radio SA


Rhapsody for symphony orchestra is the first work written by Andrzej Panufnik after his escape to England. It was commissioned by the BBC Radio and the circumstances of its composition were described by Panufnik in the following manner:

An idea came to me right away. The title would be Rhapsody, and it would be designed to reveal the virtuosity of the players of the orchestra both individually and as an ensemble. The work would have a symmetrical ternary structure. The first section, in slow tempo, rather lyrical in character, would give the impression almost of an improvisation, each instrument of the orchestra introducing itself in a brief solo passage – one after the other, with the exception of the double basses (...). The central section, a very fast and vigorous tutti, would resemble a Polish folk dance, but with a hybrid rhythm invented by myself, the binary metre of the Krakowiak dance superimposed on to the ternary metre of the Mazurek, which should achieve an unsettling and evocative effect. The third section would use the same thematic material as the first, reflecting its steady crescendo with a matching diminuendo, brought about partly by the gradual reduction of instruments, down to the end of the piece, when the double bass – not forgotten after all – would have the final word.

Indeed, in the middle section of the Rhapsody not only does the composer use an original stylisation of two Polish dances – the krakowiak and the mazurka – but the two themes introduced here contain references to authentic folk material, skilfully transformed by the composer. 

The idea of highlighting the virtuosity of members of the orchestra is manifested in the fact that the main musical ideas in the piece are entrusted to various players treated as soloists. This is particularly evident in the first part of the Rhapsody, based on clearly distinguished solo phrases of various instruments introduced one after another. As a result, the composer builds a slowly evolving narrative, full of reverie and melancholy. Some excitement and complete contrast are brought only by the lively and dance-like middle part using the sound of the whole orchestra. The whole ends with a short finale, gradually calming things down until the last notes of the double basses, delicately dissolving into silence. 

The premiere of Rhapsody took place in the BBC Maida Vale Studio in London, on 11 January 1957. The BBC Radio Orchestra was conducted by the composer.