Polonia, suite for orchestra, 1959, 20'


Polonia. Higlanders' March

Performers: National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tomasz Bugaj - conductor; 2000 Polish Radio SA


Written for orchestra, Panufnik’s Polonia suite was commissioned by the musical director of the BBC Radio, Richard Howgill. Howgill asked the composer to write a suite of Polish dances to be performed during the Festival of Light Music organised by the BBC in London, in July 1959. At that time Panufnik resigned as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and returned to London, where he tried to focus on composing. This is how he remembered that period many years later: 

It was not easy to start those spirited dances at a time of great loneliness, when my hopes of being able to compose to my fullest ability or capacity seemed even more remote than they had been in the East. For a while I could not start. But then I started to think of Elgar’s sombre and noble Polonia, a work most evocatively echoing both the heroic and tragic aspects of Poland’s history. I decided to use the same title but to adopt a completely different approach, so that the two works together might provide a full spectrum of the Polish spirit and colour. Elgar made use of Polish patriotic songs but also took some of Chopin’s melodies, ending powerfully with the Polish National Anthem. In contrast I based my new-born Polonia on folk melodies and the vigorous, full-blooded rhythms of peasant dances.

Andrzej Panufnik’s Polonia consists of five movements. They are: Highlanders’ MarchMazurkaKrakowiakSong of the Vistula and Oberek. Although they are clearly stylised, the Polish dances used in the suite have very evident marks of the composer’s individual style. The slow movements in particular, the Kujawiak-like Mazurka and the atmospheric Song of the Vistula, echo such compositions as Nocturne or Lullaby, with their slowly evolving melodic line, passing through polyphonically treated voices of the woodwinds and the violins (often including flageolete notes). The movement most faithful to its folk original is the Highlanders’ March, with its strong march-like rhythmic pulse of the double bass, modelled on a highlander band and further emphasised by the use of percussion instruments. By contrast, the jaunty Krakowiak is the furthest removed from its folk origins, being a kind of musical joke, full of sudden stops (general pauses) and playful instrumental effects. The whole ends with the lively Oberek, in which the basic ternary rhythmic pulse is sometimes disrupted as rhythmic groups are joined above the bar-line. However, this is just a deviation from the dominant character of the oberek.

Polonia was presented in its entirety at the Proms on 21 August 1959 by the BBC Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer (only fragments of the work were performed during the earlier BBC Festival of Light Music).