Autumn Music for orchestra without violins, 1962, 17'

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Autumn Music /excerpt/

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

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In 1959 Andrzej Panufnik resigned as the director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and decided to devote himself entirely to composing. He began working on an orchestral piece that would convey the mood of a beautiful autumn around him. He wrote Autumn Music – one of his most beautiful compositions and one of the few that were not commissioned.

Soon after starting to work on Autumn Music, Panufnik heard that his friend, Winsome Ward, was terminally ill. In this situation the composition acquired a completely new expression:

(...) its theme of seasonal decline now cruelly apt alongside my heart-broken consciousness of a most precious human life in a different sort of decline – which would not be renewed by the coming of another spring.

The piece became a threnody symbolised by a persistently repeated low note of the piano in the middle section, accompanying a slow, gradually intensifying melody of the strings. When building the work’s narrative, the composer chose the form of a symmetrical triptych, in which the three main sections were joined by two brief interludes. 

The musical language of Autumn Music is full of gentle sounds of the strings (without the violins), out of which the composer weaves the delicate sonic texture of the main parts of the triptych. Contrast is introduced by unsettling, rhythmical passages of the percussion instruments in the interludes. An important role is also played by the piano, appearing in the middle part as a symbol of inevitable fate. With regard to harmony, Panufnik uses mainly chords based on thirds (combining minor and major chords into one). This produces a gentle sonic aura, close in terms of expression to tonal references, but free from the constraints resulting from the major-minor system.  

Autumn Music, written as an expression of the composer’s spirit at a difficult moment when a person dear to him was passing away, is full of melancholy and anxiety associated with the inevitability of fate, though at the same time it seems to express reconciliation with its decrees.

It is worth noting that this composition, written in the early 1960s, is markedly different from the avant-garde tendencies of its time, testifying to Andrzej Panufnik’s individual sound experiments. 

Completed in 1962, Autumn Music was not premiered until 16 January 1968 in Paris, when it was performed by L’Orchestre Philharmonique de l’ORTF conducted by Serge Fournieur.