Sinfonia di Sfere (Symphony of Spheres) for symphony orchestra, 1974-75, 33'
picc.2.2.2.bcl.2.dbn-220.127.116.11-perc(3):12 unpitched membrane drums of 4 different sizes-pft-strings
Performers: Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Antoni Wit - conductor; 1994 "Warsaw Autumn", Polish Composers' Union
Among Andrzej Panufnik’s symphonies, Sinfonia di Sfere is the work which probably best reflects the composer’s fascination with the principles of symmetry and geometry. In it the composer for the first time used a geometric figure as a kind of key determining the structure of the entire composition – from its formal shape to the smallest structural details. This is how Panufnik wrote about his idea:
In (…) Sinfonia di Sfere I was attempting to create a large-scale musical structure permeated by a sense of geometrical pattern and order. Through the title I hoped that I was suggesting to listeners a kind of journey in space experienced inwardly and outwardly. (I was not referring directly to astronomy, astrology, cosmology, nor the mystical philosophy of Pythagoras and his 'music of the spheres'.)
The idea of spheres had a dual dimension for the composer: spiritual – as a kind of contemplative sequence of thoughts and feelings, and formal – a group of spheres having its visual equivalent in the composer’s diagram included in the score; it became a structural skeleton for a very precisely organised musical material. Interestingly, even the listener’s perception was treated by the composer in ‘spherical’ terms:
I maintained an image of the listener’s perception as a circular disc, journeying upwards from nothingness through the first, lower hemisphere of Sphere I; through Sphere II, still partly influenced by Sphere I; continuing its ascent through the upper hemisphere of Sphere I; progressing, with expanding awareness, through the rest of the spheres of contemplation, experiencing their symmetrical re-arrivals back into previous areas of contemplation, as happens to any thinker whose ideas flow into fresh spheres then return again to earlier thoughts.
The symbolism of circles found its reflection also in the layout of the orchestra, which the composer surrounded with drums in order for their sound to constantly orbit the orchestra. The symmetry is also determined by Panufnik’s choice of intervals, melodic and rhythmic motifs as well as his use of dynamic and agogic markings in the various spheres of the symphony. Such a precise structure of the work, refined in the smallest detail and in every aspect, prompted the musicologist Tadeusz Zieliński to call Panufnik the ‘architect of 20th century music’. All these structural details can best be followed listening to the work with the score in hand, but it is worth bearing in mind that for the composer the perfection of its own compositions was always to facilitate the flow of feelings and emotions he wanted to share with the listeners.
Sinfonia di Sfere was premiered on 13 April 1976 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Atherton.