Symphony No. 9 (Sinfonia di Speranza) for orchestra, 1986-87, 38'


Sinfonia di Speranza /excerpt/

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

Symphony No. 9 (Sinfonia di Speranza)Symphony No. 9 (Sinfonia di Speranza)Symphony No. 9 (Sinfonia di Speranza)A diagram sketch for Sinfonia di SperanzaA diagram for Sinfonia di Speranza

In 1985 Andrzej Panufnik received a very prestigious commission – the London Royal Philharmonic Society asked him to compose a symphony to celebrate the Society’s 175th season, 1986/87. The Royal Philharmonic Society is one of the most venerable musical institutions in Britain – years earlier it was for the Society that Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 9. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Polish composer felt greatly honoured by the commission, especially given the fact that his own Symphony No. 9 was to emerge as a result. 

As a matter of fact, Panufnik decided to draw on Beethoven’s work or, to be more precise, on the idea of brotherhood and peace contained in it. However, unlike his great predecessor, he did not use words for the purpose, but composed a purely instrumental work, his own Symphony No. 9, to which he gave the title of Sinfonia di Speranza, i.e. Symphony of Hope. He presented the structure of the work in a diagram by means of the rainbow – a universal symbol of optimism and hope. This is how he explained his choice, commenting on his symphony:

Having taken hope as my theme, I chose the rainbow as my guiding symbol, not only because, since ancient times, it had inspired contemplation and philosophical thought, but because of the extraordinary properties it offered me in designing the structure of my new symphony. I wanted to translate into my musical material the laws of geometric optics, those mysterious hidden relations such as refractions within reflection and symmetries within symmetry. The shape and colours of the rainbow dictated to me the framework for this work, which is composed on two planes: a continuous, flowing melodic line, and, in contrast, the simultaneous progression of a 3-note cell with its perpetual reflections and transpositions. (...)

The rainbow arch also determined the formal structure of the symphony – it strictly follows the principles of mirror reflection symmetry. We can precisely define the central point of the symphony, its axis of symmetry, i.e. the place from which the musical action begins to evolve backwards, in a way – towards ideas and themes introduced by the composer at the beginning of the work. Following the score carefully, we can notice that this return has its reflection not only in the general expressive mood of the successive sections of the work – as it is often the case in Panufnik’s earlier pieces (Nocturne, Autumn Music and others) – but also in the actual musical material. The composer almost exactly restores the various themes and motifs, which are now run backwards, by the same instruments. Of course, the laws of music cannot be treated as the laws of mathematics, hence certain melodic or rhythmical ‘inaccuracies’ in the returning material, which in any case shows that the symphony is a living work, an expression of feelings and emotions, and not only a result of cold, mathematical calculation.

The musical language of the symphony is based on a broadly evolving melodic line with harmony based on chords stemming from a 3-note E-F-B cell with its reflections and transpositions. A combination of these two harmonic layers in one work appeared for the first time in Panufnik’s oeuvre in his earlier Sinfonia Votiva and remained in his compositions until the end. It testifies to a certain relaxation of the strict rules of musical language based on a selected sound cell (present in Panufnik’s music since the late 1960s) in favour of a search for new sound qualities. The extraordinarily precise formal and harmonic structure of Sinfonia di Speranza is also combined with strong expressive and emotional qualities of the work, which the composer intended to be a ‘message of hope’ for listeners in the late 20th century. It is worth adding that the whole one-movement symphony, lasting about forty minutes, remains one of Andrzej Panufnik’s longest compositions.

Sinfonia di Speranza was premiered on 25 February 1987 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.