Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) is one of Britain’s most prominent composers. The daughter of the Polish composer and conductor, Andrzej Panufnik, she has written numerous choral works, including Westminster Mass, premiered by London’s Westminster Cathedral Choir; the oratorio, Faithful Journey – a Mass for Poland; and Across the Line of Dreams, a work for two conductors, two choirs, and orchestra, which was premiered by Marin Alsop, Valentina Peleggi, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Next week, Peleggi brings the latter piece to the Richmond Symphony stage.
Among Panufnik’s instrumental works is a violin concerto, Abraham, which was commissioned by Daniel Hope, and which incorporates “Christian, Islamic and Jewish chant to create a musical analogy for the fact that these three faiths believe in the same one God.” The blending and synthesizing of cultural influences is a recurring theme in Panufnik’s music.
Composed in 2013, Celestial Bird is an a cappella choral setting of a mystical poem by the American Carmelite nun, Jessica Powers (1905-1988). Panufnik noticed that subtle Celtic influences entered the music. Only after completing the score, did she discover that Powers, based in Wisconsin, was of Scottish and Irish ancestry. Panufnik commented, “I have heard her described as an ‘artist, painting words’—which fits my overt style of word-painting in music.”
Celestial Bird is filled with bright, shimmering tonal colors and exuberant, wrenching harmonies.
O sweet and luminous Bird,
Having once heard your call, lovely and shy
I shall be hungry for the finished word.
Across the windy sky
Of all voiced longing and all music heard,
I spread my net for your bewildering wings,
But wings are wiser than the swiftest hands.
Where a bird sings
I held my heart, in fear that it would break.
I called you through the grief of whip-poor-wills,
I watched you on the avenues that make
A radiant city on the western hills.
Yet since I knew you not, I sought in vain.
I called you beauty for its fleet white sound.
But now in my illuminated heart
I can release the hound
Of love upon whose bruising leash I strain.
Oh, he will grasp you where you skim the sod,
Nor wound your breast, for love is soft as death,
Swifter than beauty is, and strong as God.
- Panufnik: Celestial Bird, Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra excathedra.co.uk