Faithful Journey - A Mass for Poland: Programme Note

Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968)
Faithful Journey – A Mass for Poland / Wierna podróż – Msza za Polskę 

2018 could not pass without my marking it in the most significant way I could. I wanted to celebrate both the centenary of Poland’s becoming an Independent State and my own first half century of life with a meaningful tribute to my Anglo-Polish roots. Hence, this oratorio – settings of some of Poland’s finest poets of the last hundred years, in Polish and English, framing a Latin Mass and incorporating traditional Polish folk music and its sometimes soulful, sometimes quirky, elements. Over the summer of 2017 I listened to five hundred and thirty-eight tracks of Polish folk music and you will hear my very favourite eight in this piece.

I have chosen a Polish poem to represent an historical moment from each decade of the last century, with the final one looking, with hope, to the future with a prayer for peace.

Because I am half English and half Polish (physically and legally, having been given Polish Citizenship in 2017) all the poems are performed in both languages simultaneously – the soprano soloist singing in one language and the choir accompanying her with key words from the other. The Mass text remains in universal Latin.

I KYRIE 1918 – 1928

We begin with the Kyrie’s words “…zmiłuj się nad nami… have mercy on us” reflecting a sense of shock, repentance and redemption after the violence and horror of the First World War. I’ve used a Rzeszowskie harvest song “Koniec zagona koniec / To the End of the Field”, with its beautiful glissandos, grace notes and unusual 9/4 time signature.

In Poem 1Barwy narodowe / National Colours, Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska describes the birth of the Polish flag, emerging from the red blood and white bandages of the battlefield. Although this poem was published in 1935, I think it captures the atmosphere of Poland emerging as an Independent State.

Roxanna Panufnik.
Roxanna Panufnik.

II GLORIA 1928 – 1938

“Chwała na wysokości Bogu, a na Ziemi pokój ludziom dobrej woli / Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.”

After a degree of political upheaval, Poland enters a relatively peaceful and optimistic time, with its agriculture flourishing – I use the flirtatious-sounding mode of the Księżopol wedding song “Ej łado, łado” as an accompaniment to Poem 2: Stodoła / The Barn, from Bolesław Leśmian’s pastoral collection, Łąka / The Meadow.

III CREDO Part 1 1938 – 1948

But we are rudely interrupted by the shock of World War Two. The choir fervently speak then sing the Credo in the hope that their faith will carry them through this ordeal. When I first heard another wedding song, “Zieluna rutka modri ksiat / Green Rye Blue Flower” from the Kurpie region, its long, winding melody reminded me very much of Gregorian chant – albeit in a playfully chromatic Polish mode.

I have used two poems to portray this era. When I first listened to the soldier’s love song “Gdzie ty jedziesz, Jasiu? / Where are you going, Jasiu?” (possibly from Mazowsze), despite not knowing the meaning of its words I felt it somehow related to Poem 3Mój mężczyzna / My Man which was by Anna Świrszczyńska, a nurse in the Warsaw Uprising. This captured an almost unbearably moving sentiment – to be able to save her beloved soldier sweetheart by hiding him in her belly like an unborn child. Only later I discovered the folk song’s words matched the poem’s, about a woman asking her soldier sweetheart to take her with him to war.

The Jewish poet Irit Amiel’s Genesis – Poem 4 – was written retrospectively. For this poem I have used a Sephardic-Oriental Kol Nidrei, a prayer uttered by 15th-century Spanish Jews, asking God to forgive them for the enforced Christian and Islamic conversion promises they had to make to save their lives – again, it was only after using this chant for the setting that I discovered Irit Amiel had only survived the Częstochowa Ghetto by pretending not to be Jewish. Irit told me, “The false documents of a dead Polish girl my age were bought for me by my father, and he furnished me with them before helping me to escape from the ghetto in Częstochowa. He and my mother were taken by the Germans to Treblinka and died there in the gas chamber. This was 75 years ago and I was at that time 11 years old.”

III CREDO Part 2 1948 – 1968

“Wierzę / I believe” – what do I believe? In this period Poles are ordered to believe in Communist ideals, have to hide their true personal beliefs while enduring the suppression of their faith. Poem 5, Zbigniew Herbert’s Pieśń o bębnie / Drum Song, is in turn sinister and ironic in its description of bleak Stalinist oppression. The final lines describe “the Dictator’s gutted music” – so I have gutted my setting of any harmony, only allowing the slightest hint of melody.

Faithful Journey Score.


 “Pan Bóg Zastępów / Lord, God of hosts”: Tentative awe – could change be coming? This whole movement is about rising hope, reflected in ascending scales (with the very Polish characteristic of a raised 4th!) and uplifting transpositions of the music, to portray 1968 – 78. KOR, the Workers’ Defence Committee, is formed and we see the birth of Solidarity, some relaxation of culture, even an emerging Pop culture. I have used a wonderful Shepherd song about sheep wandering off, with its off-beat rhythmic “ho-ho”, for the Hosanna. Polish folk melodies are often accompanied by double bass and violin moving in adjacent 10ths from each other – I’ve used this characteristic both for the Hosanna and for Ten świat / This World, later in this movement.

“Błogosławiony, który idzie w imię Pańskie / Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. A Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyła, is elected Pope John Paul II and so, for Poem 6, I have set the first part of his cycle Nadzieja, która sięga poza kres / Hope, reaching beyond the limit. However, a troubled and anxiously harmonised Hosanna heralds 1978 – 88’s Poem 7 – Krystyna Miłobędzka’s Pamiętam / I Remember. Hope is crushed by the imposition of Martial Law as she “confesses” to owning a list of metal objects which either restrain or penetrate. I have used unusual metal percussion, involving scaffolding pipes and a heavy metal chain, to create a chilling sound over the lower orchestral instruments imitating the tanks that roamed Poland’s streets.

Almost incredibly, 1988 – 98 starts with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist government (1989), the first democratic elections in the former Eastern European Bloc inspiring other countries to do the same. Reflecting disbelief at this sudden good fortune, I have used Czesław Miłosz’s wonderfully ironic Ten świat / This World for Poem 8, and the jokey sounding harvest couplet from “Oj, żebyście wiedzieli, a ludziska kochane / Hey, if only you knew, oh my dear folk” – the harmony becoming more serious as the wonderful truth is accepted. The movement ends with the Hosanna, joyous once more.

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V AGNUS DEI 1998 – 2018 and beyond…

Throughout this movement, I have used the hauntingly beautiful “Barbaro święta berło Jezusowe / Saint Barbara, sceptre of Jesus” from Kurpiowska Forest, with its pleas for the forgiveness of sins chiming with the Agnus Dei’s “Baranku Boży, który gładzisz grzechy świata, zmiłuj się nad nami / Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”. 1998 – 2008 sees accession to the European Union and freedom to move around Europe, but frustration and disillusionment with the capitalist system (or lack of a system) in Poland. Poem 9, Wisława Szymborska’s Trzy słowa najdziwniejsze / Three Oddest Words, seems to sum up this feeling of uncertainty and contradiction.

The whole world was deeply shocked by the Smolensk air tragedy, which wiped out some of Poland’s leading political lights. For 2008 – 2018, a decade during which we also continue to see tumultuous political upheaval and terrorist massacres worldwide, it seemed very apt to have Leszek Długosz’s poignant Modlitwa za Nich / A Prayer for Them for Poem 10 – fervent but quiet; I have created a hymn-like setting with very minimal accompaniment. How to go forward? With a universal wish for Peace of course. Poem 11, Ryszard Krynicki‘s Ocal mnie, prowadź / Save me, Guide me, chimes beautifully with the Agnus Dei’s final plea: “Baranku Boży, który gładzisz grzechy świata, obdarz nas pokojem / Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us Peace”. The soloist sings her final Amen over 11 chimes, remembering the Armistice where we began this Faithful Journey.

Many people have helped me enormously throughout the complex creation of this work – my very special thanks go to Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard without whose incredibly empathetic translation skills, proof-reading and prosody support I could not have completed it. To Ursula Phillips and Jakub Ekier who helped me find most of these wonderful poems; and Weronika Grozdew, the source of all this amazing folk music. To my brother Jem Panufnik, for supplying the funky military rhythm in Pieśń o bębnie / Drum Song. The Polish Cultural Institute in London has been hugely supportive from the piece’s inception and funded many aspects in its preparation and presentation. Most of all, though, my deepest gratitude to the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Poland and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, particularly Joanna Wnuk-Nazarowa and Stephen Maddock respectively, who liked and shared my vision enough to co-commission this piece.

Roxanna Panufnik, 13 June 2018