Life & Culture

Why her music is a religious experience, three times over


It all began, appropriately enough, with Abraham. That is the title of Roxanna Panufnik's violin concerto, which she wrote for Daniel Hope to play in 2005, drawing together the various musical flavours of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was then that Panufnik, one of Britain's best-loved contemporary composers, began to explore in earnest an idea that has often resurfaced in her subsequent compositions: the way that music can help to smooth a path between different faiths.

On May 13 her latest choral work, Love Endureth, is to be premiered at Westminster Cathedral. It is a setting of Psalm 136, in which she has incorporated elements of Sephardic chant and Hebrew text.

It might seem extraordinary to take Jewish musical ideas into a Roman Catholic cathedral. But Panufnik is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Polish Catholic father, the composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik; the co-existence of religions and cultures is an essential part of her identity.

How has she reconciled these two sides of herself? "I don't think there's any need for reconciliation," she says, "because there's so much common ground between the monotheistic faiths. Obviously there are some fundamental differences in the way we practise. But I think that too much time and energy is spent on the differences and not enough on the things that we all share. That's what I want to do musically - to highlight those universal elements."

Abraham was inspired directly by 9/11. "I was five months pregnant with my first child and I suddenly began to panic about what kind of a world I was bringing a baby into," she says.

There's so much common ground between the faiths

"I knew I couldn't change the world by trying to express my feelings in music, but it started me on a quest to build musical bridges between faiths. Our various faiths may take different paths, but they all go in the same direction, towards the same one God."

Later the World Orchestra for Peace asked her to rework Abraham as a concert overture; and this, much to her joy, was performed in Jerusalem under the baton of Valery Gergiev in 2008. "It was an incredible experience," she recalls. "We stood on the Mount of Olives and heard the real sounds that had inspired the work's opening - the mingling of the Muslim call to prayer with the ringing of church bells."

Her new piece, Love Endureth, has been commissioned by American music charity Soli Deo Gloria Inc (not to be confused with John Eliot Gardiner's record label of similar name) as part of a psalm series devoted to promoting music in the biblical tradition. The original brief referred to "old Hebrew psalms", which, Panufnik says, gave her the idea to embed ancient Jewish elements into the piece. Drawing on the advice of Dr Alexander Knapp, an expert on Jewish music, as well as cantor Jaclyn Chernett and musicologist Victor Tunkel, she selected extracts of Sephardic chant from both Psalm 136 and 135, and introduced into the text a Hebrew version of one of the responses.

The piece also forms a vital part of another project, this time Panufnik's own: she is planning an album, called Love Abide, of 12 short choral works themed around concepts of spiritual love, with a strong multi-faith element. It is to be recorded for Warner Classics and distributed worldwide. Making a new album in today's financial climate is a tall order, though - so, with admirable entrepreneurial spirit, she has set out to recruit some sponsors before a deadline of May 26.

She has cooked up a feast of ways that her backers can become involved in the creation of the CD. Each piece can be dedicated as a personal gift for, or in memory of, a loved one. Every dedication will be printed in the booklet; sponsors can receive a signed copy of the first page of the score plus a signed CD. The sponsor and/or dedicatee can attend the recording sessions, where their name and photograph will be circulated among the musicians so that each piece can be performed with the appropriate people in mind.

Panufnik has chosen texts ranging from 14th-century Sufi poetry and Zen verses from the 15th century to famous biblical extracts, as well as Love Endureth, with its characteristically Jewish sounds. The performance at Westminster Cathedral can serve in part as a taster for the project, and Panufnik is eager to encourage would-be audiences who might initially hesitate to attend vespers in a Catholic cathedral: "Westminster Cathedral is incredibly welcoming and all-embracing, and they do a great deal of multi-faith work," she says.

Panufnik and her younger brother grew up without being steeped in any one religious tradition, which could be the clue to her open-minded attitude. Her mother, she says, is from a Jewish family who had immigrated to Britain from Holland in the 18th century; her maternal grandfather, Richard Jessel, was decorated for his heroism as a submarine commander in the British Navy in the Second World War. Her father, who had made a dramatic escape from communist-era Poland, died when Roxanna was only 23.

"When I was 19 and studying at the Royal Academy of Music, I began to explore my Jewish roots," she says. "My first Jewish work was a setting of the Shemah, and it was performed at my father's funeral. I'd like to rework it at some stage."

Today Panufnik is among a select handful of composers who are so plentifully commissioned that they are able to write music full time. One recent achievement is her Four World Seasons, a suite of pieces premiered to much acclaim in March by the violinist Tasmin Little and the London Mozart Players, for which Panufnik is Composer in Association.

Living in south-west London with her husband and three young children, she acknowledges that life remains a careful balancing act. But the music flows on, often the result of her stimulating research into world traditions, different faiths and compelling texts. Her next Judaism-related project is a choral work based on Norman Lebrecht's novel The Song of Names, for which Lebrecht is writing her a text himself. Abraham would doubtless approve.

More details about the 'Love Abide' recording project can be found at 'Love Endureth' is premiered at Westminster Cathedral on May 13 at 3.30pm.

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