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Andrzej Panufnik: Musically, he had a constant preoccupation with Poland

If the musical world was not up to its ears in Wagner, Verdi and Britten, it would probably spend this year contemplating the more troubling question of what, if anything, is meant by Polish music. 

Two men who sought an answer to that conundrum are celebrating back-to-back centenaries — Witold Lutoslawski this year, Andrzej Panufnik next. A third, Andrei Tchaikovsky, is being plucked from oblivion with a major operatic premiere in the summer. They add vastly to our appreciation of what it was to be a Pole in the century of its nationhood, and what it means today.

Poland is defined by musical statements. The liberation cry was articulated by Frédéric Chopin, mostly in Paris. It misled many successors onto a trail of false nostalgia for a prelapsarian paradise that never was. 

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, newly independent Poland was represented by its first prime minister, the pre-eminent pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

"Vous-êtes Paderewski, le grand pianiste, n'est-ce pas?" cried Georges Clemenceau.

"Oui, Monsieur le President."

"Alors, quelle chute!"

Paderewski may not have seen politics as a comedown, but he lived to see his dream soured by Polish strife and crushed by a second German invasion. His music, like Chopin's, clung to 19th-century conventions of romantic nationalism. In the next generation, Karel Szymanowski's complex individualised idiom was condemned for its lack of patriotic zeal. Music in Poland was supposed to conform to political expectations.

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