“I have lived in the underworld so long”, wrote Jewish poet Isaac Rosenberg. “How can you, a creature of light, without terror understand the song and unmoved hear what moves in night.”
In a later verse, the flourishing artist whose life was tragically cut short at 27 and is remembered for his poignant First World War poetry, refers to the “terrible darkness” and “breathing breath impure”.
Written five years before the outbreak of war, In The Underworld actually refers to living with a broken heart, but presents an eerie prediction of the appalling conditions soldiers would face in the trenches.
Such is its relevance more than 100 years on, that composer Roxanna Panufnik has placed the poem front and centre for her latest major work, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, which premieres at the Last Night of the Proms this weekend.
Panufnik, the daughter of the late Polish composer and conductor, Sir Andrzej Panufnik, and Jewish photographer Camilla Jessel, reveals she wanted to “shout it from the rooftops” when she received the much-coveted BBC commission.
The concept was to come up with a piece commemorating 100 years since the end of the First World War, scored for two choirs and an orchestra.
Panufnik, who turned 50 this year and has a keen interest in world music, tells me: “They wanted me to write for the BBC Singers, a crack chamber choir of the most amazing professional singers and also the BBC Symphony Chorus, 114 fabulous amateur singers, as well as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
“While it commemorates the centenary of the end of the First World War, at the same time it looks optimistically and happily into the future.”
She admits feeling the task was “quite a challenge”, but was given a starting point after being sent “this amazing Rosenberg poem” by a former teacher.
The composer, who lives in London with her husband and their three children, confesses: “I had never heard of Rosenberg before, but it’s such an amazing poem. I didn’t know the background to it.
“I just thought instantly that it’s such an amazing depiction of life in the trenches and only discovered afterwards that it was about unrequited love.”
To offset the poem, performed by the BBC Singers, Panufnik selected lines from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet for the BBC Symphony Chorus.
The two independent pieces work together as a “conversation” between the two choirs.
She explains: “I found these lines that seemed to soothe and comfort the fears in the Rosenberg poem. The Gibran poem finishes, ‘We can build another tower in the sky’, so it all ends optimistically and almost like saying, whatever happens, we can rebuild.”
After choosing the two pieces, Panufnik set about writing the music, reflecting the backgrounds of each poet.
“For the Rosenberg, I’ve used a really beautiful Ashkenazi prayer mode, and for the Gibran I’ve used this Maronite Syriac chant. They both come from the same Middle Eastern sound world, so that worked very well together.”
Her composition also reflects Gibran’s later interest in Islam, using the structure of a zikr, a prayer chant that starts slow and quiet, before building up to a “faster and brighter conclusion”.
As someone who has long held an interest in music from different faiths and cultures, Panufnik – who is a practising Catholic – reveals she has “always felt an affinity with Jewish music” and feels “very strongly” about her Jewish identity.
“I’ve always loved Jewish music,” she says. “And I definitely feel my Jewish roots, as much as I feel my Polish Catholic father’s roots. I’m a Catholic, but in my heart and soul I do feel my Jewish roots very strongly.”
Her Jewishness, she says, has influenced her music as much as her late father who, having been a victim of Nazi censorship and the Polish communist dictatorship, arrived as a political refugee in England, in 1954.
She says of her choice to follow in his footsteps: “It was in my DNA. I was brought up with music around me all the time, so it was like there was never going to be anything else.
“I tried and discarded so many things during my childhood. In the end, it became quite clear the only thing I was any good at was composing and he was incredibly supportive of that.
“I still feel his presence very clearly. In my composing shed, I have his grand piano that he composed on, his light fittings, writing desk and baton. I feel whatever I am doing is getting to him.”
Looking to her premiere, Panufnik reveals she will be sitting in the audience, among the “real party atmosphere” of the Last Night of the Proms. “It’s incredibly exciting. The Last Night of the Proms really is like every composer’s dream come true.”
Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light premieres at the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, 7.15pm, BBC2
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