British composer of Polish heritage, Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) has written a wide range of pieces including opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, chamber compositions and music for film and television which are regularly performed all over the world. She is the daughter of celebrated composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), whose birth centenary is being celebrated with much fanfare at music centres across the world this year.

In 2009, the Tallinn Philharmonic Orchestra Estonia commissioned her to write a “Tallinn Mass” to celebrate their ascension to European Capital of Culture, in 2011. They requested her to juxtapose the conventional mass movements, in Latin, with poems by two leading Estonian poets, Doris Kareva and Jürgen Rooste.

Panufnik had collaborated with Goan-origin soprano diva Patricia Rozario before; she had received a commission around 2001 from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for Rozario and the City of London Sinfonia to set to music the first of noted author Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales (the Crocodile and the Monkey). In her interview to me, Panufnik described it as “the start of a beautiful relationship.” The Tallinn Philharmonic commission arrived at the same time that Rozario requested Panufnik to write her a new work with choir.

Rozario of course needs no introduction to Goan readers. Her unique voice and artistry has inspired several of the world’s leading composers to write for her, most notably Arvo Pärt and Sir John Tavener and now Roxanna Panufnik. She has sung with Solti, Ashkenazy, Jurowski, Belohlavek, Gardiner, Pinnock and Davis, sung opera at Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, Lyon, Lille, Bremen, Antwerp, Wexford, ENO, Glyndebourne and Opera North, given concerts in North America, Canada, Russia, the Far East, Australia, throughout Europe, and all the major UK venues. She has had several awards conferred on her: the Order of the British Empire (OBE), the Asian Women’s Award, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the President of India, and the Fellowship of the Royal College of Music.

Rozario was recently in Goa and spoke to me about her collaboration with Panufnik. She felt that Panufnik, like John Tavener (1944-2013) who had written voluminously for Rozario, understood her voice and her composition reflected this well.

The CD recording of the Tallinn Mass was completed last year on the Warner Classics label, and launched in London in January 2014.

Tallinn Mass

Tallinn Mass is made of two components: the first is a setting of the Mass in Latin, with some important phrases reiterated in Estonian and English. The second element is Dance of Life, consisting of nineteen new poems by Kareva and Rooste, inspired by the famous 15th century painting “Dance of Death”, by Bernt Notke, in Tallinn’s St Nicholas Church.

Rozario described the painting to me, and how the poets have taken this idea and transported its characters (a Preacher, Beggar, Spy, Mayor, Banker, Ad Man and Prostitute) to the 21st century, using their individual messages as a rich and dramatic framework to the Latin Mass movements – hence the piece is in six “Acts”.

All musical ideas are inspired by Estonian culture and folklore – original folk songs from as early as the 1930s appear, as does the constant presence of the Estonian psaltery, the “kannel”. Panufnik has also used some of the church bell patterns of Tallinn’s churches to open and close the piece. In fact, it was the bells in her earlier Westminster Mass (1997) which brought Heili Vaus-Tamm of the Tallinn Philharmonic to Panufnik, for this project. She has used two choirs, one of upper voices and the other of mixed voices to “create a sense of space, a stereophonic effect and to represent the magnificent range of choral singing in Estonia.”

Patricia Rozario’s Soprano solo voice takes the role of LIFE/Elu while a Narrator plays the other various characters. LIFE’s role is that of appraiser, observer and comforter. “She is like Mother Earth and Angel Gabriel, combined”, says Panufnik.

patricia rozario tallinn mass

Jessica Duchen, author and journalist based in London worked on the translation and adaptation of the text from Estonian to English. Duchen writes about music for The Independent and besides four novels and two biographies has created a number of stage works for musicians and actors and several texts for musical setting, including Roxanna Panufnik’s choral work Let Me In. Of preparing the English text for Dance of Life, she says: “This was a fascinating process, rather like writing a libretto inside-out! I had to create text that not only reflected a reasonably accurate translation of the Estonian poems, but that fitted the pre-existing music, felt natural in English, and was singable – e.g., with open vowels on” long, high notes. Also, the whole ‘tone’ of the text had to be authentic: for instance, the Mayor’s words simply had to rhyme and be rhythmical, even if that rhythm is not identical to the Estonian version.”

By a strange quirk of fate, all three women in this creative collaboration (Roxanna Panufnik, Patricia Rozario and Jessica Duchen) are known to me through separate music-related connections, so it was a particular pleasure to interview them and write about this work.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 May 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)