People and Genres

35 Roxanna Panufnik

In this chapter you will

  • learn about the composer’s diverse religious background
  • consider how Jewish and Christian texts outside the Bible continue the exploration of biblical stories and themes in a manner similar to what composers do

If you have read this book through in order, you have already heard examples of the music of Roxanna Panufnik. One is linked to in chapter 17 on the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the other in chapter 9 on the story of Isaac. Even a significant amount of her instrumental work draws on and explores biblical stories. In her setting of Psalm 136, Love Endureth, she draws on Jewish chant. As the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father (her father was also a well-known composer, Andrzej Panufnik), it is no surprise to find she explores and addresses religious texts and themes in and through her music and has clearly articulated thoughts on subjects such as religious diversity and commonality. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, she said of her violin concerto Abraham, “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. 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.”[1] She says more about this in her interview with Classic FM. Listen closely to the ways that she engages not only with biblical text but with some of the diverse forms of musical expression you have read about in this book.

In the interview with the Jewish Chronicle already mentioned, Panufnik also shares that she began exploring her Jewish roots while a student at the Royal Academy of Music. She says there, “My first Jewish work was a setting of the Shemah, and it was performed at my father’s funeral.”[2] The Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4, one of the most important texts that is felt to capture and sum up what is central to Judaism: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” It features prominently in Jewish prayer.

Panufnik has also explored biblical texts in ways that transcend any one religious tradition, as you will have heard in the interview. She has also explored beyond the canon of Scripture into extracanonical texts, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. That text is a collection of stories that imagines what Jesus might have been like as a child in between the stories found in the New Testament Gospels. It provided the basis for Jessica Duchen’s libretto for Panufnik’s oratorio “Let Me In.” As a contemporary composer with this kind of background and musical output, she makes for a natural place to draw our exploration of music and the Bible to a close.

  1. “Why Her Music Is a Religious Experience, Three Times Over,” Jewish Chronicle, April 19, 2012,
  2. See also her interview with Stephen Darlington in Roxanna Panufnik, “Beyond a Mass for Westminster,” in Composing Music for Worship, ed. Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 76–85.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book