THE COMPOSER and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik was your father. Was your decision to pursue a career in music due to his inspiration?

Yes and no. Initially, I never thought a musical career would be a sensible choice for me. When I was growing up I went through many phases. I wanted to become a doctor, a physiotherapist, etc., but later, during my teenage years, it became clear to me that I was good at music.

Academically I was a bit lazy so I decided to study composition at music college. I also learnt to play the harp so that I could support myself financially as a composer by being an orchestral harpist.

However, my hands are too small and I had problems with them, so that didn’t work as a career.

Whenever I composed something during my childhood my father was always very encouraging, and often gave me constructive suggestions. But then I stopped listening to him and I regret that I missed that opportunity to learn. Parents are advised not to teach their children to drive because usually children don’t listen to their parents!

I graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, but I did not do very well because my professors thought that I was not experimental enough. I wrote the kind of music I liked to listen to, that is, tunes with a nice harmony, and they thought my music was ‘naïve’. So I thought that I was not going to make it as a composer, and went to work for the BBC on music television programmes, where I learnt an enormous amount about the professional music world.

During that period, the people I was at college with kept asking me to write pieces for them. At the same time I had this amazing conversation with my father just before he died, and I realised then that life is too short to not be doing what you really want to do. At that time I had no big financial obligations, no children, no mortgage, etc., so I decided to take the leap and left the BBC. Everyone thought I was completely mad!

It soon became clear that TV wasn’t the right career for me, so I went to film school because I thought I’d make millions as a film composer, but that didn’t work either because it’s so technical and I am not very good at technical matters.

However, I found myself getting more and more concert commissions from the performers I had originally studied with, so at the age of 25 I decided to become a full time composer. In my work I feel my father’s presence very closely, and I often dream about him. He is very much watching over me, and the last question I asked him before he died was whether he would send me music from heaven, and I’m sure he is.


In a recent interview for The Telegraph, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Queen’s official composer, said that youngsters are ignorant of classical music because they are interested in “vacuous celebrity culture and inane talent shows.” Do you agree?

In part, yes. For many young people that is all that society offers. The channels through which young people may access classical music are very limited.

It is a real shame that classical music isn’t often part of the school curriculum. There are some fantastic projects that orchestras do all over the country which involve local schools, but that’s not enough.

Young people are very interested in anything that kind of relates to them, and this is why it’s much harder to interest them in a composer who has been dead for a few hundred years. Contemporary composers, on the other hand, are making music around issues that young people are interested in.

When I teach music in schools, I try to engage young people by drawing from a fantastic range of cultures and faiths and nationalities so that every student in our multi-ethnic classrooms might find something of interest.


Musicologists say that your music is deeply inspired by faith and spirituality. Were you brought up in a religious household?

No, not at all. My mother comes from an English-Dutch Jewish family, but she was not really brought up religiously, while my father, although he was brought up as a Catholic and was a deeply spiritual man, did not have any sort of organised religious life, nor did he go to Mass, so I had a fairly agnostic upbringing.

My love for religious choral music actually comes from my high school days when I used to sing in a choir, performing a lot of wonderful requiems and passions. This was my way into the faith.

Later, when I was 21, I was asked by a friend who was getting married to a Catholic girl to find some Catholic hymns for his wedding. So I went to Mass for the first time in about 10 years. I didn’t understand everything that was going on, but I came out feeling absolutely fantastic. Though there was nothing really wrong with my life – I just came out feeling very much at peace and happy – I felt just wonderful. I became curious and started going back to church again and again.

One day I had a very strong sense that God was present, when the priest said, “Lift your hearts up to God.” Now this feeling of the presence of God just got more intense over the years, and I have become a regular churchgoer. I try to serve God mainly through the music I write. 


From its very beginnings the Church has used music in her liturgy. Do you find that Church music helps raise your spirit up to God?

Sometimes it’s awful being a professional musician, because it means that I can’t be transported by church music unless it is sung by a really good choir or played by a really good organist! But if you go to one of the many wonderful English cathedrals, like Westminster Cathedral, for instance, then I find that the music there does transport me. Some churches do have good music, but in others the musicians seem to be performing just for themselves, thus generating a big gap between the musicians and the congregation.


Is there a particular piece of your music that gives you the sensation of being especially close to God?

I use a lot of plainsong music, and that gives me a feeling of infinity because it has no specifically defined rhythm, there is an otherworldly touch to it, and I love it. In my CD, Dance of Life – Tallinn Mass the Credo is sung by the choir homophonically, with bells, kannell (Estonian psaltery) and strings. When I was writing this music I felt as though I was in another world. Generally, when I am writing for the Church I feel closer to God, especially with vocal music. That plainsong Credo also brings back wonderful memories of the beautiful Masses at Westminster Cathedral and other places.


Do you find time to meet God in your busy days?

I always set aside time for God. I talk to God all the time, and my life is wonderful, but sometimes I do experience difficulties; for instance, if one of my children is unhappy at school or a close friend or relative is ill. However, I never stop praying.


Do you regard this gift of yours as something that is destined to others?

Absolutely. I cannot do anything else in life. It’s a compulsion for me; it’s the way I express myself, because I am not very good at expressing myself in words. It is wonderful to be able to express myself, my spirituality and my emotions, through music. This may sound very selfish, but when the late Cardinal Basil Hume delivered his homily at the world premiere of my Westminster Mass, he said that my music had “pierced the clouds” between the congregation and God, and that the music had enhanced the meaning of the liturgy to the congregation. If I can do that, then that is all I will ever want to do!


How would you describe God?

God is like a father. I feel that he loves me unconditionally, and I always feel I want to do my best for him.


Has there ever been a moment in your life when you felt that God was especially close to you?

At Mass every week. I feel he is very close to me then. This may seem a bit silly, but in our church where we live there is a beautiful stained-glass window by the altar of the Holy Spirit, and the sun’s rays often go through it when you go to Mass in the evenings. Whenever I look at this phenomenon I do feel very close to God. But I always feel close to him in churches, cathedrals, and in places of worship generally. This is partly because of the atmosphere of silence. Acoustics is very important in churches, the way the sound travels and the height of the roof. The architecture and inner space of a church is conducive to feeling closer to God.


Your latest record has just been released. Can you describe it?

Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass ( is an oratorio, and it was commissioned by the Tallinn Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate Tallinn becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2011. Basically there are two elements to this piece. There is the Tallinn Mass, which is the Mass in Latin, and then the Dance of Life part, composed of 19 poems based on the old medieval painting by Bernt Notke Dance of Death or Dance Macabre, which two Estonian leading poets have brought into the 21st century, transforming it into the much more positive ‘Dance of Life’.

These poems are about different people meeting the character of ‘Life’ who tries to get them to join in the dance of life. She tries to make them feel happy and to feel the love of God, because all these characters had difficult lives. This is complemented by the mood of each Mass movement. I have based a lot of my music on Estonian folk songs and culture, and originally I had to set the poems in Estonian, and that was quite a task, but the recording is in English.


They told me you are trying to bridge different faiths with your music? In what way?

When 9/11 happened I was pregnant with my first child, and I became very fearful as to what kind of world I was bringing her into. I knew there was nothing I could do of any political purpose. At the same time somebody reminded me that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same one God, and I was asked by Savannah Music Festival to write a violin concerto. I asked them if they minded if I wrote a piece that conveyed a message that reminded the followers of the three great monotheistic religions that they are all worshipping the same God. They were very happy for me to do it.

This piece is based on the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his only son as a test of faith. This episode is important in the three faiths. I created this piece using Christian, Jewish and Islamic chants. Then the World Orchestra for Peace asked me if I could write an overture for the concert they we doing in Jerusalem in 2008, but I did not have the time to write anything new for them, so I asked them if I could adapt this piece, and they agreed. So it became a symphonic overture called Three Paths to Peace – which is having its European premiere in the BBC Proms this Summer (20th July – broadcast live on BBC Radio 3).

Since then I have always been interested in world music, and the music of the three monotheistic faiths, and I try to use it as much as possible, as in my CD Love Abide.

Music is a very powerful tool to highlight the similarities and beauty of the three faiths, and this is a good way of offsetting all the negative things we are always hearing, in the media. There is so much that is beautiful about other faiths as well.


BORN ON 24 April 1968 in London, Roxanna Panufnik is a British composer of Polish heritage. She is the daughter of the composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary is celebrated this year (

Roxanna studied composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music. She is best known for her (mainly liturgical) choral works – especially Westminster Mass, commissioned for Westminster Cathedral Choir on the occasion of Cardinal Hume’s 75th birthday. She has also written opera, chamber works and music for dance, TV and film.

Roxanna has a particular interest in world music; a recent culmination of this was Abraham, a violin concerto commissioned by Savannah Music Festival for Daniel Hope, incorporating Christian, Islamic and Jewish music. This was then converted into an overture, commissioned by the World Orchestra for Peace and premiered in Jerusalem under the baton of Valery Gergiev.

Recently premiered was her oratorio Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass (in Latin and Estonian), incorporating her fourth Mass setting, for multiple Tallinn choirs and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra (commissioned to mark their tenure of European Capital of Culture 2011). Her second violin concerto, Four World Seasons, was written for and is regularly performed by Tasmin Little.

Roxanna has also recently been appointed inaugural Associate Composer with the London Mozart Players, 2012-2015, and Vice President of the Joyful Company of Singers.

Roxanna lives in London, and is married with three children. Her website may be visited at:

Updated on October 06 2016