Happy birthday, dear Cardinal Hume

Teresa Magee meets Roxanna Panufnik, a composer who today unwraps her gift for the head of the Roman Catholic Church - quite a job, as it involves a 24-piece string orchestra and tubular bells
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What do you buy a monk for his birthday? A new habit and a CD of Gregorian chants might go down well. But if he happens to be Cardinal Hume, the monk who is the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the best gift you can give him is Roxanna Panufnik's Westminster Mass.

Cardinal Hume's 75th birthday celebration is this young composer's grandest work to date. She spent almost a year composing the 25 minutes of contemporary music to accompany today's special Mass. Taking the cardinal's advice, she went on retreat to Stanbrook Abbey, in the Malvern Hills, to help the creative flow. The result is a score featuring the Westminster Cathedral choir, a 24-string orchestra, two harps and tubular bells. "I met the cardinal only a few times. His only request was that we include Psalm 63. I worked more closely with James O'Donnell, the cathedral's master of music. He made me aware of a pace to the ritual. The sense of timing has to be there. The Sanctum, for example, can't be much more than three minutes, because the priest is waiting at the altar."

Panufnik, 30, was born in London. She is the offspring of Sir Andrzej Panufnik - once Poland's leading composer - and Camilla Jessel, an author and photographer for the Save the Children Fund and her father's second wife. His first was an Irish woman named Scarlet, with whom he fled from the KGB to Britain in 1954. In Poland, Scarlet enjoyed the status that went with being the wife of an eminent composer, but life in the UK, married to a refugee composer little known in this country, was less glamorous, and she disappeared from his life.

"My father didn't give me career advice because he understood that life for him in the mid-Thirties studying conducting in Vienna was very different from my life in the late-Eighties in London. There is also the fact that I was a woman having to make woman's choices and he could only help me on his experience of a man's choices."

There is no doubt that, although Panufnik was close to both parents, she is a daddy's girl - Andrzej doted on her and she on him. Panufnik's musical ability was apparent when she was just three, when she told her mother she wanted a violin "and a stick" to play with. The whim lasted three months. She'd only wanted to play so that she could strike the pose of Ida Haendel - a famous violinist of the early 1970s. Her sight reading progressed fast on the flute, which she took up when nine. Through the flute, she progressed to the harp and her love of harmony.

When she was 16, Panufnik wrote a requiem for her cousin who had died in a car crash. "Sarah was only five at the time and I was seven. She was always around - I saw her as a little sister. I miss her very much." The requiem - a chamber piece for the school choir, string quartet and piano - was performed at Chichester Cathedral.

Of her teachers, Panufnik was strongly influenced by Hans Werner Henze, whom she describes as avuncular. He taught her how to present harmony with orchestra and ensembles. "He had me completely sussed," she says. Panufnik hasn't worked with him for nine years, but he is still composing.

Another influence was Melanie Daiken. She was enthusiastic about Panufnik's work when her pupil had little confidence and she taught Panufnik how to make the most of the harmony she loved to write. Other leading lights for Panufnik were Michael Finnisey, who helped her with music theatre writing and Francis Shaw, at the National Film and TV School in Beaconsfield, who was instrumental in helping her write for film.

There were other teachers who were not so encouraging. Panufnik's time at the Royal Academy of Music was very disappointing, with fellow students implying that she would be favoured because of her composer father and teaching staff criticising her "naive" creations.

Her confidence was so low when she left that she shunned composing and entered the world of TV research. It wasn't long before she was tempted back to the piano and her favourite instrument, the harp. When she wasn't researching, she was composing. Eventually, a kindly employer at the BBC, Dennis Marks, advised her that she would have to choose one or other. "I really thought I could carry on doing both, so I didn't take his advice until a year later."

Panufnik only started composing seriously after her father's death in 1991. Apart from the terrible grief she felt, she says she gained two things - she was able to focus on what was important in life and she had the courage to face virtually anything and to fulfil the composing urge that was burning inside. "Pain broadens the experience and affects all the emotions. It changed my music, adding depth - and I became braver.

"Asking me to describe my music is like asking someone what they look like. It's hard to be objective. I agree with critics who say it's quirky. It's also emotionally intense."

Panufnik's father concentrated on orchestra, whereas she is more interested in opera. She says that he was always striving for a balance between the cerebral and the emotional, which was reflected in orchestrations with precise geometrical structures. His forte was symphony and concerto, while hers is chamber music and the voice, whether liturgical or not. She finds it much easier starting with the words and putting them to music. "I've done that with `Twelfth Night'," she says, referring to her intensely emotional string quartet Olivia.

"I don't think there is enough music in Catholic churches at the moment, but I'm aware of the practical difficulties. Getting dedicated choirs is not always easy, and you can't have professionals because of the cost. I'd like to carry on writing liturgical music. I was commissioned to write an anthem by the Royal Academy of Arts for the opening of its summer exhibition last year. But the request for more music has to come from congregations. Unless they ask for it, it's not going to happen."

Church is the place for confessing sins - be they cardinal or one of the seven deadly sins ... or is that eight? According to Panufnik, there are eight. She wrote a piece four years ago for recorder player Piers Adam. She felt she had to provide something flamboyant to match the character of this showman. She wove the seven deadly sins into this work. Envy was based on the fact that the piano might be a better instrument than the recorder. What followed was a technological duel between them - and, of course, the piano won. This is when the eighth sin - "humorouslessness", as she puts it - came in.

"I dream about my father a lot," says Panufnik. "I always try to follow his counsel. `Be yourself,' he used to say and `Panufnik, be more fastidious.' He was economical in his music. I go overboard with lush textures sometimes."

Panufnik believes her father is never very far away. "The first time I went to Stanbrook Abbey, I was working at the piano when I heard him telling me to clean up my harmonies."

Cardinal Hume will be celebrating Mass at the cathedral today - but he will not be singing. He has left that to the cathedral choir. "Maybe I should have written him a little solo, but he wanted it to be for the choir. He's very modest and quite shy, too. The mere fact that he is celebrating is wonderful."

`Westminster Mass' is performed today at 5.30pm at Westminster Cathedral, London.