Kurt Atterberg: Symphony no. 2 in F, op. 6

performed by the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt under Ari Rasilainen


The video above is of the second and fifth symphonies back to back. The second symphony ends about 41 minutes in, but this is the recording to listen to. As much as I like Neeme Järvi (and the Gothenberg Symphony, from the composer’s hometown), I prefer Rasilainen’s interpretation, discussed further below. 

This is the primary reason (with another important one later) that the Swedish Symphony Series happened.

Kurt Atterberg’s name isn’t one that most people (at least non-Swedes) would recognize. The first time I came across Atterberg’s name was in my reading about the ‘curse of the ninth‘, that superstitious idea that a composer is testing fate if he writes a ninth symphony (or beyond). “I mean, look at them! Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Dvorak, Schubert! Nine symphonies.” Except Bruckner wrote more than that and didn’t finish what was called his ninth. Mahler’s Das Lied is a symphony in all but name, and he almost finished his tenth. Dvorak’s catalogue has numbering issues of its own, but nothing compared to the confusion in Schubert’s output, with his seventh and eighth incomplete but his ninth completed.

Anyway, another composer in the list on the Wikipedia article for the ‘curse’ is Kurt Atterberg, who did indeed actually write nine symphonies. His ninth was even choral! So that name got filed away somewhere and I thought I’d get around to looking into him eventually. The second time his name came up was in reference to the 1928 International Columbia Graphophone Competition, which was held in honor of the centennial of Schubert’s death, and focused on the composer’s Unfinished eighth as inspiration. Such well-known humans such as Alexander Glazunov and Carl Nielsen graced the panel of jurors (Glazunov was actually chairman), so it was a big deal. Another famous entry was Havergal Brian’s absolutely enormous Gothic symphony, but Atterberg’s sixth ultimately took first prize, subsequently earning the work the nickname of the ‘Dollar symphony.’

Atterberg was born in Gothenberg in December of 1887, into a family of engineers and chemists;  his maternal grandfather was an opera singer. At the age of 15 he began learning the cello and at 21(ish?) found himself in what is today called the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Society, by which time he was already composing.

He was studying electrical engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology, but in 1910 enrolled at the Royal College of Music. He did eventually get his engineering diploma, and it appears that he went on to do things with it, but had an equally if not more fulfilling music career, thankfully. Wikipedia says “He co-founded the Society of Swedish Composers in 1918, alongside other prominent composers such as Ture Rangström, Wilhelm Stenhammar and Hugo Alfvén.” Those names sound familiar now! Or they will soon.

Nothing in Atterberg’s musical education (or what I’ve read of it) stands out as spectacular, but his music certainly is. Of his nine symphonies, the third and sixth are maybe most well known, I think. The sixth is at least the most famous, and some consider the third to be his best, but we’re not talking about either of those.

I can’t remember how exactly I came across this work of his, but it was the first Atterberg symphony I (recall having) listened to, and I think it didn’t take but a listen or two to be blown away by the magnitude and strength of this work. It’s in three movements, with the first and last being of almost equal length, and a long, unique central movement.

This music is epic, burnished, strong, sweeping, and engaging. It’s not really related, but I was listening to Rachmaninoff’s second symphony the other day and it’s a much bigger symphony than this, but it’s full of broad, rich, Russian melodies, full of body. The problem is, though, that it can get a bit rich, like eating butter. You need something to contrast it. Atterberg has this burnished copper, heroic sound in his stunning brass writing, strings like the prow of a boat cutting through waves, but it isn’t all big flashy tunes. There’s contrast and balance.

The symphony starts with a magical blossoming of sound, and even this early, there’s a horn solo over vernal strings and woodwind calls, introducing a main figure of the movement. This is repeated or picked up elsewhere, most immediately by the strings.

The narrative never stops in the music. There’s not a point at which a hard left or right turn is taken. It’s like one of those slightly scary Uber drivers who weaves through traffic and in between cars pressing only the accelerator. The music just unfolds, revealing some very Brucknerian power and color, in what may be the richest, most heroic low brass features I’ve ever heard. It’s like the hard, strong edges carved by nature out of a rock face, and strings like the swirling wind and soaring birds around it. It’s just phenomenal.

It’s hard-edged and strong and powerful, but also delicate, lyrical, warm and absolutely, shockingly, almost unbearably breathtaking. The first movement gives us themes and contrasts of expression and content that may be too much for one movement, but when you think it’s getting a bit rich, the scenery changes, like clearing a hill to reveal a valley of an entirely new landscape below.

At nearly four minutes in, we have a return of our opening horn solo, and it feels at once like a repeat of the exposition, but also like we’re way too far into the music for that. The development again shows us heartstoppingly wonderful music for brass, but it’s not just that; everything built around it is equally well executed, to make for a first movement that already makes you ask irritatedly ‘why does no one play this?’  It’s jaw-dropping.

But the symphony doesn’t ride on simple surface-level beauty. There’s a commanding sense of power behind the music, as we’ve heard, but despite the towering brass and triumph of the first movement, it ends quietly with a single horn, to bring in the second movement, which also begins with prominent brass, underpinned by strings.

Atterberg has built a soundworld, a language, of warm brass sounds with strings for texture, and if the first movement was a more heroic, powerful, commanding sound, the opening of the second movement gives us a more tender view of the same soundscape. It swells and rises to stunning, almost heartbreaking beauty. Knowing where this movement goes, just hearing the opening with horns and cellos gives me chills. It’s the slow movement, obviously. Or is it?

Bell-like piano makes an appearance in this work, and the melodic content is broader, but the rhythms are very rich. However, there’s a passage of uncertainty, a quiet, with horns and punctuation in the piano, as the weather changes, the darkest passage of music we’ve had yet. Clouds roll in, and it starts to rain. We hear it first from oboe, but the music quickly explodes into a full-blown scherzo.

It’s not menacing or wild. Yet. It’s a pretty bright scherzo at first, but it has a trajectory of its own, like a storm building. There’s a central portion where it seems to take on an almost ‘sorcerer’s apprentice kind of wildness, and things ratchet up to a harrowing level of intensity, pulsing drums and screaming percussion, but it doesn’t last. There’s a second kind of scherzo section before things cool back down and come back to the ‘slow movement’ part of the movement. That horn line… it’s absolutely tear-jerking. Words don’t do it justice. There is very much to appreciate about Atterberg’s craft as a composer, from stunningly effective writing, to form, to counterpoint, but we’ll talk about that later.

The final movement begins with more outright force, again with the heroic, powerful brass, with more punch and forwardness at the expense of the lyricism and softness of previous content. The piano and clarinet and other textures here and there come to the fore, so I never get tired of the prominence of the brass. But suddenly, there’s a buoyant, fragrant melody in strings, something that’s bright and warm and folksy, almost ‘patriotic’ or nostalgic-sounding, and it’s these gestures and expressions that make up the movement. There are tie-ins with the first movement, so the overall layout of the work feels like that scherzo is central to the symphony as a whole, with a hybridized central movement. This calls to mind Mahler’s seventh or Sibelius’ fifth and their unique symphonic layouts.

The finale of this work is absolutely splendid. Brass reigns supreme, but the piano shimmers and strings soar majestically. It’s a vibrant, deeply moving work, stunningly lyrical but with a certain seriousness that gives pause. And the whole thing seems so effortless.

There’s an immediacy to this music. It might not create an entire universe that’s as all-encompassing as a Mahler symphony, let’s say, but (then again, what does?) it gives us a passionate, compelling glimpse into a landscape that clearly means something to the composer, a world with plenty to see and explore, and one that I often revisit. While it might not leave you with the feeling that you’ve just lived a lifetime in another world and come out the other side, it’s a thorough, vivid representation of a certain slice of a world. And may I remind you that this is the composer’s opus no. six?! 

There’s a breadth to the music, a continuity, an unhindered pressing forward, and I hadn’t really put my finger on what it is until I had a look at the score. It’s how he treats bar lines. I didn’t make any systematic study of it, but in many cases beats are tied over into the next bar, sometimes by only a half beat, some by one or two beats, so phrases begin at different points and on different beats. This doesn’t cause any kind of lopsided, uneven meter like you might expect from some kind of folk dance (except for the peasant-sounding thing in the finale), but rather a never-ending line of music, like a horizon that stretches as far as the eye can see. The sun may disappear under that horizon, but it comes up again on the other side before too long.

This may not be a work that you go to when you want to experience an entire lifetime’s worth of emotions, like a Mahler 2 or 8 or something, but it’s an outstandingly impressive second symphony (opus 6!) from a 26-year-old composer, one that shows not just an emotional power, but a musical talent that should excite you to continue listening to Atterberg’s other works.

This post was originally to be on Thursday of this week, but there was so much else to discuss that /shuffle shuffle shuffle/ and it’s been pushed up to Monday to fit in works for later in the week and next week. I think this is a highlight of the series this month, and for the other two works in the lineup this week, we’ll be taking steps in a slightly different direction, so stay tuned for that. Ha en bra dag! 

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