Wilhelm Peterson-Berger: Symphony no. 3 in Fm ‘Same-Ätnam’

performed by the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Michail Jurowski or below by the Sveriges Radios Symfoniorkester under Stig Westerberg

Olof Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was born 27 February, 1867 in Ullånger (or just not  Stockholm), the oldest child of a surveyor, Olof Peterson, and Sophia Wilhelmina, nee Berger. He, too, studied at the Stockholm Conservatory before relocating to Dresden for a year. Wikipedia lists his greatest influences as Grieg, Söderman, and Wagner.

He apparently moved around a bit after returning from his studies in Dresden, spending time in Stockholm, and moving back to Dresden for a time to teach, but it didn’t last. For a time, he was music critic at Dagens Nyheter, where he was apparently quite outspoken and critical of some of his fellow composers, like Stenhammar and Alfvén, and was hence not very welcomed as a musical personality, especially a composer. He was apparently quite against the modernism showing up in Swedish music, “especially from Arnold Schoenberg and his followers.” He apparently had very strong ideas about music, performance and felt strongly enough even to personally attack those who didn’t meet his standards, Wiki saying that “he attacked showy virtuosity and dry academicism with satire but also with strict conscientiousness[3]” and that “he was not above grave personal insults.” So maybe we have at least one reason WPB isn’t a household name.

Despite that, he wrote a total of five completed symphonies, with an incomplete sixth, a violin concerto, a handful of operas, as well as some 80 songs.

The third, the ‘Lappland symphony’ is generally considered his most famous. I’d originally queued up his second, but the third won out. As discussed above, Peterson-Berger was a much more traditional, or conservative, composer, but with an interesting twist. Listed above are WPB’s greatest influences, and I can’t think of another example of a composer who is willing to go so far as to appreciate Wagner but stop there. Most everyone who was able to handle Wagner was able to move on and accept more modern styles, onto Debussy, Schoenberg, etc. Mahler did it, Debussy did it, Schoenberg did it. In contrast, there’s Brahms, who was the antithesis of what Wagner was in the same era. Granted, I don’t see Bruckner following along in a more modern idiom, but he was of an earlier generation.

In any case, I think it’s interesting that that is where WPB draws the line, that he’s willing to go there and no further, but we hear it in his music. These days, music written in a late Romantic idiom isn’t shocking or out of place; maybe a more informed listener could put it in context and have some idea of what contemporary audiences would have thought, but there’s no shock factor like there was 150 years ago.

What we have today is WPB’s third symphony, written in 1915. The title “Säme-Atnam” is a reference to Lappland, and the symphony is kind of like a four seasons-type representation of the northernmost part of Sweden. The movements are subtitled:

  • Forntidsbilder (Scenes from the distant past)
  • Vinterkväll (Winter Evening)
  • Sommarnatt (Summer night)
  • Framtidsdrömmar (Dreams of the Future)

Thomas F. Bertonneau at Amazon says the symphony:

explores the extreme North of Sweden, the area within the Arctic Circle populated by the Lapps and called, in the Lapp tongue, “Same Ätnam,” from which stems the travelogue-title of the symphony.

I’ll be honest. At first, I didn’t want to like this symphony. The composer as music critic was, well, critical… and it seems like only a few people have the freedom or artistic license to be so critical. There’s that whole Brahms vs. Wagner thing, and Brahms was enough of a musical genius that his more conservative arguments merited attention. I wasn’t so sure that WPB had the reputation to make his opinion carry so much weight, and the general idea was off-putting, but more than that was the initial impression of the symphony.

It seemed… straightforward, direct, approachable, which can all be good things, but the initial impression, for me, was that it lacked some depth. It felt like I’d heard most of what it wanted to say in a not-so-focused listen or two, and in some ways, that’s true, but others no.

Guy Rickards at Gramophone says that the work is:

built on a large scale and written in a late-romantic language that was already anachronistic. Peterson-Berger had a fine ear for melody (though not perhaps so memorably, in a symphonic context, as his compatriot Atterberg) and knew how to orchestrate: indeed the Third is usually cited as his most important orchestral work. Its sound world is very beguiling, in places like a Swedish ancestor of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica  There is a jolly Elgarian bumptiousness to the finale… Yet the style is a touch anonymous…

The opening immediately presents us with a figure that will be important throughout the work: a short, accented, dramatic, crisp gesture, contrasted with a more lyrical, even ethereal response from flute et al. This initial contrast typifies, for me, what the work is made of. It’s instant drama, a happy helping of charm, but of solid musical content and expression. For these first few bars, we’re clearly in common time, but the next critical figure to show up, while keeping in 4/4, gives us quarter-note triplets, immediately shifting the pulse to a triple-meter feel, beginning with bassoon, over low strings, the bassoon echoed by horn. It’s these few figures all presented one after the other that makes for an exciting introduction, the presentation of musical elements with just oodles of potential, but more importantly the musical landscape. It sounds spacious, rugged, untamed. And if we’re expressing the personality and qualities of a geographical area, with its landscape and culture, this is a great way to do it. The first movement is around 13 minutes long, and is really an engaging movement with many charms, like the ethereal use of piano and harp that allow you almost to see the starry evening sky. I’ll discuss specifically down below what they are.

The second movement is the scherzo… sort of. I was going to devote a whole section to this idea later, but it’s fitting here. What was so interesting in the first movement was not just nice music bits or melodies, but really interesting use of rhythm. It’s no Stravinsky, I know, but the appearance of triple meter in 4/4 time, or the ingenious use of 6/4 as double or triple meter. I only noticed these intricacies after having a look at the score, but it is a nice detail that shows a musical craftsmanship that earns my respect…

And now onto the scherzo. In most (as in almost all) cases, a scherzo is in triple meter, beats of three. The first movement hinted at and used triplet figures here and there, but they’re not to be found in the scherzo, where they’re most expected. A look at the score reveals the time signature written as 2, followed by (10/8). So the overall pulse is in 2, not 3, and each beat gets five quarter notes. There are playful, colorful passages contrasted with a breathtakingly powerful repeated-note figure in the low strings and horns, a driving, sweeping, intensely spirited figuration that forms the backbone of the energy for this movement. It contrasts nicely with the more playful passages in the scherzo part. The central trio-like section is really much more like a nocturne, with bucolic horn calls. I’ll say these two movements are by far my favorite. But remember that initial bassoon figure in triplets at the beginning of the first movement? Do you recognize it here in the scherzo? The unity of expression and content, along with the thematic elements, make this work feel like a symphonic poem.

The third movement, the slow movement, is a fugue, beginning with violins, then clarinet, then cello. It’s ethereal, complex, rich, more fascinating in its complexity and richness than any standout sweeping Tchaikovsky-like melody. A Lappland theme is marked at a certain point in this score after the very slow, broad introduction. This represents a summer night, and while I hate summer and hot weather and sweating and humidity and thought this sounds nothing like summer, I suppose it might if I were in the north of Sweden. Someone I’m quoting in this article said in a portion I’m not quoting that it’s an impressive feat of a composer to use something as “academic” as a fugue to be so expressive and illustrate so clearly an emotional, or even visual, cue as a beautiful landscape in summer. I believe it was Bertonneau. But he also mentions what’s significant in the latter part of this movement, and for the rest of the symphony. He says “The Lapps practice a tradition of improvisatory vocalise, “Joiking,” and Peterson-Berger incorporates a number of “Joik” melodies in his score.”

I’m too lazy to go digging through the score, but what I recall as the point in the third movement where this appears is where the fugue cools off and the oboe takes over with a pretty  memorable melody, pentatonic-sounding, pastorally folksy. This is an important figure for the rest of this movement and leads into the finale.

The finale, as quoted above, is very… pastoral, familiar, comfortable. Peterson-Berger starts to sound like the Swedish Vaughan Williams. The first three movements sounded adventurous, beguiling, enchanting, like they were part of some epic voyage, but suddenly the finale sounds familiar, cozy, friendly, warm. Have you ever been on a long road trip, and you’re nearing the end of the journey but are finally back in familiar territory? Whether you’re driving a car, navigating a ship, or even sitting in the cabin of a 747, the very nearness of home, that last hour or two, there’s something comforting about arriving, and it’s what the finale sounds like. If you’re at the wheel, you relax a little bit. You don’t need to keep an eye out for street signs or highway exits; if you’re at the helm of a boat, you (likely) know the terrain, the channels, how to navigate back to the docks.

After this long, exciting journey, the symphony doesn’t end with a bang; there’s no fanfare or triumphant anything, but rather a quiet, simple held note that fades away, in much the same way that you heave a sigh of relief when you put your keys back on the counter and flop your bag onto the table.

Home.

If I’d already written somewhere on the blog about Sibelius 5 or 7, I would make parallels to some similar sounds in their music, and Peterson-Berger’s approach to innovation. There’s nothing harmonically advanced or challenging here, nothing that says this work was written in 1915, which, all things considered, is quite recent in the classical music world. In some ways, it’s a safe piece. It’s pretty easy to wrap your head around; it’s cinematic and straightforward and there’s really nothing here you have to work for to appreciate. On the one hand, then, it might seem a bit… plain. On the other, there’s a unity to the work across the movements, a well-constructed narrative, and some very ingenious crafting of rhythm and meter that make for a unique sound. Sibelius innovated in his fifth and seventh in manners of structure and expression, not harmonically, like most of the rest of the world was doing at the time, and if you compare this third symphony to much of what was written in the same year, it’s quite plain, but even if the success of the piece rests on its charms alone, it is an enjoyable listen. It’s nothing to change the world, but it’s a nice piece of music.

Stay tuned this week for another more lightweight Swedish work before the weekend. I feel bad to jam all this music in here, but…. if I don’t get to it now, I don’t know when I will.

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2 thoughts on “Wilhelm Peterson-Berger: Symphony no. 3 in Fm ‘Same-Ätnam’

  1. By Swedish Standards, this is in the forefront at 1915. Compare to Rangström 1, Atterberg 3 or Stenhammar 2. Actually Peterson-Berger was a great impressionist, but maybe more English than French (Vaughan Williams springs to mind). His mild dissonances flows so naturally, that one doesn’t immediately realises how integrated his harmonic language. That is how he created his own very personal voice.

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