Gustav Allan Pettersson: Violin Concerto no. 1 for violin and string quartet

performed by Yamei Yu and the Leipziger Streichquartett, available here or in iTunes

Gustav Allan Pettersson was born on 19 September 1911, “the youngest of four children of a violent, alcoholic blacksmith… at the manor of Granhammar in Västra Ryd parish in the province of Uppland… in poor circumstances in the Södermalm district of Stockholm,says Wikipedia, quoting Laila Barkefors.

I wasn’t born under a piano, I didn’t spend my childhood with my father, the composer… no, I learnt how to work white-hot iron with the smith’s hammer. My father was a smith who may have said no to God, but not to alcohol. My mother was a pious woman who sang and played with her four children.

The composer, in these program notes

In 1930, not even 20 years old, he started studying violin and viola, as well as counterpoint and harmony, at what seems now to be called the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. He spent some time studying viola in Paris, but was back in Stockholm in the ’40s and served as violist in the Stockholm Concert Society (now the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra). He also studied composition under Karl-Birger Blomdahl, a name with which we shall soon become more familiar. This is the period from which today’s piece comes, but there’s obviously far more to his career.

Beginning in the ’50s, relatively late in a career, maybe, he began writing the first of what would later become his seventeen symphonies. The first was left unfinished (later to be completed by the wonderful Christian Lindberg), and apparently composition resonated with him, for he returned to Paris in 1951 and studied composition with people such as René Leibowitz (!), Arthur Honegger, Oliver Messiaen, and Darius Milhaud. By 1952, he was back in Sweden and the year after that was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

By a decade later, he had completed five symphonies and “his mobility and health were considerably compromised, says Wiki, citing Paul Rapoport. It appears his first six symphonies did not garner much attention, but that would soon change, as we shall discuss later this week. Overall, despite a relatively late start and tremendous health problems, it’s astonishing to see Pettersson’s volume of work, and I’m glad to be sharing just a small inkling of that this week.

Today’s work is included in the SQS series because it is for string quartet and soloist even if listed as a concerto. I first heard this work in our local music or “performing arts” library at the opera house in our local arts complex. It was a quiet room, full of literally tens of thousands of CDs and vinyls, some soft couches, nice open-back headphones, and nothing to do but listen. It was this recording, not the above-listed one (I know, right?! There’s more than one!) that I first enjoyed, but something about it blew me away.

I had already had some interest in Pettersson’s work, having attended the Asian premiere of his fourth symphony, conducted by Lindberg, and was digging around for some other interesting things to listen to, and stumbled upon this.

If you’re not familiar with Pettersson’s work, it’s intense, full of contrast and explosions of violence or dissonance or struggle, or all of the above. The only word this work gets in Pettersson’s Wikipedia article is:

His production from this decade [the one in which he studied with Blomdahl, Mann and Olsson] include the song cycle twenty-four Barefoot Songs (1943–45) based on own poems and a dissonant[6] concerto for violin and string quartet (1949). Latter work is influenced by Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith.[7][8]

Not much.

The work is in three movements, totaling about a half hour:

I. Allegro moderato
II. Lento
III. Allegro moderato

The first movement is only about five minutes long, then ten and fifteen minutes respectively. It opens quite unassumingly, the first gesture sounding idyllic and even pentatonic, but quickly turns to what sounds like a cadenza. Yes, this is the beginning. That opening idyllic gesture returns as the quartet enters and things get busy quickly. There’s a kind of uneasy beauty, a certain chaos in this music, and if you hold on to try to get it all, you’ll be white-knuckled and exhausted. Sit back and let it happen. It’s full of furious turns, sudden complexity, texture, and detail that may seem almost acrid at first, but if you’re able to step back and kind of take it all in, you’ll notice a certain beauty to that work, and that beauty could as easily be described as ‘grotesque’ as it could ‘powerful’ or some other more common adjective.

It’s clear that Pettersson was a talented performer himself. While you might not fall in love with the music, it has not only a convincing crunch but an idiomatic voice in the string writing. The first movement ends with the reappearance of the opening figure, and we see there was quite a lot packed into that first five minutes.

The second movement gives each individual string a little more room to resonate. The lento is, at least at the beginning, more spacious, but it doesn’t feel lento for long. Remember, lento is a tempo marking, not an energy one. There’s still plenty of force behind this opening passage, and the quartet wails on some strong tones behind our soloist. While the first movement seemed to wrap around itself quickly and spend its entire time tangling and untangling, writhing even, the second movement gives us a bit more forward motion, like it’s working toward a point, growing to something. I hear bits of that opening kernel of the first movement,

There’s an urgency to this music, an almost disturbing insistence, like a phone call from someone in distress in a large crowd. The intensity of communication, of dire need to express is there, even if you can’t hear the person clearly through noise or muffled speech. If someone’s mumbling, it may be too frustrating to listen, but when there’s a clear compulsion to communicate, one feels an urgency to try to understand.

The middle movement is almost equally manic, even the quieter moments sounding uneasy, and leading to harrowing, very engaging passages, like a quiet moment from the soloist while the quartets pluck serenadingly until everything is again in a frenzy, provoked by what we know not. Something to appreciate about this work is the contrasts it presents, for in the second movement alone, there are sudden moments of crystal clarity and transparency just as convincing as those of utter chaos, and this narrative, even if bordering on incomprehensible, is a compelling one. It leads without break into the final movement, which comprises the latter half of the work.

The third movement seems to reach even greater clarity, or contrast, or refinement. Things come into focus more here, and the music can finish a complete thought before moving onto something else. That’s not a critique of the composition, but an observation on its progression. There’s yet more new to the ear here, as in the passage where (it sounds like) the performers pluck strings below the bridge, extremely high-pitched, non-resonating and very metallic sounding clicks. There are moments that sound like something from a 21st-century Hitchcock film, but one of the longest focused passages in the entire concerto is quiet, expressive, and tender. If you have any question as to Pettersson’s compositional talents or craft, just finish the work. The end gives us beauty and simplicity that shines through pain and struggle to give a satisfying conclusion to a work that sounds far too personal to be a concerto. It’s far less about the soloist here, more about the music as a whole, and even more about what that music is conveying.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a piece I listen to recreationally. Its charms are of a far too intense nature, but in that way it’s like many of the movies I enjoy watching: they grip you by the soul, put you in a heart-wrenching place, make you experience or think about intense problems, distress you, but the experience is a visceral one, one that’s so all-encompassing that you don’t remember it’s a movie until the credits roll. That’s engaging. Pettersson delivers that here. Even if you have no idea what the underlying structure of the work is, what he’s trying to say, you can at least feel that he means it, and that he needs to express it. It’s a fascinating work, one that engages and asks questions. At the very least, there’s nothing else like it; it’s a piece of a distinctive character. As Gramophone puts it, “This really is a masterpiece, albeit a discomfiting one, written by a composer who was also a master string player.” The work is almost inconceivably intense at times, but there’s never a sense that it’s without logic or direction. Maybe I’m just a willing participant, but if you’re willing to be, it’s a hell of a ride, and having questions at the end of the work isn’t a bad thing; on the contrary, it’s what keeps us interested and wondering.

We’re very close to nearing the end of our Swedish Series, so stay tuned. There are only two more pieces left before this whole thing is finished, and then we’re off to something else.

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