Pettersson Symphony no. 7

performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sergiu Comissiona

No one in the 1950s noticed, that I am always breaking up the structures, that I was creating a whole new symphonic form.

Pettersson, from Paul Rapoport’s Allan Pettersson, p. 21

Today’s work was one of the biggest reasons for this whole series, and one of the earliest pieces to be added to the list. It is in some ways a fitting end to a month packed with incredible music. I’d originally only planned around six or seven works for this series, as kind of the absolute bare bones of what a Swedish series would be, Lindblad, Berwald, Alfvén, Atterberg, but as you have (hopefully) noticed, it expanded.

I love symphonies. A symphony is the largest orchestral (as in non-vocal: opera, cantata, mass) form most composers will ever take on. It’s a severe form, a potentially massive architecture where a composer can pull out all the stops to show off everything from mastery of formal ideas like counterpoint and musical structure to mind-blowing, unforgettably powerful passages of symphonic music that you may ever hear. (Earlier, I did say non-vocal, but thanks to Beethoven and Mahler and others, the chorus and other vocalists have entered the symphonic realm.)

Largely, that structure has not changed. It’s a centuries-old form, dating back to things like suites that the Bachs and others would write, but gaining greatest prominence from the pen of Joseph Haydn. Fast forward a few decades, and there’s Beethoven, the embodiment of everything the symphonic form had done up to that point. He gave us the first five-movement symphony (no. 6), as well as the first choral symphony, the famous ninth. Continued innovation and development over the next century brought us through Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, to Mahler and Sibelius, from whom we saw the first single-movement symphony, a striking, historical innovation, not to mention a stunningly beautiful work. But then what?

Others have obviously continued in the form since the first decades of the 20th century. There was Shostakovich with fifteen symphonies, Myaskovsky with 27, Havergal Brian’s 32, but what was to come of the symphonic form? Would it be tossed aside in favor of more liberating, less confining forms?

Well, as we discussed Sunday, Allan Pettersson began his first symphony in 1951, and while he wouldn’t complete that one, he would finish another five in the next decade, spending four years on his sixth. Almost all his symphonies are in one movement, with distinct sections and passages, but without the formal delineations of the double bar lines that separate independent movements. The Music section of Pettersson’s Wikipedia article explains quite nicely the unique characteristics of his music, so I won’t go repeating it here, but do note that the seventh is a single 40-minute symphony with a unique structure.

As quoted above, Pettersson created a whole new symphonic form. When Lindberg came to Taipei to present Pettersson’s fourth, it was readily evident that he was passionate about this music, believes in it, and wants to share it. He referred to Pettersson as “the next Mahler.” There are many parallels one could draw here, like the (not necessarily similar) struggles the composers had in their lives, the initial lack of widespread success or fame, the emotional intensity and weight of the music and challenges to audiences of the time.

The seventh symphony was premiered on 13 October 1968 with Antal Doráti conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic, and Doráti recorded the work the following year, an outstanding performance.

The work begins with a subtle pulsation, with first bassoons and cellos playing a minor ninth, from low C to a C# an octave above, while second bassoon and cellos provide background, contrabass in pizzicato, all with these two notes. Bass clarinet, clarinet and violas enter in bar two with the first inkling of a melodic line. This pulsating around C and C# quickly turns into a whirling, tragic energetic climax with snare drum and full compliment of strings. It’s at once harsh, strident, but also soft and warm.

I only describe the first four pages of the score because this tiny little section of the opening is wonderfully indicative of all of Pettersson’s music (that I’ve heard). There’s a strangely encompassing fullness about the opening, a modern symphonic Jaws theme, same half step, just with an extra octave. There’s plenty of dissonance, but among it is delicacy and a certain softness. Tons of tension, and almost manic bursts of violence or beauty. That’s what this music embodies, and it’s incredibly powerful.

On page five of the score, if you happen to be fortunate enough to have one, we see an example of a new section beginning, like the second theme of this enormous single movement symphony. A few bars after rehearsal mark 5, there’s a pause while celli, bass clarinet and bassoons hold a C. What comes next is a languid, sticky, persistent figure in trombones with backing from the tuba. This figure repeatedly, continuously appears throughout the work, and it’s very recognizable. Also notably, we’re not riffing on C and C# anymore, as the chorus-like trombone part centers around B minor, with strings on C.

I really can’t get into play-by play of this work. All I can do is plead with you to give it a few listens. It will take more than one. I made a reference to Mahler above, and while his music was considered challenging and grotesque and odd, it at least had firm roots in the traditions of those who came before: sonata form, four (or five) movement structures, with a scherzo and all the rest.

Pettersson’s music seems to work in an entirely different world. A four movement symphony puts a 45-minute work into four more compartmentalized parts, each with their own structure and form, and occasionally, like with Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies, or Beethoven’s fifth or Brahms, you get these exhilarating moments where all four of these movements are unified, tied together thematically.

But Pettersson’s work here puts enormous strain on the structure of the work. I’ve been wanting for some time to write an article (and I will, eventually) about how structure in music is like a bridge: the bigger the piece (or movement), the more robust that structure has to be to hold not only its load, but its own weight for the duration of the piece/movement. A small piano work may only have an ABA structure, while a symphonic sonata form movement from Bruckner is far more complex.

While sticking with one large, overall structure, it feels like Pettersson is pushing his content to its absolute limits. A few repeated listenings of the work (or a look at the score) will reveal a unity across the entire piece, repeated use of certain figures and themes. The contour, the structure of the work is built, and there are long stretches of what might seem repetitive, but it’s all part of the overall fabric.

There is a sublimely tender, melancholically heart-melting middle section of this work, full of crystal-clear counterpoint, refreshing cool water, breathtaking string writing, but it doesn’t last. That’s perhaps the pinnacle of beauty for this work, but there’s that cliche statement that there’s no light without darkness, and if that’s the case, then Pettersson is the Rembrandt of the symphony, at least here. The light and shadow, the pain and peace, sometimes in seeming direct conflict, makes for a deeply touching, at times even disturbing work, one that continues to reveal secrets and details the more you listen.

I’ve listened to long, drawn out symphonies, and length in itself is one challenge of getting to know a work. There are large-scale symphonies that I find quite impenetrable, but this is not one of them. It’s hard and unforgiving in places, but there are ways in, and once it’s clicked, once you’re in Pettersson’s sound world, it’s unforgettable. It takes a bit of effort to get there… I can’t liken it to anyone else…. Mahler? Sibelius? Shostakovich? Nope. It’s distinctly Pettersson, but even if it takes some working to dig into, the overwhelming, powerful conclusion is that this music is irrefutably imbued with such conviction, an almost unbearable compulsion to say something, to express not just emotion, but a slice of existence, and without listening and feeling that, there are really no other words I can use to describe a masterpiece like this.

The seventh is considered by many to be Pettersson’s most famous symphony, the most accessible, a jumping off point, whatever. There’s so much to be said about the man, who he studied with, what his music exemplifies, how his experiences and outlook inform and affect his music, and what we can learn from and appreciate about that music, and what it says about music that isn’t constantly played in concert halls. It’s not Dvorak or Beethoven or even Mahler or Shostakovich, but this symphony, while I’m more fascinated with getting to know it better than actually well-informed about it, is a compelling argument for Allan Pettersson as a symphonist whose works demand attention.

I thought about how this piece being the final work in a month-long series of stunning music might be a slightly dark way to end what was a lot of really superb music from outstandingly talented composers, to end on a dark note, but no. In a time when people are still polarized about the significance of serialism or ‘new music’ or whatever, we have this treasure trove of 20th century symphonies (from Pettersson specifically, but also others) that has still yet to shine in all its glory. It may take some years, but hopefully Pettersson’s name will become as highly regarded as Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich for his contributions to symphonic music.

Well, that’s it. What a month it’s been! More than a century and a half of Swedish music, and every drop has been really incredible. I won’t go too far here because there’s a series review to be posted, but it’s series like this that I love preparing and that show how much more music there is out there to discover and enjoy. Buy your Beethoven and Mozart and Mahler symphony cycles, but take advantage of the convenience and opportunity we have to hear more. Tack så mycket. 



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