Saturday, January 1, 2011

24 Barefoot Songs (1943 - 1945)

I’m going to begin this survey of Pettersson’s orchestral works with his Barefoot Songs, a series of 24 songs for voice and piano. Although it may seem strange to include this work in a survey of orchestral music, Pettersson comes back to these songs in later works as a source of stylistic or melodic material. Additionally, some of the harmonic devices which are employed also show up in subsequent works.

It wasn’t long after becoming acquainted with Pettersson’s music that I learned about his Barefoot Songs. One day in the late 90’s I saw the CPO recording of these songs in my local record store and, being a subscriber to the Pettersson faith, I purchased it immediately. I have to admit that after listening through the songs a couple of times I have very rarely returned to them, so this reassessment comes after an almost 10-year hiatus.

Two things: first of all, I have never really been a fan of vocal music. I have ignored even the large oeuvres of vocal music by my favorite composers, such as Britten and Barber. Second, I am not really a literature and poetry guy, so I won’t attempt to come up with any profound interpretations of the Pettersson’s words. This issue is further compounded with issues of translation.

Pettersson wrote these songs in 1943-1945 while still employed as a section violist in what is now the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Anyone looking for the Allan Pettersson of the symphonies will probably be surprised upon hearing these songs. With the exception of direct song references in some of his later orchestral works, these songs bear little surface resemblance to the conflict-laden and vast, emotionally intense musical landscapes which were to come later.

Pettersson himself wrote the poetry for these songs, which are largely autobiographical. He wrote over 100 poems which he intended to set to music, although only 24 poems ended up as songs. These poems are apparently cryptic to even native speakers of Swedish, although I certainly would not know for sure. In the songs one can find references to Pettersson’s difficult childhood, such as his mother’s piety and his father’s alcoholism.  

The songs are quite simple musically, almost folk-like, and do not demand much technically from the performers. The songs are quite short (usually 3 minutes or less), and the entire cycle can be played in about 50 minutes. Despite the surface simplicity, the songs are a critical puzzle piece in Pettersson’s development as a composer, as he himself said that in his music he tried to find “the song once sung by the soul.” Short songs probably served as the ideal expressive medium for a busy professional violist, while also giving him the chance to develop his then nascent compositional voice.

For the most part there is a uniform feel among the songs, without any obvious extremes of dynamics, expression or tempi. The sensitive piano accompaniments are spare and usually defer to the vocalist. The vocal lines are restrained rather than declamatory. Harmonically, Pettersson plays around with major-minor relationships and chromatic voice leading within clear tonal contexts.

There is a fragile beauty to most of the songs, although now and then one encounters songs which sound rather cheeky and ironic. I find song number 7, Blomma säj (Tell, Flower) and number 14, Herren går på ängen (The Lord goes in the meadow), to be particularly beautiful. I want to say there’s also a feeling of somewhat detached nostalgia, which seems kinda self-contradictory.

Even though I cannot say I plan to come back to these songs often, listening to them after a long hiatus has really increased my appreciation for the role that these songs played in Pettersson’s development as a composer. Throughout his later works, one can find painfully beautiful oases of pure consonant lyricism (for example in the 7th Symphony) or a long melodic line (perhaps assaulted by the orchestra around it). These fingerprints of Pettersson’s style can be found in these early songs.

Next post I’ll discuss four different recordings of the Barefoot Songs, each in a different arrangement.

No comments:

Post a Comment