Friday, February 4, 2011

Symphony No. 2 (1952-1953)

We have now reached the first full-orchestra work in this project, Symphony No. 2. It is the symphonies which make the (Swedish) meat(balls) and potatoes of this composer’s output, so let’s dig in and begin the feast.

I was converted to the Petterssonian faith in the late 90’s while still a student at the University of Wisconsin. After hearing the Doráti recording of the 7th I was hooked, and began purchasing Pettersson CDs with money I really didn’t have. By the time I purchased the CPO recording of the 2nd symphony, I was feeding myself a pretty steady diet of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 15th symphonies.

At this time, however, I found the 2nd symphony rather elusive compared to the ones mentioned above, and after a handful of semi-serious attempts, I put this symphony aside.  In fact, 10 years later, as I was preparing myself for what I hoped would be Lindberg’s performance of the 2nd in Umeå (see my previous post), I still found myself struggling to crack this piece.

I am pleased to say that after this most recent round of listening I have placed this symphony pretty much to the top of my favorites.

In the years 1951-53 Pettersson, now already in his 40s, was studying in Paris with Leibowitz and Honegger. Leibowitz was a student of Webern and a staunch promoter of the Second Viennese School. It should come as little surprise that Pettersson viewed his time with Leibowitz as a “drill,” and his expressive urges exceeded the possibilities provided by serialism. The Symphony No. 2, began while Pettersson was working under Leibowitz’s (hey, am I using the apostrophe correctly there?) tutelage, was written, to quote the composer, “behind Leibowitz’s back.” The premiere took place in Stockholm on 9 May 1954 with Tor Mann conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

In this piece Pettersson conjures up a world full of contrasts, but somehow manages to tie it all together convincingly. The work opens with a lengthy introductory section, perhaps foreshadowing the introductory sections of symphonies 5-8. Over a slow funereal tread in the lower strings the violins enter with a motive based on a minor second, which will become a critical interval (along with the related major sevenths and minor ninths) through the work. Soon the violas play a motive (C-D-D#-E-C#) which reminds me of transitional passage between the introduction and allegro proper of the first movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. This motive will also play an important role.

The introduction ends with the funereal tread interrupted by a B-C minor ninth leap (a twisted version of opening of the 3rd movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9?). Soon the violins come in screaming on the notes B and C, separated by again by a minor ninth, only to come spiraling downward.

After a brief period of conflict a beautiful lyrical island appears. However, there is something wrong here. On the assumption that we’re in F# major, Pettersson sticks in all these wrong notes-C, G, and A naturals, for example. When the lyrical island reappears later in the work (see below), it sounds even more amiss.  

Although this is the first full orchestra work Pettersson presented to the public (his 1st was not performed until very recently), Pettersson appears quite comfortable handling and deploying the instrumental resources at hand. For example, listen to the absolutely wild passage after the quasi recapitulation with the B-C minor ninth leap, with cackling clarinets, and bleating, sliding brass, all leading up seamlessly to a beautiful, mournful solo-violin (CORRECTION, 11.3.11: looking at the score, it's solo cello--shame on me! I'm a cellist) led cadence.

About two thirds of the way through Pettersson takes us to perhaps the most consistently consonant section in the symphony, a passage of heartbreaking sadness. We are not allowed to stay here long, as rude interruptions from muted brass (especially trilling trumpets) shake us out of our grieving. This then leads to a reappearance of the F# major lyrical island, which sounds even more “off” than before (listen to the clarinets, for example).

As the symphony draws to a close it sounds as if the music is striving for something, making a final struggle to the finish, but instead, everything is cut off by a defiant siren call from the solo trumpet, accompanied by the dying away of a snare drum roll and low strings holding a  C. The music then fades to darkness.

The more I listen to this work the more I like it. For example, I am amazed at how much creative mileage Pettersson is able tease out of just that minor second. Despite all the different places Pettersson takes us, everything seems to make sense, despite how jarring some passages and transitions may be (there are several musical “signposts” to guide you along). It is personally very rewarding to come back to a work I once thought I could never sufficiently understand and now have it rank as one of my favorites.

Let’s hope a similar thing happens when I come to Symphonies 9 and 13!


  1. I'll take köttbullar instead.

  2. Derek, great blog about AP - excellent descriptions, accurate analysis! No one has done something like this before. I'm always looking forward to your posts, readings them carefully. Please go on. Being myself a fan of AP's music since 1984.