Saturday, February 19, 2011

Symphony No. 3 (1954-1955)

Even though I have considered myself a pretty serious Pettersson fan since the late 90’s (I am writing this blog, after all) before I started this project there were only a handful of Pettersson symphonies that I would regularly come back to. Up until very recently, the Symphony No. 2 was a piece I had little interest in, but now I can rank it as one of my favorites. Unfortunately, unlike its predecessor, this recent reassessment of the Symphony No. 3 has only marginally increased my appreciation of this work, and it is unlikely that I will come back to this piece often.

Unlike the vast majority of Pettersson’s symphonies, which are one-movement affairs, the Symphony No. 3 is unique because it is his only symphony to employ a “traditional” four movement structure (the other multi-movement symphony, no. 8, is in two movements). Although it is possible to consider this as Pettersson’s acknowledgment to the symphonic tradition, in my opinion I feel that here Pettersson is awkwardly trying to impose his style of symphonic thought onto the traditional multi-movement structure. Even though the majority of the symphony is derived from the opening gesture, the overall result feels lacking in cohesion (more below). In the one-movement Symphony No. 2, where Pettersson was free to move and rearrange his building materials accordingly without constraint of traditionally defined movements, was considerably more effective. The Symphony No. 3 was premiered on 21 November 1956 by the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Tor Mann.

The symphony opens with brief introduction: a bass drum roll followed by an upward moving motive of decisive nature, played by cellos and basses. Fourths and tritones are featured prominently. The violins enter tentatively, soon elaborating on their initial idea. The movement proper begins with the violins playing a variation of the initial cello/bass motive. The first movement is very episodic, with frequent, often jarring changes of tempo and mood. Once a new idea comes in (more often than not a variation of the cello/bass motive) it is rudely cut off and another idea comes in, abruptly. One particularly special moment in this movement is the passage led by throbbing tuba playing minor ninth leaps, followed by a passionate cry from the violins played on upper-register G string. The low brass build a chord from the bottom up, then give way to strings. While the violins hold a B the harmony moves a half step downward (G-D to F#-C#, or V of b minor), leaving a beautifully strained suspended fourth. Almost worth the price of admission right there. Also notice the Mahler 5 leaps and later on the passage for clarinet and low strings, which really reminds me of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

The second movement begins with another variation of the opening cello/bass motive, played by violins. A lost solo flute enters, wandering above a beautiful chord held by the strings. Here, and elsewhere in the movement, Pettersson hints at some tantalizingly beautiful moments, but leaves them mostly unfulfilled. The music begins to gain some forward momentum, but leads into a queasy passage featuring high woodwinds and xylophone. This movement does achieve a moment of emotional catharsis, with a solo violin leading a mournful, conventional V-I cadence to Eb minor. A brief transitional passage (which KA Hartmann practically quotes in his Symphony no. 8) leads attaca to the next movement.

The brief third movement opens with tentative low clarinets, answered by violins. This gesture quickly gains momentum, with other instruments joining in. Developing organically from what came immediately before, a repeated note motive, followed by swirling runs, takes over the musical landscape. The music builds up to an impressive climax, almost Shostakovich-like in its militancy. Dizzying downward runs lead the transition attaca to the last movement.

The final movement begins with elaborated recaps of some of the major gestures heard in previous movements. A whiff of the last movement of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 passes by. Then, in my opinion at least, the music really starts to wander and Pettersson loses me. Although there are a few musically satisfying moments, as a whole I find this movement to be unsatisfying. Uh…I suppose that’s my excuse for not writing more about this one.

Although it is clear that this symphony is cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, it sounds to me as if Pettersson is a bit unsure of himself in this piece, as opposed to the confidence he projected in his Symphony No. 2. Particularly in the outer movements, there just sounds like a lot of filler to me, like Pettersson is trying to unnecessarily milk out more variations of his opening cello/bass motive.

I cannot remember where I read this, but apparently Pettersson was very pleased with this piece in comparison to what he had written before. I’d be really curious to hear what others think about this piece, and for fans of this work to share with me what I’m missing.


  1. Thank you for your successful presentation. I didn't catch Symphony No. 3 either, and it remained the only Pettersson symphony I don't have a specific relationship with. One reason for this presumably is the simple fact it was the last of the Pettersson symphonies I made acquaintance with. Your observation regarding the rearrangement of some building materials from Symphony No. 2 is accurate. Your remark about Karl Amadeus Hartmann quoting Pettersson is at least interesting. Hartmann's Symphony No. 8 is from 1960/62. As far as I know Pettersson was performed in Germany at that time only oncec (Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra conducted by the great Hermann Scherchen in the 1953 ISCM-Festival in Cologne). It is unlikely Hartmann got to know the Swedes music at all.
    By the way: The topic of other composers quoting Pettersson or feeling (at times) striking empathy with his language (for example Nicolas Bacri, Kjell Mørk Karlsen, Manfred Trojahn, Peter Ruzicka, Pēteris Vasks) is rewarding, too.


  2. Julio,

    I agree with you--it is unlikely that Hartmann was familiar with Pettersson's music, so for me to say "quote" is probably not accurate. However, it is food for thought.

    I'll write a full post on this subject later on--other composers who knowingly or unknowingly "quote" Pettersson.