Friday, March 25, 2011

Guest blog entry: Mark Shanks

Dear Readers,

I am very excited to introduce what I hope to be a series of guest "essays" on the subject of, you guessed it, Allan Pettersson. Mark Shanks is the author of the Pettersson pages at and this resource was, and continues to be, a major online source of free English language Pettersson information. Mark has very kindly agreed to share his thoughts on Pettersson for this blog. Enjoy!

P.S. If you would like to write an entry of your own on this blog, please leave me a comment and we'll get in contact with each other!

Allan Pettersson’s Music

Mark Shanks

I was introduced to Allan Pettersson’s music by a very short review of the Dorati recording of his Seventh Symphony in a 1975 edition of the long-gone magazine Stereo Review. The piece was part of an article on Scandinavian composers, and was written by one of their better critics, David Hall. It pointed out the similarities to Mahler and Sibelius, and concluded that the author found the symphony “vast, brooding, and strangely exalting”. Of course, in those days you didn’t have the instant gratification of downloading a piece of music. I was a senior at the US Air Force Academy, and had to wait until my next trip home to Detroit before I could find a copy of that recording.

The Academy was probably the best place imaginable to listen to Pettersson. The air is thin, and the dorms are literally jammed up against the spine of the Rockies, the Rampart Range. In winter, the clouds cover the highest peaks and create the impression of a cyclopean wall and ceiling. My room faced north, so I had the view of the mountains extending to the horizon. There are no colors in winter – just shades of gray. Cadet life was miserable, but I was a “Firstie” – I’d be graduating that spring. 

I always transferred LPs onto a cassette, because the records had a nasty tendency to get scratched or dirty, and I hated to have some “pop…..pop…..pop” intrude on the music. In false thriftiness, I recorded the Seventh onto a 45-minute cassette, replicating the sides of the LP on each side of the tape. That meant I’d hear one half of the symphony more often than the other. In this case, it was the second half that I fell in love with – the islands of consolation, the music that will “still the crying of a baby”. It was dark music, certainly darker than anything I’d ever heard by Mahler or Sibelius, but you could feel that this was real. It came from Pettersson’s heart, and it wasn’t despondent. There was hope, and life, and affirmation.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t find anything written about Pettersson. There was absolutely nothing in the cadet library, and the folks in the Denver and Colorado Springs record stores had never heard of him. I couldn’t understand – here was a Seventh symphony by someone who spoke so clearly to me – how many did he compose? The Schwann catalog had no other recordings of anything by him – what was the story? I listened, and the music was indeed brooding, the view vast and bleak, but together, strangely exalting. I would graduate and be free, and become a pilot.

After graduation and while on leave back in Michigan, I came across a small pamphlet-type magazine called Fanfare. In it, there was an article by Paul Rapoport on….Allan Pettersson! Finally, some information. But even better, there was an ad for a record importer featuring a recording of a different Pettersson piece – the Concerto #1 for String Orchestra, paired with Lidholm’s cantata Nausicaa Alone.  Now I was set – I had a potential source for more Pettersson. New recordings came maddeningly slowly. The Symphony #2. The Mesto, the first recording of his music, was filleted away from the body of the Concerto #3 for String Orchestra. And like a Grand Prize, Okku Kamu’s recording of the Symphony #6.

By this time, I had finished pilot training and was stationed in California, with an assignment to Loring AFB, in extreme northern Maine (think Caribou). I drove across the country in February 1978 to the haunting sound of the Sixth, with its nearly half-hour coda and slow, agonized trail to a sunrise.  For over a week I drove through stark winter landscapes, snow-covered fields and then from Michigan into Canada, taking the Trans-Canadian to my crossing point at Limestone. I can’t convey the effect the drive with its melancholy soundtrack had.

After all these years, Pettersson’s music still resonates for me. (However, I’ll add that I miss anything indicating that perhaps he didn’t always take himself and life a bit too seriously.) My favorite quote of his is,"I wasn't born under a piano, I didn't spend my childhood with my father, the composer…no, I learned how to work white-hot iron with the smith's hammer."  No hot-house orchid he! I find his story truly inspiring. From where did he get idea he could play the violin and viola? Like Mahler, I believe Pettersson saw himself as "always an intruder, never welcomed", forever an outsider. Unlike Mahler, Pettersson’s family was anything but supportive. (I would certainly welcome an English-language biography.) Like Havergal Brian, he came from working class parents and had to elbow his way into the music world, and like Brian, he seemed to be hard to approach and quick to take offence. His banning the Stockholm Philharmonic from playing his music because they’d dropped his Seventh from their traveling program seems altogether a typical reaction.

I doubt that I’ll ever hear Pettersson’s music in concert, at least, not in Portland. It’s unfortunate that the musical “outsiders” such as Pettersson, Brian, Charles Ives, and others don’t get performed as much as the warhorses of the repertoire, but at least we now have recordings, more than I expected to ever see when I first heard the Seventh over 35 years ago. 


  1. Mark,

    Christian Lindberg gave an interview to the French speaking classical music news site ResMusica. He gave a hint about the more positive side of Pettersson, read below. I will get published the English version of this interview, probably by the Swedish society.

    ResMusica : Your personality is approximately 180° different from Pettersson. Do you feel attracted by a man and a work which seem to be your exact opposite?

    Christian Lindberg : Actually, one might think we are different, but I feel great similarities. If you were to listen to my orchestra piece “OF BLOOD SO RED” recorded on BIS with Swedish Chamber Orchestra You would find very clearly that there are inspirations from the Pettersson symphonies...Also my humoristic side was also shared by Allan. People who new him said he had the greatest sence of humour, and could make people really really laugh.

    Link to the interview:

  2. Thank you very much, Mark, for your personal retrospection – I find your text as much comprehensible as emotionally touching. My favourite Pettersson quotation is probably also the most well-known: "The music forming my work is my own life, its blessings, its curses: in order to rediscover the song once sung by the soul." For my assessment these words hint to the fact that Pettersson was rather a kind of mystic, at least to some extent. It may be significant that he was studying religious and philosophical scriptures already in his youth. In my opinion he remained a seeker after truth throughout his life. Sometimes one actually can experience spiritual fulfillment in his music, e. g. in the overwhelming chorale at the beginning of Symphony No. 8. You mentioned Pettersson’s controversy with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975. Certainly, he had a difficult personality, and there remained a lot of self-centered activity in his thinking. From my point of view here one has to take into account Pettersson’s early separation from working-class people: When becoming a musician in the classical understanding he automatically had to quit with working-class origin, but later on he didn’t really catch up with people of other social affiliation. The result was his strong feeling of social isolation, reinforced by a kind of vicious circle. Possibly, he would have come better to terms with disregard, chronic pain and life-threatening diseases, if there had been some more consolation in his existence ( e. g. if his marriage had not remained childless). But then again he probably wouldn’t have become the unique artist we appreciate today.