Monday, March 28, 2011

Symphony No. 4 (1958–1959)

Pettersson’s Symphony No. 4 marks the end of his “early” period, which consists of the works written during the 1950s. To me it seems that Pettersson reached the peak of his early powers with his Symphony No. 2 and Seven Sonatas but then took a few steps back with his subsequent works (Symphony No. 3 and Concerto for String Orchestra No. 2, and this work). It wasn’t until the Symphony No. 5, which I consider to be one of his best symphonies, did Pettersson really begin to refine his symphonic style.

Although the Symphony No. 2 is now my favorite of the early symphonies, before I began this survey I considered the Symphony No. 4 to be superior, at least in terms of its surface accessibility. Although there are many things about this piece that don’t quite work, it is emotionally much more effective than the Symphony No. 3 and is interesting in itself as a transitional work between his early orchestral style and the Symphony No. 5, where he began to take a different direction.

In this work Pettersson makes painfully obvious, by his own standards at least, the struggle between darkness and light, conflict and peace. Throughout the work there are lengthy lyrical islands, often sullied by dissonance, while the more aggressive sections are often cut off abruptly by blaringly bright motives from the lyrical islands. Although it seems clear what Pettersson’s intentions are, the end result often comes across as unwieldy and clunky. The Symphony No. 4 had its premiere on 27 January 1961 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sixten Ehrling.

The work begins with held notes on upper woodwinds, suggesting F# minor tonality. This doesn’t last long, as the oboes stick in a G and Bb, taking the music into another harmonic direction. The violins tentatively introduce a rhythmic idea, spanning a minor third. This interval and this rhythmic idea will become crucial elements of the entire piece. The opening section is filled with short, nervous outbursts: a galloping idea from violas, upward shrieks from violin, xylophone and piccolo, and glissandi from the low brass.

After a brief recap of the opening chords the music arrives at a D pedal. Although Pettersson does not indicate in the score a tuned gong, the gong in the CPO recording (the only one currently available) sounds like Bb to me, creating a sense of anticipation, like the Bb is trying to resolve. The rhythmic/intervallic idea soon takes over the musical landscape, creating a sense of increasing desperation: the second violins play the same pitches repeatedly (F-Eb-D), while the  first violins play the inversion, and continuously ascending (Gb-Ab-A, Bb-C-Db, and so on).

At the conclusion of the opening section Pettersson takes us to a warm lyrical island, a much different world than what came before. Although I cannot detect any direct quotes from his Barefoot Songs, this section is definitely song-like; it almost sounds like it could be part of the Mesto from the Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra or the Violin Concerto No. 2. Wrong notes soon find their way into the landscape, although I think Pettersson did a much better job with this in the Symphony No. 2

The next stretch is, in my opinion, pretty weak. After a brief return to the D pedal, the early rhythmic idea comes back, this time featuring tritones. This idea gets thrown around for a while, followed by another rather weak section featuring extremely angular woodwinds, xylophone, and upper strings, interrupted by long silences.

After a return to the lyrical island Pettersson introduces one of my favorite ideas of the symphony, a variation of the rhythmic/intervallic idea, this time descending over a threatening low C drone. The music becomes increasingly agitated. A devilish section with rapid upward woodwind licks and piercing piccolo follows, leading to another lyrical island, this time of decidedly mournful character.

A little more than halfway through the work, after introducing another threatening variation of the minor third motive, Pettersson sets up his first real climax. Up to now, the intervallic idea of the third has, as far as I can tell, been restricted to the minor. With percussion, high woodwinds and upper strings pushing the music desperately forward, the lower register of the orchestra repeatedly stomps out a major third, pitch by pitch: D-F#, perhaps suggesting that the order imposed thus far is breaking down. A high trumpet soars over the orchestra (was Kalevi Aho thinking of this in the third movement of his Symphony No. 10?), continuing the music’s frantic push to catastrophe. The D-F# in the lower register continues, but now the solo trumpet asserts itself on a high F natural, pitting the major-minor directly against each other. As the music calms down the D pedal comes back briefly, as does the D-F# idea. This soon resolves back to the minor. A fragment of the warm lyrical island appears in the flute and piccolo.

The low C drone comes back, this time even more menacingly. The music quickly builds up to a shattering, anguished climax, before fading to darkness on the same low C.

The next section comes as a bit of a surprise. Pettersson now introduces another lyrical island, this time movie-music sugary, although a little bittersweet at the same time as well. This section is violently interrupted by an outburst from the full orchestra. Several of the gestures heard in the beginning of the work are reprised. The violins play a transposed B-A-C-H, the lyrical island tries to make an appearance, blindingly so, before the music quickly builds to perhaps the most devastating and cataclysmic climax in all of Pettersson’s music thus far. The music then simply begins to die away. The opening F# minor chord is played again, then the lower instruments bring the piece to a close: first F, then a long Eb, over which B-A-C-H is played a few times, and finally a low D. However, once Pettersson reaches D, the piece ends suddenly—there is no resting on the resolution.

As I mentioned at the beginning, despite the many awkward or clumsy stretches in this work, there really are some nice things going on. Compared to his earlier symphonies, here I get the impression that Pettersson is starting to think in longer strokes, looking at the big picture and elaborating more on the journeys to his destinations, as opposed moving around nervously between seemingly endless variations of a basic motive. In the Symphony No. 5 Pettersson takes this to the next level, effectively building tension over long stretches, while still restricting himself to working with pretty much just one interval. It is also worth noting that, coincidence or design, Symphony No. 5 begins on the note D, the same pitch which ends this symphony. 


  1. Sergiu Comissiona's live recording of Symphony No. 4 (5 February 1970) works much better than Alun Francis/Saarbrücken. It was released only as LP (BIS LP 301/303 Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, 5 LP set). Comissiona mentioned once this performance was a kind of initializeing experiencance for his long lasting, deep-rooted interest in Pettersson.

  2. I haven't heard the Comissiona, but have heard the Francis a few times. Much better than the latter though not a commercial recording is a Swedish radio broadcast with Segerstam and the Nörrkoping (sp?) Symphony from some years back - sound is ok, many qualities/aspects are better than I recall the Francis being (and I like much of Francis' conducting)...