Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Symphony No. 5 (1960–1962)

With the Symphony No. 5 we enter Pettersson’s middle period, or the group of works that were composed in the 1960s. At this point Pettersson’s large-ensemble output was essentially split between full orchestral works and the string concertos. Recognition as a composer still remained elusive for him, and the rheumatoid arthritis which would ravage his body began taking its toll. 

The Symphony No. 5 is one of my favorite symphonies of the entire lot, although one could make the argument that some of my reasons for this do not indicate a sound mind (well, liking any Pettersson could be indicative of some mental disturbance). In the works of the 1950s Pettersson demonstrates his prowess at creating large-scale works with just the tiniest amount of starting material; however, to my ears many of these works suffer from a lack of cohesion and a tendency to come across as long-winded and fragmentary. Here, Pettersson shows a real mastery and control of his material, spread over a large canvas but always with a sense of purpose and destination. 

Pettersson composed the Symphony No. 5 during the years 1960-62. This was the last work he was able to commit to paper in his own handwriting (how did he write the rest of his works then?). The premiere took place on 8 November 1963 during a performance of the Nutida Musik concert series, with the SRSO under the direction of Stig Westerberg (is there a recording?!). The symphony was apparently a success, although Pettersson would still have to wait a few more years for his breakthrough with the Symphony No. 7

In the CPO liner notes Andreas KW Meyer describes the Symphony No. 5 as a transitional work between the symphonies which came before and after. While I can understand this point of view, I feel that it was the Symphony No. 4, where Pettersson hints at his more refined style in the Symphonies No. 5 and 6, which served as the bridge work between his early and middle periods. 

Readers interested in a more objective view of this work should read the excellent and in-depth analysis written by Colin Davis (check out the links section). As usual, I’ll keep my discussion on the more subjective side. From a musical point of view, one of the amazing things about this work is how Pettersson bases almost the entire symphony on one interval, the second. What keeps me coming back, however, is just how emotionally affecting this piece is. Throughout the work’s 40 minute span we have an almost unending landscape of gloom, which becomes increasingly oppressive and threatening. The tension is kept at a slow burn; the early climaxes are brief and suggestive of more to come, rather than being complete in themselves. 

The symphony begins with a slow introduction, similar to that of the Symphony No. 2 and the introductory sections of the forthcoming symphonies (6-8). I really cannot get enough of this opening section, and have been coming back to it regularly ever since I first heard it over 10 years ago. It is extremely effective both musically and emotionally. The opening pitch series, D-E-D#-C#-C, plays a very important role in the next 6 minutes (D, coincidentally or not, was the last pitch of the Symphony No. 4). A drone comes in, on the pitch B. Pettersson oscillates between D-E-D#-C# over several voices and registers in a quiet dynamic, creating a web of slowly shifting harmonies and silently grinding dissonances. With the pitches involved Pettersson suggests several tonalities, C maj, c min, and e min. To my ears, the B acts either as a leading tone to C, a deceptive cadence in e min, or the dominant of e min. With the D#, I hear either a leading tone to e min or an Eb, suggesting c min.  

Pettersson introduces an angular idea based on an e min arpeggio, providing forward movement. Icy repeated sighs are played in the violins. A stabbing gesture played by violas and clarinets is answered by threatening rumbling in the bassoons and double bases. The arpeggio idea brings us to the major climax of this section, with a bass drum roll crescendo leading to horns screaming in their peak register. The music calms down to a dark chorale in the low brass. Solo bassoon and a mournful passage for strings introduce a transitional passage, which slowly ascends by half steps, setting up the symphony proper. 

Oscillations between the pitches C and Db over a tenor drum roll begin the main section of the symphony. The opening pitch series is repeated and varied several times. The first climax of this section arrives quickly, but as mentioned above, it does not take the music in another direction, but continues the music’s progression. At the end of the climax, Bb-B-A-Ab is heard. This variation of the opening pitch set now assumes a prominent place in the musical landscape.
The gesture Bb-F-Gb (a leap of a fifth followed by a descent of a major seventh) introduces a lengthy section of a gloomy and oppressive nature, leading to another climax, subsiding to repeated C#s in the violins. Over this strings and woodwinds exchange in a fragmented dialogue, based (of course) on seconds. Cellos and basses interject forcefully with a threatening gesture (again a variation). The Bb-F-Gb comes back. This section acts as a wave leading up to a larger climax. When the music subsides the Bb-F-Gb comes back again, in a particularly catchy section featuring timpani and low strings. 

After another wave Pettersson introduces a variation featuring large leaps, first played on the horn, followed by strings then piccolo. A sense of increasing desperation comes in when the tuba takes up this motive, over F-Gb oscillations in the violas (akin to the opening of the symphony proper). At this point Pettersson really starts to create a sense of impending disaster—listen to the threatening idea played by the low brass and low strings. The increasing prominence of percussion hints at the major storm to come, but Pettersson keeps this in check; it is too soon. 

A kinda weird passage for solo woodwinds leads into a “calm before the storm” section, with triplet rhythms in the timpani. An insistent snare drum marches in from the distance, accompanied by threatening low brass and strings, reminding us that the storm is about to come in. High violin trills set up the timpani entrance, sfp on the pitch D, followed by a rapid crescendo. This is the turning point in the symphony, the breaking point for the tension which has built up.
The sfp timpani on D/high violin trills response is repeated several times. The horn entrance on the chord (Gb-Bb-F) pushes the music into the storm. During the storm Pettersson places regularly spaced “arrival points” of minor triads featuring screaming horns. Trumpets lead the proceedings between these points. A sense of desperation remains. This section reaches a climax, probably the biggest of the work thus far, featuring several tam-tam crashes, before dying away into f min. 

With the storm passed we now find ourselves in a place of cold desolation. A long line is heard, played by bassoon and icy false harmonics on the violins. Although this is a pretty clear f min context, Pettersson inserts A naturals creating major/minor tension. Soon the full orchestra comes in, but only briefly. The Bb-F-Gb motive returns. A brief break in the clouds is heard, eloquently played by strings. Shortly thereafter the percussion enters on a repeated march rhythm, coming in from the distance but quickly increasing in volume to an absolutely ferocious fff, after which the music dies away again, leading into the coda of the symphony. 

After the cataclysmic conclusion to the symphony proper, the music tentatively begins to pick up the pieces and come back to life. The variation heard at the beginning of the symphony proper returns, over an oscillating accompaniment slowly rising by half steps (this rising is reminiscent of the conclusion of the opening section). Timpani and low strings respond with a repeated G natural motive, ultimately acting as a dominant for c min. E naturals are heard, creating a major/minor tension.

At the arrival of c min music of loss and mourning is heard. Low strings and timpani continue to repeat the G natural motive, as the music tentatively and hesitantly returns back to c min. Double basses, accented with soft tam-tam strokes drop to the depths. Fragments of the opening gesture from the symphony proper are exchanged in the woodwinds and upper strings. Although some E naturals are thrown around, the symphony comes to a close on c min. 

This is an incredible piece. Although I am continually impressed by the creative mileage Pettersson gets from just that one interval, it is the powerful emotional effect of this work that keeps me coming back. The opening section feels like solitude in a barren, frozen and sunless landscape (hey, I live in Finland now!). The symphony proper is gloomy and oppressive, and as the piece unfolds these feelings are heightened; the tension continually increasing. The storm does not really clear the tension from the landscape, but takes us to music of mourning before the final cataclysm. When it is over, all that remains is solitude, desolation, and cold.

Definitely not a pick-me-upper, but a powerful work. I still cannot get enough of it.


  1. Nice analysis. It's one of my favorite symphonies.
    A few weeks ago, I made a audio spectrum analysis of 5th symphony.
    You can find it here:

  2. I greatly appreciate this traversal of Pettersson's symphonies. I already value yourposts on the early symphonies, because I find myself not very often listening to them - I am especially interested now in the 4th and 5th!