Sunday, April 17, 2011

Symphony No. 6 (1963-1966)

Get ready, kids. This is a really long one. 

As I get ready to write this entry, I am coming off of a night of insomnia. While trying to sleep my mind was constantly harassed by some of the more “memorable” sections of conflict in this piece. At least it’s not as ironic as when I can’t sleep and I’m thinking about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Insomnia (which is, incidentally, a great piece).

I remember the 1997 CPO catalog quoting a review of Pettersson’s Symphony No. 6 from Fanfare magazine: “The Sixth is Pettersson’s gloomiest symphony. If you’re receptive to this music, then you’ll be overwhelmed by its profound distraction.” At this point I had never heard any of Pettersson’s music, but if a composer was getting reviews like this, I knew I had to give him a listen. After hearing the Symphony No. 7 and being blown away by it, I quickly sought out the Symphony No. 6.

This is an absolutely amazing work, a true emotional journey, and my favorite Pettersson symphony. Although one can understandably criticize the repetitiveness and lack of harmonic diversity in the second half of the work, the overall experience is so profoundly effective emotionally that any compositional “shortcomings” can be easily forgiven.

I really wish I knew the biographical circumstances of Pettersson’s life during the time he wrote this symphony (well, I wish I knew more about Pettersson’s entire life in general). I can’t remember where I read this, but apparently the prolonged genesis of this work (1963-1966) was due in part to his worsening rheumatoid arthritis, and his desperate attempts to find anything which would relieve his pain and/or stop the course of the disease. I also remember Pettersson saying that if one listens very carefully, the conclusion of this work is actually “positive,” although I hear a sense of resignation as well.

The musical material of the Symphony No. 6 is derived from the final Barefoot Song, Han ska släcka min lykta, which translates to “He can put out my little light.” Similar to the Violin Concerto No. 2, which quotes Herren går på ängen, in the symphony the song is not heard in an unadulterated form until the second half of the piece. From what I can gather, Pettersson takes the intervallic relationships which build the song, takes them apart, and then uses these constituent parts to develop the first half of the symphony (see below). The Symphony No. 6 was premiered on 21 January 1968 by the SRSO under the direction of Stig Westerberg, the dedicatee. What I would give to get my hands on the archival recording of that performance!!!

Although a one-movement work, the symphony can be divided into two giant halves. The first part, aside from the slow and gloomy introduction, is essentially wave after wave of conflict, tension, pain, and desperation. Each wave reaches a climax of sorts which does nothing to relieve the tension—we simply wait anxiously for the next assault. In the second half of the work, which is almost entirely in a strict Bb minor, the song is heard in its entirety. Here a sense of yearning, grief, and resignation takes hold. Despite this, towards the conclusion of the work Pettersson takes us to a lyrical island which is the most moving thing I’ve ever heard in symphonic music (again, see below).

The symphony opens with a slow introduction of quiet gloom. A repeated bass line sets the foundation for most of this section. The entrance of the upper strings brings in a sense of grief. By now Pettersson has introduced the key intervals which will inform much of the symphony proper: tritones and major/minor thirds (listen in particular to the C-A-Ab and subsequent variations thereafter). Also listen for a key motive: a leap of a tritone followed by a falling half step, minor third, and half step (G-C#-C-A-G#). The repeated bass line deviates briefly as the violins yearn and plead, and then die away. The bass line returns to order, and the final held F (a very important pitch in the first half) is quietly supported by a threatening timpani roll, as we anxiously wait for the symphony proper to begin.

An increase in tempo and an immediate sense of desperation begin the symphony proper. In the first two measures of this section Pettersson introduces a rhythmic motive which will be used repeatedly throughout the rest of the first half. In addition to intervals mentioned above, Pettersson has now introduced all the material which he will then use to build the symphony. Over an F pedal the music wastes no time in frantically reaching its first climax, a forceful assertion of E minor, to which a threatening tam-tam roll is added.

A brief repose, then repeated F naturals from the violas resume the music’s frantic push. A brass chorale, built from the bottom up (listen to how all the interval relationships here are thirds) is followed by a forceful gesture from the violins ending with repeated notes, reinforced by horns. The opening of the symphony proper is briefly recapitulated, but violas and cellos, using the first three pitches of the opening repeated bass line, take the music to a different direction. The forceful gesture is taken up by the bass instruments, and answered by high woodwinds and strings. This gesture is then truncated to just stabbing half-step drops. A percussion assault comes in, stepping aside only briefly for the horns to play a passage demanding ridiculous agility and power, followed by a resumption of the percussion storm. This wave then subsides.

This period of relative calm is used by the strings, who intone a brief lament, but the forceful motive breaks this up. The opening bass line returns; however the feeling this time is threatening and oppressive rather than just gloomy. The remainder of this wave is dominated by a high woodwind motive F-Ab-G-(Fb) (leaps of a minor third and major seventh, and drop of an augmented ninth), which according to the notes of the Okko Kamu LP, is like a “bird of prey.” A storm builds around this (listen to the horns and violins!), with the opening bass line returning again, with greater assertion. The storm reaches a frenzy, subsides, and the “bird of prey” is still there.

A repeated rhythm played by timpani, percussion, and horns leads into a somewhat queasy passage for low brass. The music quickly builds up intensity, leading to four blows from low brass and percussion. Accompanied (or should I say assaulted) by staggered, screaming violins, the violas desperately try to be heard. The violins give way to percussion, who then attack the violas and try to silence them (I'll keep my mouth shut and not say a viola joke here).

Skittering ponticello strings and quietly marching percussion lead the next phase. Triplet runs from upper woodwinds take us to restatements of the forceful gesture, subsequently appearing in a variation. Fragments from the opening section are heard, followed by a truly devilish motive, A-E-Db-Bb, played by xylophone and flutter-tongue piccolo. This motive is repeated as the orchestra rumbles threateningly below. The full orchestra soon takes over, building up to another climax, but rather than leading to a passage of relative calm, the conflict continues…

While being continually harassed by fluttering piccolo, xylophone and violins, like hailstones to the face, low brass and bass drum dish out dull blows of pain. The tam-tam and tenor drum only adds injury to injury. The dull blows of pain become sharp, with the addition of trumpets and choked suspended cymbal crashes. An insistent march rhythm in the percussion leads us away temporarily, but as the music calms down somewhat, the percussion remain present. The music builds up yet again, this time to storm of even more terrifying density (listen to those horns! again!). 

The music calms back down briefly, to a low C. We get only the shortest of breathers as the next wave starts brewing: busy counterpoint of an endless stream of triplets starts in the cellos and bassoons. Other instruments join in, and the triplets take over larger portions of the orchestra. The forest continues to thicken, but stops abruptly, leaving a snare drum roll, upper woodwinds and tremolo violins. The bass instruments enter in forcefully and the opening motive of the symphony proper screams to be heard. This gesture is repeated, and only the high woodwinds and tremolo violins are left.

Here it seems like Pettersson is setting us up for a climax of even greater cataclysmic proportions. However, a mighty c minor chorale comes in, led by the brass, with screaming, sighing commentary from violins and piccolo. The music has entered a new direction. The chorale fades away, and the music seems to enter an area of peace and calm. In C major, over a gently rocking bass line, the violas try lo lead us. Icy commentary from ponticello strings push the music in F major, for another futile attempt. This is also thwarted by ponticello strings, as the music moves mournfully to Bb minor. The entrance of the horns (a repeated note motive accompanied by a falling whole then half step) announces the resumption of the battle.

Repeated F naturals from the timpani and viola push the music back into conflict. The upper strings and woodwinds become increasingly agitated, the percussion whip up another storm, and when this wave passes by the repeated note/falling step motive is annunciated forcefully by the horns, which pass it on to the trumpets. Repeated F naturals from the timpani and violas try to reestablish themselves, but are of course met by resistance (like a broken record—listen to that chromatic upward lick from the horns!). The music dies down, and the repeated F naturals are still there. Low strings and woodwinds come in on a Bb minor chord, hinting at the Bb minor tonality which will dominate the rest of the work.

From this area of calm the music tries to swell up again, but falls away. Each attempt becomes increasingly stronger, like an impending attack of pain. After the assault has passed, screaming, stratospherically high violins intone the repeated note/falling step motive, in a desperate plea for the pain to stop. Excerpts from the introduction return, with commentary from solo violins. The violins then begin to sing a long melody, briefly accompanied by a jagged march. Strings only soon take over, in a beautiful chorale that begins longingly and mournfully, but quickly becoming impassioned. The jagged march returns, shatteringly so. The violins scream desperately as the music begins to calm down, setting up, finally, the entrance of the song.

Following a protracted IV and V, the music finally arrives at Bb minor. The very important F natural in the first half of the work has served as a dominant for this moment. The cellos and English horn intone the song, spaciously and unhurriedly, over a vast horizon of grief and loss. Gentle but insistent accompaniment is provided by percussion, in particular the tenor drum. After a brief transitional passage, featuring solo flute and oboe, the violins take up the song. A solo trumpet sings a countermelody, woodwinds provide a quiet commentary, and the timpani joins the percussion, softly pounding out repeated F naturals. The song reaches two climaxes, although the intensity of these moments is nothing compared to climaxes in the first half.

The music enters an area of relative stasis—a shattered, desolate landscape. Flutes and violin false harmonics provide some shimmers of life. However, this section is just a long preparation for the final battle of the symphony.

The first violins, doubled by flutes, try to sing an anguished, impassioned song. Cellos join in with a countermelody, vaguely canon-like. The rest of the orchestra tries to silence them, no-holds-barred. Low brass, bass drum, tam-tam and choked suspended cymbal add to the assault, constantly dealing us blows of pain. A brief respite featuring a climbing scale is heard, arriving at impassioned sighs from the violins and flutes, as if to say that the struggle will continue and defeat is not an option. The scale returns, leading up to the next section, which is probably the most moving and poignant in the entire symphonic literature (and I think I am reasonably familiar with symphonic music).

Over an ostinato-like, climbing, scalar bass line, the music begins a determined push to pull away from a world of grief and suffering. Although this time it is not a full attack from the orchestra, the percussion, in particular the snare and tenor drum, insistently try to thwart this effort, like a constant reminder of pain. However, the violins push on, through music of intense yearning to an increasing sense of peace and calmness, until finally we arrive at our destination.

This lyrical island which Pettersson takes us to pretty much embodies one of the most profound things about Pettersson’s music: the true meaning of beauty can only be realized after suffering. And that is what we have here. Music of near pure consonance: purifying, relieving, calming, but still somehow aware of all the suffering which has taken place before. I have written way too much up to this point, and here words will not suffice. I first heard this music over 10 years ago, and I am still deeply moved by it, every time.

The music shifts to minor and the percussion return: it is clear that our time here is limited. The strings and bassoon work their way downward, arriving at an Eb minor chord. After a pause the music returns to Bb minor, beginning the symphony’s coda. The emotional effect of leaving this lyrical island is both heartbreaking and devastating.

The violins, doubled by solo trumpet sing a long melody of grief, over a slowly treading accompaniment of repetitive harmonies. The music reaches a small climax, accented with timpani glissandi. A conventional V-I candence sets up the final utterance from bassoons, before the symphony concludes on a long Bb in the double basses.

What a journey this work is.


  1. Hi,

    your expressing exactly my feelings towards this symphony. It's my favourite AP one by far (followed by 7, 8 and 9).
    The lyrical island point is totally valid ("the true meaning of beauty can only be realized after suffering") - yes of course, like the best wins in soccer are those close to a loss... It's in the cpo release on 37:37 and pretty long... And must be heard in context.

    The idea of the symphonies ending being funny. Erm. It's masterfully composed sadness.

    I hope one day I'll see a live performance in Germany.

    Best regards

  2. to hear the 21 january 1968 performance. Or get the file from my blog within a couple of weeks if that doesn't work.

  3. How I adore this symphony.

  4. This symphony is a harrowing, gut-wrenching experience. There is so much anguish in the music at several points it becomes almost unbearable. This is one of the great 20th century symphonies. Pettersson bares his soul in this work.

  5. In 1978 after several visits to the record shop and being intrigued by the sleeve notes and musical quotes, I bought the Okko Kamu recording of this work. I had never heard of Pettersson before this but I must have listened to it every night for a fortnight. Such a moving work which took me to some other-worldly landscapes and seemed to touch something very deep. It is also my favourite of his symphonies.

  6. I live in Tasmania,Australia. I surfed in and was bowled over by the Bis download of the Pettersson 7th........I am now HOOKED !!! I can remember seeing the CPO covers displayed in their adverts,with arresting abstract paintings over many years in the Gramophone magazine,but never really explored..until now! The CPO set of complete symphonies arrived 2 days ago.....................I am into it...and truly astounded.

    1. Welcome! I hope you find this blog useful as you make your journey through Pettersson's music. I'm sure you'll find that some symphonies are much more "difficult" than others. The 7th is a great place to start, and was also an overwhelming experience for me the first time I heard it.

  7. Hi I too ama Petterssonian, Excellent descript of this powerful and moving symphony.You mention it was in fanfare's note on the sym *gloomy* that is what sparked your interest,,I see pawdaw above used the word *harrowing* in his poost about the mnature of the music,,It wa back in 2003, on a classical chat board someone mentioned *Just listened to AP's 2nd sym, HARROWING*. That caught my attention,,I thought, I love things that have *harrow*, and then began my journey into this incredible musical jouney, which will never pass. His syms day to day always sound new, express my deepest spirit.
    AP is the composer for this zeitgeist, he speaks for the suffering soul
    New Orleans
    The Petterssonian
    Jan 31, 2019

  8. Just a gtr teacher guy in the states. AP 6 had me in tears of inspiration. Utterly gorgeous to my ears. Thanks to the website folks and commenters.