Friday, May 6, 2011

Symphony No. 7 (1966–1967)

Imagine the scene. It is probably a slightly chilly evening in early fall, 13 October 1968, Stockholm. A young-ish crowd fills the main auditorium of the Stockholm Concert Hall to hear Antal Doráti and the Stockholm Philharmonic in the world premiere of a new symphony by Allan Pettersson, a name which was probably unfamiliar to many in the audience. At the end of this unbroken 41 minute symphony, a mighty work of darkness, conflict, consolation, and resignation, the audience pauses silently to catch its collective breath, briefly contemplates what had just taken place, and then erupts into thunderous, ecstatic applause. Allan Pettersson, now closing in on his 60th year, in poor health and probably in constant pain, is called to the podium four times. When was the last time in the second half of the 20th century that a world premiere of an orchestral work received such a response? Maybe James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie?

Although Pettersson’s previous symphonies were dutifully performed, it was not until the premiere of the Symphony No. 7 that Pettersson finally achieved meaningful, lasting recognition. The piece was soon recorded by the forces that premiered it (apparently the record was a success in the states, of all places!), taken on tour to East Germany, and used in a ballet.

Although I do not feel that this work is Pettersson’s best symphony, if it were not for the success of this piece Pettersson might have become one of those composers who received regular performances during his lifetime, only to fall into complete oblivion after death. For many Pettersson fans, including myself, this symphony was my introduction to Pettersson’s music. I was immediately blown away, and have been hooked ever since.

This symphony is probably Pettersson’s most accessible. Here one doesn’t find wave after wave of ever-intensifying pain as in the Symphony No. 6, the oppressive, tension-laden near unbroken gloom of the Symphony No. 5, of the neurotic and jarring changes of mood in the first three symphonies. In this work, Pettersson employs clear lines, easily recognizable motives, a relatively ample supply of consonance, and a beautiful, healing, lyrical island.

The symphony opens with a slow introductory section, akin to the opening sections of the preceding symphonies. Bassoons, timpani, and low strings set the stage with a darkly pulsating figure based on minor ninths. Violas and clarinets enter, intoning a long, arch-shaped melody; vast, gray, and vaguely oppressive. A chromatic figure, moving downward over a narrow range, is heard. The minor ninth figure moves to the violins and upper woodwinds. A passage for pizzicato strings sets up the first climax, marked by military percussion and screaming strings. A descending chromatic lick in the clarinets takes us back to the opening accompaniment figure. Another long melody is intoned, again by violas and clarinets, with addition of horn. However, the melody this time is considerably darker (listen to the tuba accompaniment). Violins and flutes take up the line leading us briefly through b min and bb minor territory, before going back to C. The music works back downward, closing this section.

The symphony proper begins with a very simple, repeated note b min motive, played by trombones and tuba. This motive will play a crucial, pivotal role throughout the rest of the piece. At first this motive might seem mildly haunting, but it keeps coming back with such insistence that is soon becomes unsettling. Ponticello and tremolo strings enter, playing a variation of the chromatic motive. Screaming broken minor ninths in the upper strings, accompanied by snare drum, try to push the music into a frenzy, but the b min motive keeps coming back, unchanged. A broadening of tempo leads to the first climax, upper woodwinds and strings singing forcefully over a brass chorale. The whole orchestra disappears except for solo woodwinds, who play a dark, mournful chorale. The last chord wants to resolve to something, but the b min motive comes back, unchanged, starting the next wave.

Cellos and bassoons play a broadened version of the minor ninth motive, which is answered by the chromatic motive in horns and violas. A broadened version of the chromatic motive is heard in violins and upper woodwinds, again attempting to push the music into a frenzy, but every time the b min motive responds, unchanged, stoically. The entrance of tenor drum and glissando trombones begin to push the music forward, creating a sense of impending catastrophe. The entrance of snare drum and a change in percussion rhythm lead to the climax of this wave, led by horns and trumpets screaming the chromatic motive. After the music dies away, the b min motive is waiting, again, unchanged.

The following wave is more of a gradual buildup. Over a steady timpani and tenor drum rhythm, cellos play a new variation of the minor ninth motive. Violas and clarinets play a variation of the chromatic motive, this time spanning a larger range. The violins and flutes sing a very long line (to my ears based on the chromatic motive, but I could be wrong), eventually picked up by trumpet as the rest of the orchestra builds in intensity. A full orchestra swell leads to a brief climax, similar to the conclusion of the previous wave.

Tremolo violins accompany a viola section solo which could be fodder for new viola jokes: the violas, exposed, upper register, in a highly chromatic line. The b min motive comes back in, but soon becomes slightly truncated. Lower strings and bassoons aggressively pound out the chromatic motive, reinforced by timpani. This leads to the most sustained climax of the work thus far: horns and trumpets scream the chromatic motive over a forcefully assertive trombone line. Stratospheric, screaming violins and an allargando introduce a breaking point of sorts (the real one comes a little later): a full orchestra chorale of broad, tragic character. Upward trombone glissandi bring the chorale to a close and introduce a rhythmic variation of the b min motive, serving as an accompaniment while violins, upper woodwinds, and trumpet soar above.

Tremolo upper strings, accompanied by sputtering, buzzing percussion, introduce the symphony’s cataclysmic breaking point: an eruptive full orchestra chord, played at fff, harmonies shifting via chromatic voice leading. Two giant tam-tam strokes add to the sense of catastrophe. This climax clearly inspired Christopher Rouse in his Symphony No. 1, but I’ll talk about that another day. Anyway, Pettersson morphs from this climax to a blazing sunrise: the bass instruments of the orchestra swell into a bright Gb major, while the screaming violins above resolve from grinding dissonances into perfect consonance. A brief, but heartbreakingly beautiful chorale completes the transition to this next block of the symphony.

The following section is a sparse, expansive, lyrical section of mournful character, but also one of heartbreaking beauty. Pettersson does allow us to stay here for a while, but the return of sputtering percussion, along with trumpets playing parallel diminished triads, pushes the music back into conflict.

I’ll admit being blown away by this section the first time I heard it, but now I find it a little corny. I suppose this is trying to find the “song once sung by the soul.” Over a throbbing minor triad accompaniment, moving in a I-IV harmonic pattern, violins sing and soar desperately above. The return of the parallel diminished triads introduces the return of the chromatic motive, played by violins in their stratosphere register, accompanied by incessant snare drum and triangle. Solo flutes and piccolo take us back to a reprise of the lyrical section described above, this time repeated notes in the timpani provide a greater sense of forward movement.

A beautiful interlude for woodwinds leads to one of Pettersson’s most inspired moments: an achingly beautiful lyrical oasis for strings alone (in F# major, serving as a V for b min?) Like the lyrical island towards the end of the Symphony No. 6, this is a place of purity, of consonance, of freedom from pain and conflict. But the character of this island is certainly different. To me there seems to be a greater sense of innocence, as if in this world we have truly escaped any sense of pain, almost like it doesn’t exist; in the Symphony No. 6 one seems more aware of the arduous conflict which came before.

A suspended F# in the first violins separates broken phrases in the rest of the strings. These phrases become gradually softer, eventually turning into a whisper, as this oasis of beauty and relief fades to the distance. A brief chorale for the lower instruments of the orchestra introduces the return to conflict.

Over violin trills and a tenor drum roll, upper woodwinds play an angular variation of the chromatic motive. Parallel perfect fifths darken the atmosphere. The strings try to play a lugubrious song, with trumpets and flutes joining in, but this is interrupted by percussion and a swirling figure in the strings. Percussion, horns, and trumpets lead the climax of this section.

The violins try to build something, but are thwarted by percussion outbursts. A brief return of the minor ninth motive, in screaming violins, sets up an oscillating passage as the music tries to find a stable b minor. A long held F# in the violins takes us to our destination, to b minor. The violins sing a long melody of quiet sadness. A viola section solo, accompanied by snare drum, leads to one final outburst. A brief woodwind chorale leads to the symphony’s coda.

The b minor motive returns in the strings and woodwinds, but here it has a gently rocking feeling as opposed to the dark stoicism from before. A very brief glimpse of G major suggests an different direction, but a held F# takes us back to the b minor motive, again gently rocking. Over this background comes perhaps the most haunting moment of the whole symphony: piccolo and violin false harmonics sing the piece to sleep. To me it sounds like the demons are not exorcised, but in the end, they sing us to sleep. The ultimate resignation to fate?

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