Monday, May 30, 2011

Symphony No. 8 (1968-1969)

Sorry for the delay. Sometimes it is a little too optimistic to think I can manage one major entry each week. Anyhow…

Despite the great success of his Symphony No. 7, Pettersson actually had to wait quite some time before his subsequent symphony was premiered. The first performance of this work took place on 23 February 1972 with Antal Dorati leading the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the dedicatee of the work. By this time, Pettersson’s Symphony No. 9 had already been premiered and the composer had endured and survived a 9-month hospital stay. 

Similar to the Symphony No. 3, the Symphony No. 8 is a divided into parts, although it would not be correct to call the two parts “movements.” (Nevertheless, I’ll be calling these parts movements at times for the sake of convenience.) I am sure that several of you will disagree with me on this one, but despite its surface accessibility and repeated listening over many years, I still find this piece to be elusive. 

With few exceptions, I hear Pettersson’s music as taking place on internal battlefields; the conflicts representative of the struggles within. Although this work is clearly that of Pettersson, I hear it as more “external,” as if Pettersson were describing something from a third person point of view. Accordingly, I feel a certain sense of detachment in this work. Perhaps Pettersson wanted to explore different musical directions in this piece, something certainly not unheard of in the history of the symphony. While the first part works well enough, despite the “detachment” I feel, the second part is considerably more problematic. 

Similar to the previous three symphonies, an introductory section opens the work. However, not only is this introductory section the longest compared to its predecessors, there is also a noticeably absent sense of gloom, oppression, desolation, and grief. Over a gently oscillating accompaniment (an continuous string of eighth notes), the violins sing perhaps the longest unbroken melody in Pettersson’s entire output—a vast horizon.  Woodwind doublings come and go, adding color and reinforcement, but the line always remains. A slight hint of grief may be present, but aside from occasional commentary from tremolo ponticello strings, there is little sense of darker undercurrents. 

The music arrives at a rich (by Pettersson standards at least), beautifully suspended Gb major chord. Now the long melody moves to the low-middle register, taken up by violas and clarinets. A steady percussion march provides an increased sense of momentum, but there is no sense of impending catastrophe.  Violins and upper woodwinds re-enter the landscape. The music continues to build, unthreateningly so (listen to the entrance of the xylophone), leading to an almost blindingly bright sunrise, arriving again at Gb major, this time radiantly so.  

Beautifully delicate string writing suggests the sun fading into the distance. An accelerando passes through, but the music never becomes agitated. Another arrival at Gb major, followed by a transitional chorale, leads to the return of the oscillating accompaniment figure. Violins and flutes lead the music, providing a line while engaged in a contrapuntal interplay. The opening melody returns, this time played by violas and cellos. A solo flute plays a countermelody, alternating between beautifully consonant and mildly unsettling (listen to the “wrong notes”). Quiet triplets in the clarinets add a subtle tension to the eight note accompaniment. Another transitional chorale, with harmonic motion based on third relationships, along with drawn out tones of E-F, bring the opening section to a close. 

The E-F motive opens the “movement” proper. Over a steady harmonic background (essentially moving between I and V in bb minor) the E-F motive is repeated obsessively, although between each statement of this motive the music tries to wander off. The music quickly increases in intensity, volume, and density of orchestration, but the core E-F is always there. Violas, then cellos, sing a long melody as the music moves away from the storm. The E-F returns.

The accompaniment figure from the opening returns, this time clearly agitated. The music quickly builds up again to a storm, but subsides, leaving the E-F motive. This time, however, we have not entered calmer territory. A steadily increasing assault of percussion leads to a transitional passage featuring xylophone and the accompaniment figure, quietly rumbling. When this wave passes the opening melody returns, now in the violins. Here the orchestral backdrop is much more active, swirling restlessly around the melody—not necessarily an assault, but certainly a distraction.  The final climax of this “movement” arrives, although there is little sense of culmination or catharsis. The music simply calms down into a drawn-out bb minor, and the E-F motive returns, although sometimes buried in the orchestral fabric.
The second part of the symphony is more problematic. Although I never get the sense that Pettersson is not in control of his material, there are many stretches of this part which sound unfocused and unnecessarily long-winded (maybe I’ll say this again when I talk about the Symphony No. 9). Anyhow, it starts out promisingly enough. Similar to the first part there is a slow introduction which opens the musical gambit. A threatening gesture in low strings and woodwinds is answered by violas, horn and bass clarinet—climbing, then coming back down. A distinctive rhythm is played by the tenor drum. When I hear this music I cannot help but imagine it accompanying a film where we see our protagonist, sword and shield in hand, survey the distant battlefield under an oppressive grey sky. Anyway…the music gradually increases in intensity, leading up to a culminating falling half-step scream and tam-tam crash, thus concluding the opening section.
The “movement” proper begins with a quiet march at increased tempo in ab minor. The viola/horn/bass clarinet gesture is played again, this time sounding more desperate rather than threatening. Although the tempo does not increase, the music quickly picks up momentum and enters the storm. A brief lull introduces a swaying motive, first heard in descending motion but soon heard again ascending. As the storm resumes, another important idea is introduced, based on natural harmonics in the violins. Steady-fire snare and tenor drum lead the music through.
Following this wave the music enters somewhat queasy territory, with strings exchanging the distinctive tenor drum rhythm heard in the introduction. Other instruments join the fray, as the orchestral texture thickens. The swaying motive states itself forcefully in trumpets and horns, then moving to other sections of the orchestra.
At the conclusion of this wave a new idea is heard, a rising gesture built upon major thirds. The string harmonics return. The music moves into a march, accentuated by shrill piccolo attacks and slashing solo strings. Over this background Pettersson introduces a repeated note motive. The music assumes a quietly threatening, anticipatory feel. Now the rising gesture and the repeated note motive take over. The music resumes its threatening feel. In this section I feel Pettersson gets stuck and wanders a little.
Eventually, Pettersson brings back the E-F motive. This time around, however, he does not build up the music to a frenzy around this, but rather gives us a brief reminder of this idea then moves back to the primary material of this “movement.” From this comes the biggest and most satisfying climax of the work. The percussion emphatically hammer out a variation of the tenor drum rhythm heard at the outset, accompanying trumpets playing repeated notes. Low brass and horns moving in contrary motion lead the climax, cathartic, broad, perhaps nobly tragic (the arrival on the major seventh is particularly effective). Rather than taking us into a final denouement, Pettersson leaves the climax with a question mark, and from here the movement slowly (and in my opinion rather long-windedly) winds to a close.
For the next several minutes, material from both parts (including the E-F motive) come and go, circling somewhat aimlessly. The music builds to one more climax before entering the final phase: an ab minor island of resignation, heard three times before finally “giving up” on the symphony.
As a Pettersson fan I cannot help but think that perhaps there is something wrong with me for finding this symphony, especially the second part, vaguely unfulfilling. In the liner notes for the CPO recording, Andreas KW Meyer talks about how the protracted conclusion to this symphony is reflective of the fact that to Pettersson music was a refuge from the harsh reality of existence, and that here his resistance to bringing the symphony to a close was a kind of attempt to stay in the sanctuary that music provides. Thinking about it this way, the music assumes a greater poignancy, and those ab minor islands which concludes the symphony really does feel like tragic resignation, as if Pettersson knows he cannot resist any longer and that returning to the reality of his life of confinement and physical pain was inevitable.
Well guys, I’d love to hear you chime in and tell me what I’m missing here.

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