I became a permanent convert to the Pettersson cause in the late 90’s after hearing the sixth, seventh, and fifteenth symphonies. I did not hesitate to purchase the CPO recording of the Symphony No. 9, and eagerly looked forward to cutting my teeth on one of Pettersson’s longest and most complex works.
I have to say that this piece never really grabbed me at the beginning. It just sounded weird to me. Now, I’ll admit that I never really gave this piece my full attention back then; most of the time I was driving, trying to do homework, or reinstall Windows 98 for one reason or the other. Over a decade later, I am pleased to say that my opinion has changed greatly after this recent reassessment, and I now find this work to be an important statement of major significance in Pettersson’s oeuvre.
This might be due to how in the past decade or so I have developed my musical palette and am able to find fulfillment in a larger range of musical styles; after all, in the late 90’s Pettersson was probably the most dissonant music I listened to. Nevertheless, this piece remains one of Pettersson’s most difficult symphonies, not only in terms of its length and surface inaccessibility but also because of its extreme demands on listeners and performers alike. It is a clunky, long-winded, sometimes corny behemoth of a piece, ultimately ending in a weird and unfulfilling amen cadence, with no real sense of resolution or summation (much more on this later). Despite all this, it works. And it works because it is Pettersson, and no one else (more on this later too).
On to the piece itself then. The work was premiered on 18 February 1971 by Sergiu Comissiona and the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra, the dedicatees, in honor of the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city of Göteborg. In a break from the previous 4 symphonies, there is no introductory section; symphony pretty much gets going right from the start. An eighth note chromatic scale in strings and bassoon is answered by repeated major seconds, played in a triplet rhythm. This motive is then reversed: the scale is played in triplets and the major seconds played as eighths. Next up is a noodling chromatic sixteenth note run ending with a leap of a tritone, and then broad a neighbor-note motive played by lower strings and horns, filling the space of a major second (this sounds like it could have been a variation on the interval of the second which didn’t make it into the Symphony No. 5). Pettersson then takes these materials and spins them around for a while. I would say this section of the symphony is emotionally ambiguous, but with a sense of unease: we don’t know where we are going, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be good. The entrance of percussion and syncopated brass rhythms suggests an intensification of the music, but this really doesn’t go anywhere.
An emphatic restatement of the chromatic scale, this time in sixteenths, brings the music to a new section. Here we have extremely jagged writing for divided second violins, featuring some very large leaps. The entrance of xylophone further accentuates the sense of disorientation. The first violins fill out the picture with swirling chromatic runs. Woodwinds come in with falling scalar fragments, sounding increasingly irritating. The entrance of low strings and timpani give the music forward momentum. Tuba and bassoon play a vulgar, tub-thumping idea. The music seems to be heading to a climax, with horns and trombones playing the chromatic scale against an increasing agitated background. However, rather than reaching a peak, woodwinds lead a brief transitional section, and the music moves into new territory.
A quasi fugal passage for violins starts the next section, featuring some very involved contrapuntal textures. The music finally settles into a tonality, here e minor, led by stratospheric violins, intoning an impassioned song. Notice the entrance of parallel minor thirds falling by half steps in the trumpets—this will be important later on. Sixteenth note runs, ending with tritone leaps, begin to gain prominence in the landscape, suggesting a return to the opening material, which is what happens: muted trumpets play a chromatic scale, ending with repeated seconds.
One of the most striking features of the following section is a chromatic sixteenth note scale, played by low strings and bass clarinet. The scale reaches a peak then makes a sudden drop—this is very similar (to my ears a foreshadowing of) to the opening gesture of the Symphony No. 10, as if Pettersson knew that the real life or death struggle was still to come. This section feels a little exploratory, but definitely threatening at the same time. The music morphs fairly imperceptibly into a woodwind forest of parallel minor thirds, falling or rising by half steps. The strings join in, strengthening the rhythmic profile with syncopation and creating a sense of forward movement.
The next several minutes could be described as pure viola torture, which one could even argue has biographical significance. The violas, doubled by either oboes or clarinets, spin an unending stream of chromatic sixteenth note runs. The first violins lead with a seemingly unending line. Woodwinds (when not doubling violas) and second violins play their own motives repeatedly, based on minor thirds. Underneath this all is a percussion ostinato, featuring snare and tenor drum. The endless repetition becomes increasingly annoying and harassing. The machine stops briefly for the violins to spin downward, accompanied by snare drum. However, the machine goes right back into motion, like it never stopped.
The machine continues, becoming increasingly frenzied while at the same time sounding cold and systematic. The repeated motive from the trumpets, especially when reinforced by low brass, starts to make one feel as if they are going crazy. Finally, the percussion ostinato stops, but the machine keeps spinning, one direction, then the other, alternating, again, and again. Eventually, the chromatic scale and repeated seconds find their way back in, along with a forceful restatement of the neighbor note motive, played by the solo trumpet. Horns and trumpets play the repeated seconds again, preparing us for what seems to be a breaking point, but instead take us, already beyond exhausted, to another phase of the conflict.
The battle continues, but soon brass fanfares suggest that the conflict is reaching a close, and it seems to: a drawn out ascending scale in horns and trombones reaches a peak and is capped off by a tam-tam crash, followed by the scale coming down. But, the chromatic scales and seconds come back, a sadistic reminder of preceeding struggle, before finally allowing us to move on.
The music has now entered calmer territory although there is still a strong sense of pushing forward. A long line is traded between string sections, before settling on the violas, who take it over and sing a long melody. The violas lead us to an extended dreamy section, as if we have finally reached a place of rest. It doesn’t take long however, before the chromatic scales and percussion ostinato come back in—even in our dreams we are reminded of the struggle. The music intensifies and the chromatic scales and percussion begin to dominate the landscape. However, there is no culmination; the music enters a new section rather uneventfully, like waking up.
The following section also has an exploratory feel to it, although a sense of agitation is certainly present (listen to some of the woodwind licks here—a foreshadowing of the Symphony No. 15? Increasingly frenzied violins and insistent horns take us right back to the struggle: the horns and trombone emphatically state a variation of the neighbor note motive, accompanied by the ostinato rhythm in tenor and snare drum.
A small pause, and yet another phase of the battle is entered: over an insistent tenor drum roll lower strings slog through the mud. Woodwinds and trumpets offer occasional commentary. The violins take over, pushing higher and higher. The chromatic scales refuse to let go, gaining prominence yet again. Eventually we reach a place of lament in a clear bb minor, although it sounds superficial and insincere to me, and I’m guessing this was intentional.
One of the adjectives I used earlier to describe this piece was “corny,” and the next two sections of this symphony exemplify this. A mournfully beautiful bridging passage with broken octaves in the violins leads to a sad waltz also in bb minor (the prominence of bb minor from here to the end could be seen as a long IV, setting up the final cadence to F), felt in triple time but notated in 4/4. I find this section a little hard to take seriously, perhaps Pettersson is making a mockery of all that has come before by having a little dance with his demons. I get a similar feeling with Shostakovich in the third movement of his String Quartet No. 8. The chromatic scales make their presence well known, this time in descending runs. Although parts of the waltz are felt in 3, because Pettersson has notated this in 4 he does play around with it a little, sometimes the waltz stutters or missteps.
Pettersson then takes his demons for a different kind of dance, again in bb minor. This time it sounds like Bizet’s Carmen has decided to join in the party. D-S-C-H is heard very briefly in the solo oboe before Carmen comes back. A long C pedal, with contributions from cellos and violas, creates a sense of expectation.
The chromatic noodling/tritone leap motive comes back in the violins, but at a broadened tempo. Broad annunciations are played by brass (do you hear the first movement of Shosty’s Symphony No. 5?). The violin sixteenths keep on coming, along with restatements of the brass annunciations. The sixteenths morph into sixteenth sextuplets, leading the music to what I would call a “preview” of the first true breaking point of the symphony. Over a snare drum roll and distinct rhythms from the brass, the violins scream a lament. But the time has not come yet; the brass annunciations return accompanied by a sea of swirling violin sextuplets.
A transitional passage, featuring broken octaves, chromatic scales, repeated seconds, ostinato tenor or snare drum, and other gestures heard earlier in the piece lead to the true “breaking point.” Here one feels sure that the symphony is taking a new direction: the struggle is of a different nature now. From here it is an arduous uphill climb to the final lament. In this section there are several bb minor islands, featuring a distinct rhythm in the snare and tenor drums, along with a sense of extreme strain throughout the full orchestra. Between these islands fragments from previous sections appear: broken octaves, a little bit of the waltz idea. Pettersson demands from the players and listeners to endure these islands six times, as if one wasn’t exhausted enough already. Each time we feel like we have reached a point of rest, Pettersson forces us to keep going.
A brief forest of string sextuplets leads to the next breaking point, this time a sense of finality has set in: despite the endless struggle it seems like the inevitable outcome is tragedy. In a strict f minor, over a repeated accompaniment figure in lower strings, percussion and brass, the violas scream a lament (marked by F-C) several times, then taken up by the flutes. The accompaniment figure broadens. Broken octaves in the strings are scattered about.
At long last, we have arrived at the final lament, a desperate song in the strings. Slowly, the orchestral commentary fades away, leaving just strings and a lone cymbal, quietly tolling away, but it too will leave. We have reached the peak after a long struggle, but now we bear the tragedy alone.
Eventually, there is a response. Out of nowhere, bassoons bring in A naturals, in a rhythm heard just a few minutes earlier, awkwardly shifting the tonality to F major. Broken octaves in the flutes, then a final amen cadence.
WTF? (Keep reading.)
I mentioned earlier that I think this piece works because it is Pettersson, and no one else. My approach to music is almost strictly emotional and visceral. In other words, if the music grabs me by the heart or kicks me in the gut I will be drawn to it more than if the music is masterfully constructed and nothing else. For me, this is definitely the case with Pettersson. Although Pettersson certainly had the compositional chops of a master, technical considerations were always at the mercy of the circumstances of his life. Take Pettersson’s music out of context and it can sound, especially in the case of this symphony, like unnecessary repetition and note spinning. But if Pettersson’s music is simply “pure information,” objectively representing in music the reality of (his) life, then the musical and compositional “shortcomings” of his work seem entirely necessary.
This hopefully makes sense if one thinks about the biographical circumstances of Pettersson’s life at the time of composition: was a soul-sapping routine of constant pain and isolation. If the music is unnecessarily repetitive and relentlessly harassing, well, that was his life. Pain was his constant companion, and even in the rare moments of repose the pain was always there, and it was just a matter of time when the tiresome routine would repeat itself again. His sheer force of will to fight on and refuse to capitulate was realized in his music, but his struggle went largely unnoticed. To me at least, this music, warts and all, assumes a greater poignancy when one takes these things into account.
Finally, I would like to spend some time spinning words about the ending of this piece. I imagine that this final amen cadence divides and confuses even serious fans of the composer. I mean, what the hell was he thinking? After this gargantuan work, a struggle of massive proportions even by Petterssonian standards, he concludes with simple amen. Unsatisfactory is an understatement—there is no acknowledgment of this struggle, no apotheosis, no final note of defiance or resignation. The entrance of major right before the cadence sounds so out of place as if it to be insulting, like a mockery of all that has come before. To me it feels having just one chance to pour out your deepest pains to God, and, while not even looking at you, He responds by saying, “That’s nice. See you around.” Perhaps this hollow consolation was all Pettersson’s mother had, living in a world of squalor, indignity and abuse.
A couple of other ideas went through my head as well. Maybe Pettersson was intentionally “undermining” himself. A less sympathetic criticism here could be that Pettersson simply ran out of things to say in an already rambling work. However, I couldn’t help but think that Pettersson was working along the same lines as Sibelius here. A friend of mine once told me that it truly takes a master composer to be such control of his/her material that they can undermine themselves—this is what my friend thought about the ending of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. We all know that Sibelius can give us the great apotheosis if he wants to—take the Symphony No. 2 for example. But no, he sets up wave after wave leading up to the grand apotheosis that never comes—the music stops dead in its tracks, and we hear several clunky, emphatic dominant chords, leading to the final tonic. Or what about the coldly matter-of-fact ending to the Symphony No. 4—these repeated a minor chords, like the coffin being lowered into the ground as the grievers look on with straight faces. Is Pettersson doing something similar here? Could he have given us a more satisfactory conclusion, but the circumstances of his life just simply didn’t work that way, and his music was simply representative of that fact?
The last thing I’ll bore you with is this: at the final amen cadence I couldn’t help but think about Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. The coda to the first movement of this work is a series of IV-I chords (amen cadences), suggesting that the protagonist has found temporary peace and solace in the presence of God, after the frenzied passion which has come before. I sometimes think Pettersson is taking this concept and turning it on its head: we are in the presence of God, but there is no solace or peace. This massive symphony is just an overture to the real battle: the Symphony No. 10.
Come on guys, don’t be shy. What do you think is going on here?