Thursday, October 20, 2011

Symphonic Movement (1973)

The Symphonic Movement has a special place in my heart. Although I considered myself a serious Pettersson fan shortly after hearing his music for the first time (this is the late 90’s), I found most of the works from his early and middle periods to be a little over my head and inaccessible for my (then) tastes. The Symphonic Movement was an exception; it was one of the works from his late period (the other was the Symphony No. 15) which I listened to most often.

Returning to this work for this survey brings back memories of me sitting alone in my small, grungy, cockroach-infested apartment on the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin campus, depressed, eating delivery pizza 3-4 times a week, and browsing the internet on a dial-up connection while listening to this piece. Those were the days…

The Symphonic Movement was commissioned by Swedish Radio channel TV1 for a film essay by Boris Engström, who was also the dedicatee (anyone know the dates of the premiere, TV or in concert?). At around 11 minutes, it is a compact, tightly argued introduction to Pettersson’s late style, and I would even recommend it as an introduction to Pettersson’s music in general, if you don’t feel like sitting through the 45 minutes of the Symphony No. 7.

The piece opens with a tone series played by violas and woodwinds, in a low-mid register. One does not, however, get the sense that this will be a strictly atonal or serial work. The snare drum makes a violent appearance, along with a leaping motive (E-F-Db) in high woodwinds. Both of these gestures will come back repeatedly. A long melody appears in the strings (beautifully exchanged between violins and violas), taking the leaping motive as a start. Upper woodwinds add commentary before the strings continue the melody. This interplay continues until the music reaches an arrival at bb minor.

The snare drum announces the next section, lead by churning, propulsive strings and angular high woodwinds. With the entrance of tam-tam and tenor drum the music assumes a sense of desperation. Two motives now dominate the conflicted, stormy landscape: a strained, stuttering upward motive, moving up two half steps, followed by an equally strained snarl, a fall of a half step, here harmonized in perfect fifths. Trumpets lead one final push before this section breaks. Pounding timpani accompany horns and trumpets playing fragments of the long melody (including the leaping motive). This section runs out of steam and leads directly to a calmer, dreamlike, a minor-ish section, dominated by strings and woodwinds.

The snare drum returns, along with churning and propulsive strings. The stuttering motive is heard on trumpets, this time in downward motion. Over a quietly nervous and conflicted string accompaniment (a dense forest of the stuttering and snarl motives) horn and cellos sing a long melody, heard in the previous, dreamlike section. The return of snare drum and churning strings push the music to a breaking point again: horns annunciate the leaping motive, trumpets give one more push, and repeated notes from upper woodwinds lead to a strained, but conclusive V of bb minor.

Arriving on bb minor strings and woodwinds take up and exchange the long melody. Repeated Fs from the timpani give a stronger sense of forward motion. Snare drum and churning strings return yet again, but this time it doesn’t have a chance to go far; a minor reasserts itself, fragments of the dreamlike section are heard. A bassoon adds a little bit of color/conflict on an F natural, right before the piece concludes quietly on a minor.

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