Friday, October 14, 2011

Symphony No. 11 (1973)

Sorry about the very long delay. Back to work!

Despite the challenges these symphonies present to the listener, careful and engaged listening will usually reveal Pettersson’s overall symphonic argument (such as use and development of motives, rhythms, intervals, gestures, etc.). Of course, repeated listening may be required to grasp some of the finer details of each work.

The sketches of the Symphony No. 11 date from Pettersson’s nine-month hospital stay in 1970-1, and this work is sometimes considered an accompanying work to his Symphony No. 10. Although this symphony may be Pettersson’s most violent and brutal in comparison to all that has come before, I actually find it quite “accessible.”  The Symphony No. 11, on the other hand, I feel is Pettersson’s most elusive work thus far in this survey. Only after several listenings with score have I begun to come to my own understanding of the emotional message of this work.

After the battle depicted in the Symphony No. 10 has concluded, Pettersson takes us to a strange, perhaps unsettling calm. Soon we are taken into a nightmarish world which seems to me as if we are observers, but not actively participating. Fragments of the preceding symphony appear, like a glimpse back to the world we came from. The music wants to arrive at a breaking point; a great climax, but it never seems to come. Seemingly out of nowhere, an 8-part canonic passage for strings suggests an emergence from this world, and the return of the opening material seems like exiting through the same gates we entered, into a blinding light which quickly fades. Without getting a chance to catch our breath, the symphony closes.

The Symphony No. 11 was commissioned by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra “Harmonien” and premiered on 24. October 1974.  

The symphony opens with a brief passage of simple but somewhat uneasy beauty. A descending scale in the oboes is harmonized in contrary motion by violas and clarinets. Horns, violas and cellos play an ascending scale filling the space of a tenth. Flute and piccolo continue the line. The violas sing a long melody of quiet yearning, accompanied by flute and piccolo, occasionally sticking in “off” notes. Oboes play the opening descending scale again, and the music quickly changes character soon after.

Pettersson now takes the music to a clearly more agitated landscape. Syncopated scale fragments, both ascending and descending are heard while violas and lower strings provide a jagged, forward moving counterpoint. Biting muted brass interjections and short sighing gestures add to the busy musical fabric. We arrive at a brief climax; a fragment of the viola line heard earlier. The music calms back down, with a syncopated gesture played by trumpets, but builds up again quickly.

Pettersson now creates a sense of anticipation: over a steady timpani beat strings enter in canonically, section by section, along with the appearance of snare drum. Parallel diminished chords are heard in upper woodwinds and celesta, followed by low brass. Reminiscent of the Symphony No. 7, the parallel diminished chords are played in upward motion with reduced note values, leading to forceful horn call, an annunciation of sorts.

The next passage seems like Pettersson is looking back at the battle which has passed: the Symphony No. 10. Sixteenth note licks and a distinctive rhythm (eighth-eighth-dotted quarter-eighth) are fragments of key motives from the previous symphony. Stabbing attacks by muted brass push the music forward, with increasing violence (listen to the horns push the music over the top).

Strings continue the music’s forward movement, but in a quieter, somewhat more meditative way. However, stabbing muted brass try to disrupt this reverie. The brass soon forcefully take over the orchestral landscape. The entrance of xylophone signal the entrance into a new section.

The following section to me feels like driving through a frightening, nightmarish landscape, but remaining a passive observer. A long melody played by the violins lead us in. An intensification of the music is brought on by the entrance of brass and extremely angular and bone-rattling xylophone. Before we begin our drive away, listen to a rising motive played by basses and bassoons, which will gain prominence later on.

Over the next extended section this frightening landscape fades farther away to the distance, but its disturbing memory is still present. Over a constant stream of quietly frantic eighth notes in the orchestra, a long trumpet line leads us. The eighth notes give way to a repeated rhythm in the low brass, answered by high woodwinds. A prominent line for clarinets, reinforced by icy violin false harmonics, lead to the return of the rising motive.

The rising motive seems to be the focal point of this section, and Pettersson slowly fills in the orchestral space around it. As the textures thicken the music intensifies, the rising motive becomes compressed, and the brass make a forceful annunciation. A repeated note motive in the brass tries to push the music over the edge. The climax never arrives and the music takes a new direction with swaying parallel thirds in bassoons, oboes and flutes. A steady march ensues, with orchestra commentary in fourth-based harmonies. The music intensifies again, with sharp attacks from percussion and brass. Repeated note brass attacks and clanging xylophone try to push the music over, but again the climax never arrives.

The music retreats to a slow burn, but quietly churning strings suggest that more is to come. Over a series of waves the music builds in intensity, with an increasing sense of strain. Slowly falling scales are played in the brass as the forest thickens, but once again, no climax is reached and the music simply disappears into a screaming, stratospheric Db, played by violins.

String sections enter one by one; an 8-part canon of ridiculous contrapuntal density. The forest gradually thins out as the string sections find common ground. The lower strings play drawn-out scale fragments, in both directions. We are now emerging from this world, and returning to the same gates from which we entered.

Muted low brass and tam-tam make an imposing and threatening entrance (for some reason I’m reminded of the coda to Shosty’s Symphony No. 11 here). The horns play a motive heard earlier, which I described as a fragment from the Symphony No. 10. Our emergence approaches a sense of completion as the opening music returns. Muted trumpets lead the final push, almost like a blinding light. In an a minor tonality, a slight flutter of Ab and Eb is heard; a small nuance to the sense of uncertainty as the symphony comes to a close. One could say that the battle (Symphony No. 10) and the aftermath (Symphony No. 11) are now behind us, but no closure has been achieved. All we know is that we’ve survived.

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