Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Symphony No. 13 (1976)

Symphony No.13
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Alun Francis, conductor
CPO 999 224-2



Throughout this blog I've managed to stick in a few hopefully informative but probably useless examples from my personal life as a music lover. To introduce the Symphony No. 13, I'll give you another one. Shortly after moving to Helsinki, I met another 20th/21st century classical music geek with whom I share some similarities in terms of our musical tastes (he is slowly being converted to Pettersson). Anyhow, we decided that we should try to make it through Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise. One dark Helsinki night we sat in his small room, planted ourselves in front of his speakers, wine and junk food ready, and started listening. 

After several sarcastic comments and flipping through the libretto and program notes out of boredom, we gave up after two hours. This was music only for the converted. As much as we respected Messiaen and his accomplishments, we couldn't make it. 

And so it likely goes with Pettersson's Symphony No. 13. This work is probably one of the last places you want to start if you're new to Pettersson, and even casual fans of the composer will probably have a hard time with it. This is music for die hard converts and Pettersson zealots, and even though I would like to think that I fall into both categories, I find that the "rewards" of this work are still coming to me, and slowly. 

What I’m about to say has been cribbed from the CPO liner notes and the internet, so hopefully it is correct. In the mid-seventies Pettersson’s health had declined to the point that he pretty much couldn’t leave his apartment (Åsögatan 127?), and was forced to work under conditions of constant aural assault, namely construction noises during the day and neighbor’s pop music during the rest of the time. Apparently the composer called this “acoustic irradiation,” I term I have fallen in love with and use in my everyday life, particularly when walking into a shopping mall during the Christmas season. Anyhow, considering the brutal, if not sadistic demands this piece puts on both performers and listeners, I cannot help but wonder if the pop music that Pettersson was tortured with was a nonstop stream of ABBA? If it was, I can certainly understand why this work sounds the way it does (apologies to any of my readers who are ABBA fans). 

Due to these living conditions Pettersson had to turn down requests to write operas (can you imagine a Pettersson opera!!??) as he felt he could not concentrate on entering new genres. Nevertheless, during the years 1974-1976 he was able to complete the Symphonies No. 12 and 13 as well as Vox Humana, which is a pretty impressive feat under any circumstances. 

Many years ago when I was still a student I met one other person in the music school at the University of Wisconsin who was a Pettersson fan (and incidentally, a violist). At this time, despite my best efforts, I found the Symphony No. 13 a really tough piece to get into, and after a few attempts I set this work aside until the current survey. This other Pettersson fan told me that he actually really liked this symphony, and that if you can make it through, it is “very rewarding.” Coming back to this work after all these years, listening even more intently, score in hand, I still find the rewards to be very elusive, but they are coming. 

Although it is a given that in just about all of Pettersson’s orchestral works there are extreme demands on the players, in this piece these demands go beyond the level of ridiculous. In fact, if I were an orchestral cellist playing this piece, I probably would have wanted to strangle the composer with my bare hands (I have this recurring image in my head of the BBC Scottish SO staging a Braveheart-style revolt after the first read-through, torching the score and parts and trashing the concert hall). There are many points in the score where it appears that the conflict reaches a breaking point, only for Pettersson to move the music into a different torture chamber. The final string chorale is extremely strained and the dissonances seem more like an attempt to destroy the beauty as opposed to simply adding tension. The final peroration and rush to the “triumphant” conclusion come so quickly that you don’t even have the chance to feel like any kind of victory has been achieved. 

However, during the fifth or sixth time I was listening to this piece during this survey, something happened. The first half of the symphony, which can seem like so much aimless note-spinning, it dawned on me that Pettersson was slowly evolving the music, such that when we finally realize that he has taken us to a different place, we didn't really notice we were going there. This makes those rare moments of release and beauty all the more fulfilling. 

Anyhow, the Symphony No. 13 was composed during the period of March – August 1977 in response to a commission from the Bergen Festival. Due to the work’s extreme demands the premiere was postponed for a year due to insufficient rehearsal time. The premiere came on 7 June 1978 with Harmonien (the Bergen SO) under the direction of Francis Travis. 

The work opens with a forceful upward surge in the strings, spanning two octaves (C-Eb-B-Db-F-E-Gb-C). Once the brass and timpani enter with a crescendo swell, it is immediately clear that the conflict has begun. Low brass respond with a motive consisting of a leap of a tritone followed by two falling notes. Trumpets respond by repeating this motive. 

The opening minutes are a fantasia of sorts on this opening gesture. After a variation of the tritone leap motive, played by brass in the same rhythm, a second idea emerges, beginning with repeating pitches of decreasing note values played by violas. However, fragments and variants of the opening gesture are still present. Lower strings play a somewhat aggressive chorale of sorts, with prominent triplets, leading to a brief moment of respite.

Violas return with the repeating pitches idea, but this time with broader note values. Quarter-note triplets increase in prominence in the orchestral landscape. Trombones repeat the triplet-heavy chorale initially played by lower strings. Muted solo trombone and solo trumpet lead, bringing us back to the repeating pitch idea, this time in violin harmonics, then handed off to cellos. We enter a fantasia of sorts on this idea, but a solo trumpet tries to divert our attention. Horns take the idea, transposed a fifth down. 

About 8 minutes in we reach probably the first arrival point, a real V-I candence to C. Trumpets lead, but the opening gesture is also present, clearly articulated by low brass. An oom-pah rhythm starts taking over the bass instruments of the orchestra. Trombones and horns start the opening gesture, then lead the orchestra over the oom-pahs. 

Stuttering sextuplets in the upper strings introduce the next section. The violins then play a variation of the opening gesture, in broad note values and in a lower register. Listen to the extremely busy sixteenth-note counterpoint, beginning with the low woodwinds and transistioning to piercing piccolo. A very broad and forceful restatement of the opening gesture from the brass take us a "breather," a short respite in what appears to be a V of C (Gmaj7). 

Violins play a variation of the repeating pitches idea, this time leaping a fifth instead of the usual fourth. Violas and cellos provide busy sixteenth-note counterpoint. The music reaches an "aborted" climax, as the brass try to take us over the edge. The cycle repeats itself, reaching a somewhat more fulfilling climax. The violins play the same variation of the repeated pitches idea, this time screaming. However, the music just sort of gives up with a held C on violas and brief bassoon solo. 

First violins lead the next section with a long line. Listen to the accompanimental figure in the seconds-a run of 8 sixteenths followed by a dotted rhythm. A solo viola sings an almost sickly-sweet song, quite out of place here. A brief section for strings only follows. Cellos sing a song of their own, slightly less sweet. Upper woodwinds take over.  The music gradually becomes more agitated. A triplet motive introduced in lower woodwinds gradually gains prominence. The music reaches a climax. 

Pettersson introduces a new idea, or rather, a fusion of already introduced elements: three repeated pitches followed by a turn of three neighbor notes. A brief slackening of tempo (Tempo II) gives some space for violins and violas to try to sing, but cellos shake us out of it. The music resumes pushing forward, but low brass try to throw things off. The fusion idea returns to prominence. 

The tempo slackens again, and repeated pitch triplets begin taking over. Throughout the violins sing a long line. Another slackening of tempo, followed by more triplets. The lower instruments of the orchestra get into an off-beat/on beat duel, until the upper brass emphatically assert the opening gesture. A slight release of tension, featuring mostly woodwinds, leads into a climbing violin line, reaching the stratosphere and another return to Tempo II. A march rhythm of a quarter followed by two eighths is introduced; this will come back a later on, especially towards the end. 

The next section could be seen as a foreshadowing of the Symphony No. 15. A rhythmic motive of four sixteenths followed by an eighth is introduced (this idea is used heavily in the Symphony No. 15), but soon gains prominence. The music pauses for a moment on a held notes from flutes and oboe, before moving on again. 

Parallel ascending thirds in the violas invoke the Symphony No. 7. Cellos accompany with a rocking motive. The following section is a pretty steady build-up, with off-beat interjections from brass, swirling upper woodwinds, leading to strained upper strings and woodwinds over a protracted note value version of the opening gesture, played in the bass instruments of the orchestra. A held chord, and the music moves on, without much chance to catch its breath. 

Another storm is quickly whipped up. The trumpets seem to signal a change in direction, but the return of screaming violins and whirling counterpoint in the lower strings suggests otherwise. The music quiets down in dynamic but not in activity. Over a F pedal point horns and trumpets with rhythm of a dotted quarter followed by two sixteenths push the music forward, and the violins strain upwards as the tempo slows down.

Pettersson was suggesting a breaking point, but not yet. The music continues its dense, strained path. A few cataclysmic brass chords and a seemingly convincing arrival on a low D sets the stage for a new direction, but again, not this time. Upper woodwinds, trumpet, and viola sing a line, but swirling counterpoint and sputtering, spitting trumpets dispel any notion of respite. 

A few measures of woodwind interlude brings a return to Tempo II, along with a slight release of tension. The music increases in intensity again, but there is a sense of broadening and a lesser sense of strain. Low brass play a chorale while upper strings scream above, with canonic entrances. 

Another moment of respite follows. A truncated version of the march rhythm is played by the cellos. Although the orchestral fabric becomes quite dense (again) a sense of yearning has entered the music, which to me feels like the first time thus far in this work. 

Tempo II returns. Seconds and violas play the march rhythm while firsts sing a soaring line above. Cellos join, in a sadistically high register. A resumption of Tempo I comes with an intensification of the music. Horns and trumpets play an insistent "pushing" rhythm (two sixteenths followed by three quarters), which is passed on to upper woodwinds.  The opening gesture returns, in low brass, finished off by trumpets. 

The march rhythm comes back in trombones, reinforced by percussion. Violins strain against this, trying to sing. Cellos and violas play the opening gesture. After what feels like another fantasia on the opening gesture, I personally get the feeling that the struggle is finally starting to break, and maybe an end is in sight (at approximately rehearsal 120, at 39:08). The tritone leap gesture comes back in trumpets, answered by trombones. 

The rather surprising cadence to a minor suggests a real change of direction, finally. There seems to be a push towards a clear goal, but the music starts to lose steam, until it is shaken back into the conflict by trumpets and percussion. a minor returns, but this time the music takes on the form of a sad waltz, but a very busy one (listen to the restless string of eighth notes from the basses). The music intensifies and reaches a strained allargando before breaking. 

I would say this point is the first time in this symphony that a clearing in the storm clouds can be seen, and the music now strains and yearns to reach the light. Pettersson throws in plenty of minor second dissonances (listen to how the basses and trombones really clash), which keeps the music unsettled. The sun comes out, blindingly (one before 148, 46:58) and the fluttering flutes gives the sense that we are moving away from the storm. 

What follows is typical Petterssonian hard-fought beauty, such as what you'll find towards the end of the Symphony No. 6. We've waited so long for this it almost feels cruel that Pettersson throws us right back into the storm after only a few moments of beauty. 

However, going back into the conflict (some very fast music here) I get the sense that we are pushing towards some kind of victory. When the music reaches calmer waters again, a muted trumpet and solo flute guide us. A transistional interlude follows, calm, despite the fairly busy orchestra writing. Muted trumpets play a prominent role here. A rocking rhythm in lower strings and bassoons play lead final phase of the symphony. 

Over the march rhythm (just eighths this time, no quarters) a lonely solo cello sings a long lament. The quiet but busy chromatic counterpoint in basses and low woodwinds adds an unsettling feel. With the solo cello continuing to lead, the music returns to b minor, and then moves to A major. This harmonic transistion is so simple but is perhaps the most beautiful and cathartic moment in the whole symphony; it is as if the entire battle has been worth it just to experience this moment. At least to me, this does not signal that we are in the clear--we have survived the shipwreck but are now alone on a lifeboat over cold and stormy waters with no land in sight. 

Several minutes of a strings only-chorale follows. However, this is not the painfully beautiful and purifying chorale of the Symphony No. 7, but one full of strain and yearning. Pettersson throws in a lot of dissonances, almost a cruel reminder that there is no truly unadulterated beauty in this world. 

Solo horn and percussion signal a return of the storm. However, there is a sense of confidence here--the storm may be violent but we are now confident that we can weather it (pun intended). Soaring trumpets lead over massive, Brucknerian brass chords. When all brass blare out a blindingly bright D major chord, we are tempted to think that this is the final apotheosis. 

Pettersson just pulls the floor out and the music has to build up again. However, the summit is in sight. Climbing movement in the basses and an accelerando push the music forward to a held F#, very strained, and the music continues to push forward. The opening gesture comes back in horns and low woodwinds. 

Over a very broad tempo, the opening gesturn returns. To my ears this sounds conquering, like Pettersson has finally tamed the beast. Over an timpani swells on the pitch F, somewhat slowly morphing string harmonies, extremely strained, suggesting one more push. 

The final measures of this monumental work feel like a sprint to the summit. Even though there is no more energy left, through sheer force of will Pettersson goes for it. The symphony ends with screaming trumpets pushing everybody to a final, blazing C# major. 

What does this ending mean? As I said earlier, it doesn't really feel like a true "victory" at least in the satisfying sense. The more I listen to this piece the more I think I grasp of what Pettersson is trying to say here. At least right now, one way of looking at this could be that Pettersson is saying, "this has gone on long enough, and I'm going to win, or at least act like I have won." 

As there is only one recording available of this work, we'll have to wait and see if other interpretations might shed some light on this. Until Christian Lindberg gets around to it...

I'll say just a few words about the recording here. From what I have read about the BBC Scottish SO, they were a demoralized band until Osmo Vanska came in the 90s and really got things together. If this was a second-rate band at the time they recorded it I would not have guessed it. Considering the difficulty of this music and the almost guarantee that noone in the orchestra had played this music before, they do an incredible job. Sure, those Bruckner chords in the coda could be broader and more assertive, but one really could not ask for more here. 

I'll say here that I wasn't expecting this piece to make any more sense to me 15 years after I first bought the CD, but I think I am finally beginning to reap this work's rewards.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for your excellent article.
    You may care to note that Lindberg has now
    recorded this work for BIS, catalogue no BIS2190.
    The recording received a glowing review in
    the latest Gramaphone magazine.

    ReplyDelete