Saturday, August 4, 2012

Symphony No. 14 (1978)

Back in the late 90’s when I was studying at the University of Wisconsin I made one of my many trips to one of my favorite places: the classical music section in the basement of the Exclusive Company record store. At this time I already considered myself a Pettersson fan, but I was familiar with only a handful of his symphonies (this was before Naxos Music Library and I was a poor student). The person in charge of the classical music section always had something playing in the background, and on this particular day I remember finding myself blown away by whatever he was playing. I went up to his desk where he always displayed the CD being played. Yep, you guessed right, it was Pettersson’s Symphony No. 14, the CPO recording.

A few weeks later the exact same CD was on sale for a price I could afford, as it was the copy which was played earlier and was therefore used. Even though this symphony is not a work I would return to with the same regularity as say, the Symphony No. 5, 6, 10, or 15, I always considered this work as one of my favorites. Returning to this work and giving it a more thorough reassessment has only deepened my appreciation for this amazing piece.
Similar to this work’s predecessor, the Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, Pettersson goes back to his Barefoot Songs for the building blocks for this piece. Here, Pettersson uses the song Klokar och knythänder, which roughly translates to “Wise Men and Clenched Hands.” As I mentioned in my survey of the Barefoot Songs I am a poetry and literature moron, and I personally cannot see an immediate connection between this poem and how it fits into this particular piece.

In the liner notes to the Comissiona recording, Leif Aare (Pettersson’s biographer, no less) suggests that this symphony is one of Pettersson’s most lyrical works, absent of any sense of “catastrophe.” I don’t know if this is supposed to be some kind of joke, but this work, despite being more accessible, and yes, lyrical, than say the Symphony No. 13, it is nevertheless full of the same conflicts which informs Pettersson’s late works. I would make the argument that the increased accessibility makes the emotional messages of this work more direct, and in a way, more devastating.

The liner notes to both available recordings mention nothing about the premiere or the circumstances in Pettersson’s life during the compositional process. Based on the score and the CPO liner notes, it seems safe to say that Pettersson wrote this work in 1978. There is no dedication on the score. From the RSPO website it looks like the premiere took place on 26.11.1981 with Sergui Comissiona leading the RSPO (on the same program was a Mozart piano concerto!). As Pettersson died in 1980 it is most likely he did not live to hear this work performed.

Alright, let’s get to it then.

Although an immediate sense of purpose is noticeable from the very beginning of this work, there is also clear sense of unease. The opening is written in 3/8 time, a time signature I don’t think I’ve seen hardly at all in Pettersson’s orchestral works, but the importance of 3 beats/bar will be apparent later on. The violins open the work with a meandering series of eighth notes, quickly filling the chromatic space between the pitches C and G# (we do sort of have a tone series between the violins by the fifth bar). Immediately after this violas, then cellos, play a skittering series of sextuplets. These two ideas are key components of the work, and are especially prominent in the opening.

From this Pettersson very quickly builds up a violent storm. After the first brass eruption the music pulls back briefly. Trombones, reinforced with cellos and basses (listen to the 3 against 2 conflict), play the opening violin line, this time beginning on F. The two key ideas mentioned above soon dominate the landscape, along with the lower instruments of the orchestra emphasizing a 3 against 2. As Pettersson takes us quickly to the next storm wave, listen to the hectoring snare drum (snares off) and timpani glissandi. 

A very brief interlude for solo flute follows. A dialogue for brass instruments (between muted and unmuted) leads the next section, over the skittering motive. The storm returns again, violently, with brass leading. All of the building blocks of the work thus far are heard here in desperate conflict with each other: the opening eighth notes, the skittering sextuplets, and the 3 against 2.

After this storm wave passes we get a beautiful line from the violins, leading to perhaps the most fragile and painfully beautiful music Pettersson ever wrote. With the entrance of the celeste we hear a heartbreaking passage for strings and woodwinds, which demonstrates Pettersson’s masterful counterpoint. The music reaches a pleading climax, then the timpani returns. Following an important contribution from muted trumpet, Pettersson takes us to the song.

Unlike this work’s predecessor, the Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, Pettersson sets up the song beautifully and effectively. The strings pull back in dynamic, a brief rocking gesture is played, and the lower strings climb briefly upwards. The second violins then take the song, with painfully beautiful accompaniment from the other strings. The song heard here has a deep sense of yearning and is far more strained when compared to the original piano/vocal incarnation.

A driving figure from low violas (based on the opening pitch set) rudely interrupt. The second violins try the song again, up a half step, this time considerably more strident. The triplets continue to harass the song. The first violins take up the melody, an octave higher. Although the song leads this section, the orchestra here is an antagonizing force. Listen to the lick played by muted trumpets, which comes back constantly. Violins try to soar, but the music drops back into the lower registers of the orchestra. Cellos and violins play this falling three-note gesture, suggesting catharsis (Ab-F-E), but it is way too soon. A brief passage for solo violin is heard, along with the trumpet lick. The music reaches a peak, led by brass, but then stops.

Oboes play the opening pitch set, opening the next section, kind of an interlude. Ghostly false harmonics from the first violins follows. The song is heard again, seeming a little more fragmented. A solo violin comes in, accompanying the song. A solo flute comes in, joined by other woodwinds. Seemingly out of nowhere, the music quickly becomes agitated.
Clangorous A major chords by the strings (without basses), played in their upper registers in a repeated rhythm take over. Trombones enter with the song. Timpani provide accents on the second beat (3/4 time here). Horns play the opening pitch set, transposed, and the repeated A major chords recede, but the rhythm continues in the violas, cellos, and snare drum, this time in the background and in a minor. Double basses begin the drive the music forward. The trombones play the song again, leading to a real moment: a big F# major chord, but in the first inversion (A# in the bass). The repeated rhythm returns again, but with a twist: the first beat is absent. Trombones play the opening pitch set. Horns then lead us to a major arrival at C major.

Flutes and piccolo play the opening pitch set. After a brief dreamy section, brass lead a crescendo to a series of ascending chords, accentuated by percussion. Most of the orchestra then pulls back, bassoons play a queasy lick alternating between C Major/minor, and we come back to the interlude-like music. The song comes back, played by first violins, while cellos play a long and beautiful countermelody, ridiculously exposed and in an obscenely high register. The music seems to be opening up, arriving at C major on a few occasions, but we still have a ways to go.

After a brief passage featuring solo strings, a storm comes in, featuring another variation of the insistent rhythm. Trumpets lead here. The music builds up to a massive Eb minor chord. This is probably the most overtly tragic part of the piece. An almost romantic gesture follows in the strings: Bb-Gb-F, Bb-F-Eb. This gesture is repeated, now in a low register. The storm returns, along with the insistent rhythm. Trumpets lead again, this time muted. Another storm wave follows, again with the rhythm, this time the romantic gesture is the main material. The music strains for what appears to be A major, but a single chord on open G and D in the violins cuts this off.

Now we are at the approximate middle point of the symphony, where Pettersson takes us in a new direction. Almost everything we have heard up to this point has been in some kind of a triple meter, 3/8, 3/2, etc. Now Pettersson changes the meter to 2/2, a very common time signature in his output. A cymbal crash and insistent, motoric eighth notes from cellos and basses, with additional push from timpani, drives the music powerfully forward. Buckle your seat belts; we’re going for a fast ride through a terrifying landscape. A long line from the first violins serves as our guide. The cymbal crashes continue to come at regular intervals. More instruments enter the landscape. The eighths stop, replaced by triplet runs in the lower strings and woodwinds. The triplet runs become sixteenths. The violins continue to lead, with important contributions from muted trumpet. Soon the violins will take up the insistent eighths, along with a falling chromatic lick from piccolo and clarinet. Listen to how the violins soar and scream over the turbulent landscape. Although I described this music as “terrifying,” it really is exciting and pretty damn cool.

Although it was a fast ride, we don’t seem to go any major destination. Rather, the music just pulls back. The horns soar briefly and try to take us to some kind of summit, but the music doesn’t really take off. The opening pitch set takes over in basses, contrabassoon, and tuba, in broad note values (half note triplets). Syncopated brass chords climb towards something. We arrive at a minor (as in A-C-E)—a bit of a surprise. There is a real sense of strain here as the music tries to push forward, but feels severely restricted. G-D and F-C alternate constantly in the bass. The opening pitches return, first in upper woodwinds, then strings, and back to strings. Timpani and brass take us to what seems to be a real arrival point, but rather, we get a typically Petterssonian string chorale, upper register and very strained. A gentle rhythmic figure, based on quarter note triplets, enters the landscape. A beautiful fragment of a melody, played by first violins along with upper woodwind commentary, is heard. The music builds in intensity until a brass fanfare arrives, hinting at the upcoming “battle call.” Soon it is strings again, leading up to a flicker of C major which is quickly left behind as we come to what feels like an apotheosis—a corrupted C major chord (listen to the Db) emphatically played by brass, with violins, then horns, playing a falling three-note lick which seems to create a sense of finality. A held low C in the bass instruments leads to the next, final section.

Pettersson now makes the final push to the end. Low strings play the opening pitches broadly (half notes) while ponticello second violins play the same pitches in quarter note triplets, sometimes like the beginning, in retrograde, on in varied groups of three pitches. First violins accompany with harmonics. We are next taken to a very brief reverie, painful, almost nostalgic. The falling gesture E-G-F# reminds me of the Symphony No. 6. Ascending triplet runs from lower strings (using the opening pitch set, transposed) shake us out and throw us back to reality. A “battle call,” if you will, of two sets of triplets followed by an eighth and dotted quarter, is introduced by the trumpets. The ascending triplet runs and the battle call trade off. The music gradually builds up momentum, until we reach such a fury that it appears that the music is going over the edge. Listen to the absolutely maniacal, delirious horns as they pump out the triplet runs, both ascending and in retrograde. The music tries to break, as Pettersson hints at B major, but unison percussion and skydiving horns dispel this notion. Rather than taking us to a final apotheosis, Pettersson pulls back, giving us the opening pitch set broadly played by violins, with commentary from the battle call. 

The music slowly climbs purposefully until the clouds break and we arrive at a radiant F# major. We have finally reached the top, but as expected with Pettersson, nothing comes easy. The music is strained and tonally unstable, still striving. We next arrive at an emphatic e minor. Reinforced with timpani, snare drum, and cymbal, the strings (without basses), in their stratosphere registers, play a truly terrifying, anguished chord (listen to the high C!). What Pettersson does next to take us to the final, concluding chord of this work is absolutely magical, if that word can be used to describe Pettersson. Following the anguished chord, strings and low brass morph into E major. However, this resolution lasts very briefly, as Pettersson now begins to unravel the music, disintegrating it. Violins play the progression C-Db-Eb-F two times, a musical expression of exhaustion. Over quietly grinding dissonances (A/Ab, G/Gb, B/C in a quasi-C major context), the music sort of falls, gently but uncomfortably into C major. Listen to how the high B harmonics in the violins clash with the piccolo holding a C, and how the Db holds on to the very end before finally giving up, allowing a pure C major chord to emerge. Disturbing, unsettling, but the only way this work can conclude.

One reviewer on aptly described this final chord as “chilling.” While I hear the core of this chord firmly based in the lower register, there is really no consolation or resolution when we arrive here, despite the chord’s seeming (in my opinion) inevitability. I think of this as almost the antithesis to the final C major chords of the first movement of the Symphonie Fantasique, where the protagonist seems to find peace.

As BIS has not recorded this work, I eagerly await Christian Lindberg’s take on it (and live performance, I hope!).

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