Saturday, September 15, 2012

Symphony No. 16 (1979)

For some reason I have always found that the saxophone really does not sit comfortably in the western classical orchestra. It just sort of seems like an oil and water combination to me. Despite this opinion, some of my favorite orchestral works feature the saxophone: Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 9, for example. Ravel’s Bolero, Tubin’s Symphony No. 6, and Gershwin’s American in Paris also feature the saxophone, although it must be said that there is a clear jazz influence in these pieces, and the saxophone is completely at home in jazz music. 

This takes us to the present work, the Symphony No. 16, Pettersson’s final completed symphony, and his final completed work, if you consider the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra to be incomplete. Pettersson wrote this 24 minute piece at breakneck speed in May-August 1979 in response to a request from the American saxophonist Frederick L. Hemke, who asked the composer if he would be interested in writing a piece for the saxophone. Instead of a reply, the composer sent Hemke the score of this work. The symphony was premiered on 24 February 1983 (according to the Konserthuset website) by Hemke with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Yuri Ahronovitch. This work was even taken on an American tour in 1984 with these same forces, through cities big and small. 

The first time I listened to this work I tossed it into the “curious, but not entirely convincing” pile. After this latest reassessment I’m afraid to say that I feel pretty much the same way, perhaps partly because of my no-saxophone-in-orchestra bias. Maybe if Pettersson had taken the same material and wrote a symphony without a solo instrument it might have been more successful. Given the speed at which Pettersson wrote this work and his unfamiliarity with the saxophone (more on this one later), it might be possible that he just couldn’t put together a more emotionally and musically convincing package given these circumstances. 

The symphony opens with a snare drum roll and a brief but emphatic horn call, somewhat reminiscent of the last movement of Shotakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2. A brief echo from piccolo and upper woodwinds leads to slashing violin chords, over motoric lower strings. The saxophone now makes its first entrance. It soon becomes apparent that the idea of thirds, both major and minor, will play a key role in developing the work’s material. I’m also detecting this climbing gesture, heard for the first time as E-A#-D-G#. The first “movement” of the symphony feels like a fantasia on these ideas—while pretty exciting (featuring some truly diabolical saxophone writing), it feels a bit like a storm that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Big difference when compared to the Symphony No. 10, with its very clear sense of purpose. 

A solo violin gently restates the saxophone’s opening theme, leading us to the beautiful slow “movement” of the symphony. While this music is unmistakably Pettersson, to my ears there is a slight whiff of Villa-Lobos in it, a certain melancholy which sounds more like the Brazilian master. The interval of the third is prominently featured in the saxophone line. Gentle forward movement appears in the violins; a string of quietly galloping triplets. With a change to 3/2 the music stays in the same tempo but broadens in feeling. A beautiful arrival on B major quickly morphs to minor. Gentle pizzacati in the lower strings and soaring woodwinds bring us back to Villa-Lobos land. The music briefly becomes agitated, but calms back down quickly. An accelerando brings increases the intensity, followed by an allargando, strained, leading back to Tempo I and the third “movement.”

This “movement” could roughly be divided into two parts. In the first part, Pettersson whips up quite a storm, featuring his typical contrapuntal density and repeated-note motives. Once the storm passes and the orchestral textures thin out, the music assumes an elegiac character again, reminding me of the lyrical passages of the Symphonic Movement. Pettersson takes us to what seems like a V-I cadence in a minor, but moves us away and continues in this lyrical vein. We are soon taken again to an E major chord, again suggesting V in a minor, serving as the transition to the final “movement.”

Violins introduce a noodling chromatic idea, two sets of eighth note triplets filling the space of just a major second. The orchestral texture thickens quickly and soon this idea dominates the landscape. The soloist, however, does not play this idea. A point of arrival is announced by the soloist, wailing away on the theme of the slow movement. The orchestra backs down (but remains very active) to allow the soloist to sing the same theme more gently. As the music becomes agitated the soloist now takes up the noodling chromatic idea. 

We reach the real apotheosis of the work: accented by percussion, low brass play four ascending, syncopated chords in unison rhythm. The soloist responds with wild sixteenth-note runs and repeated pitches. The theme from the slow movement is heard again, shouted out by the saxophone. Low brass play four syncopated chords in unison rhythm, again accented by percussion, but this time descending. The soloist tries one more time to bring the music into the frenzy, with a final recapitulation of the opening theme, but now the music has begun the process of fading away to the gentle conclusion. 

The final pages of this work are scored for saxophone and strings only. An elegiac character comes over the music, maybe even lullaby-like. I’m reminded again of the Symphonic Movement here. The music does pick up some forward movement here; listen to the sextuplets and triplets. A single group of eighth note triplets followed by three quarters becomes an insistent rhythmic idea, leading us to the end. The final bars oscillate between A minor and major. The soloist’s final note is a C natural, suggesting minor, but the final, gentle chord is A major. 

Although Pettersson still had more to say with the short time left of his life (the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra was for the most part completed, and he was working on his Symphony No. 17), the Symphony No. 15, seems like a much more satisfying and poignant conclusion to Pettersson’s compositional life. At least in terms of last symphonies of the 20th century, there’s something beautiful and transcendent about the last symphonies of Shostakovich, Schnittke, Vaughan Williams, and of course, Sibelius and Mahler (if you count them as being 20th century). At the end of the Symphony No. 15, Pettersson saw the light, blinding, but in the Symphony No. 16, I’m not sure what he was trying to say. 

I hear more of “the end” in the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, but that is an entry for another time. Soon.

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