Friday, December 21, 2012

Symphony No. 1 (1951-)

Up until very recently, the Symphony No. 1 was one of the great mysteries of this amazing composer. Pettersson left the score incomplete at his death but was apparently tinkering with it throughout his lifetime. He forbade performance of the sketches during his lifetime, but did not disown the work like other composers who reject their early efforts. His next symphony was a bona fide Symphony No. 2, thus suggesting that Pettersson found enough merit in these sketches to leave them as his Symphony No. 1

Pettersson began work on the Symphony No. 1 in 1951, which puts it the in the period of his Seven Sonatas, Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra, and his studies in Paris with Leibowitz. A number of theories have been put forth as to why Pettersson never completed the work: it may be possible that at the time Pettersson’s compositional abilities were not quite at the level to fully realize the ideas he had, or he just wanted to get around to his Symphony No. 2, which the Swedish Radio commissioned from him in 1952. You can learn more about this from the excellent liner notes and, even better, the DVD documentary which is included in the BIS recording. 

Throughout this survey I have always tried to make my opinions clear on each work in question, but as with every unfinished work, personal opinions in such a context must be taken with a grain of salt. We have no idea how close or far Pettersson was in achieving his final thoughts, and there is certainly a degree of wandering, of fragmentedness, to this work. When listening, we know pretty much right away that this is a Pettersson work; the obsessive usage of just a handful of ideas, the neurotic and twisted images which are found in the Symphony No. 2, the brief glimpses of sunshine through a dark sky.  We hear him doing things which foreshadow much later works, as well as things which he seems to do only once in this symphony and never again. 

For about the first 60% of this symphony, it really does feel like it is part of a finished work. In my opinion there is a clear sense of direction and purpose, ideas flow into each other “logically,” if not jarringly (by early Pettersson standards, of course). I would even make the argument that Pettersson sounds confident here, if not as a symphonic composer certainly as an orchestrator. 

At around 17 minutes (the sketches last around 30 minutes) Pettersson quotes his Barefoot Song, Min Längtan (My Longing), a tragic oasis of calm. From this point onwards, the work starts to lose direction, and the degree of completion clearly begins to thin out. You can hear Pettersson struggling with what to do next and how to tie it together. 

Nevertheless, a huge thanks to Christian Lindberg and his assistants (watch the DVD!) for putting together a performing version from Pettersson’s sketches. While this is definitely not the final product, what we do have is certainly compelling and quite effective, sometimes emotionally devastating, and another (albeit incomplete) piece to the Pettersson puzzle. Let’s get to the music then.

Similar to his mature efforts, almost immediately Pettersson gives us most, if not all of the material he will work with. A slow half-step fall (F-E) from lower strings sets up a chamber music trio between bassoon, flute, and oboe. The bassoon enters on E-G, the flute F-Ab. Immediately, a tension is established with minor seconds and the ambiguity of major-minor, which was already explored in the Barefoot Songs. Our woodwind guides lead us briefly through a meandering forest, before the entrance of violins, climbing tentatively and chromatically upwards.

Bassoon, oboe, and flute return, accompanying a viola solo. Violins return and the music becomes agitated. A percussion-led build-up, foreshadowing the Symphony No. 7, doesn’t quite reach a climax, but gives way to an oboe solo. A sense of expectancy comes over, suggesting that the first build-up was just a glimpse of what to come. Another percussion buildup, a slackening of tempo, leads to an arrival point, revealing bassoon, oboe, and flute, reminding us of the chamber music heard at the beginning.

A bridging passage sets up a rather nervous section marked by stabbing strings, somewhat sardonic oboes, and snare drum. Careening downward string glissandi, pushing the music forward in section which sounds like it is getting frustrated with itself (listen to the obsessive C-Eb in the lower register), lead to a brief but truly eruptive climax. However, the sense of expectation continues; soon we hear another eruptive, brass-lead climax, featuring sounds which I don’t think Pettersson ever really gives us again in the rest of his career. 

A timpani swell leads to a nervous, neurotic passage for woodwinds, featuring large leaps. Low brass enter, along with grinding minor seconds from the violins. The music fades away, led by a confused horn solo, but is roused immediately with a timpani roll. More chamber music for woodwinds follows. Violins and snare drum enter, trying to agitate the music. Brief trumpet calls punctuate the landscape. 

The music arrives at a strained eb minor, but D and C naturals in the violins quickly destabilize the tonality. Some very jagged violin writing highlight Pettersson’s major/minor ambiguity. A nocturnal passage follows, woodwinds guiding, with shuddering sounds from muted brass. A brief burst of activity, then the music moves into another direction.

Angular writing and downward slithering string glissandi are featured prominently in the following section. The music builds to a brief climax, with timpani foreshadowing the opening storm heard in the Symphony No. 14. Pettersson builds up to what seems to be another climax, but backs off before going over the edge. The third time’s a charm here; pounding timpani and fluttering brass, sliding downward, make up the climax here. However, Pettersson moves right on, a trombone glissando leads to the next section. 

Fragments from of the opening are heard, briefly led by solo viola, but Pettersson cuts it off with rude muted brass chords. Pettersson hints back to the opening woodwind chamber music, but there is a clear sense of expectation in the background. Trumpet and snare drum along with downward string glissandi, the slightest shudder from ponticello strings, transition to a twisted, writhing dance, led by violas. 

As the dance music disappears into the shadows, solo strings take up the reigns to guide us through the next section. More woodwind chamber music follows, leading to a transitional solo horn passage. Tremolo strings accompanying solo horn and trombone sets up a strained eb minor cadence, but Pettersson throws in major/minor ambiguity with the solo clarinet which follows.

A virtuosic solo violin, accompanied by viola, transition to high woodwinds. Glassandi string pizzicati lead to the next passage, featuring a solo clarinet and flute lightly accompanied by violin pizzicati. Suddenly a demented circus appears: snarling, muted brass accompany an unhinged, piercing clarinet solo. The circus disappears in a sea of ponticello strings. 

The clouds break as the music calms down. Lower strings suggest c minor tonality, but as the upper strings make their shimmering, tiered entrances, the tonality shifts to major. However, the lower strings bring in Db and Eb, and a stabbing entrance from violins on B/Cb push the tonality to eb minor. A beautiful clarinet solo follows, but a G natural keeps the major/minor ambiguity in place. 

We have now reached the tragic oasis of this work. Accompanied only by a solo cello, playing held open strings, a solo horn quotes the Barefoot Song, Min Längtan. From this point on, the music begins to sound increasingly fragmented and incomplete.

Leaving this oasis the music sounds as if it is slowing waking up, but this being Pettersson some rude-sounding muted brass help the process along. We move into a forest of some pretty busy contrapuntal writing featuring largely strings and woodwinds. A brief downward run from a solo violin, answered by  a solo trumpet introduces a quasi-fugal section for strings which sounds like it could have been a lost fragment from one of the string concertos. Virtuosic passages abound for solo violin and viola are found throughout, sometimes in dialogue with each other. 

Quasi bell-like woodwinds accompany a brief line for violas. By now the music has clearly thinned out in texture, and one gets the clear feeling that here Pettersson had only sketched a fraction of the lines he intended to have in the finished product. Some very busy contrapuntal writing is introduced by cellos, which is then spread to other sections of the orchestra. Listen to the solo trumpet buried in the texture. 

The busy contrapuntal writing for cellos returns, leading to bass pizzacati. Horns and woodwinds enter, but this seems more like an accompanimental figure for something else Pettersson planned on putting in. More busywork for cellos (and basses) serves as a bridging passage to the next section, where the tritone and fifth are key intervals.  We’re down to fragments now: a solo oboe, then arpeggios in violins. Contrapuntal violins accompany a solo bassoon, with punctuations from oboes. A short progression by horns and the piece (or at least the sketches) come to an end.

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