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Thanks guys, I wasn't expecting this at all. In addition to (slowy) moving through the rest of the orchestral works I hope to post up concert updates here as well, as the new orchestral seasons are being announced around this time.
Saturday, March 3, 2012
Yet another sheepish apology for the delay. It is hard to find time these days…
As a new Pettersson fan in the late 90s I was very excited to learn about the existence of the Symphony No. 12. Here was a massive choral-orchestral work which would bear Pettersson’s unique musical style along with a message communicated in words. At this time, I was a fan of the choral-orchestral excesses such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and 8, and I was hoping to find something somewhat similar, but of course distinctly Petterssonian. As the University of Wisconsin library did not have the RSPO/Larsson recording, I dutifully made use of WorldCat and was able to get my hands on a recording pretty quickly through interlibrary loan.
After a handful of listens to this work I put it aside as I never really felt like I had penetrated the many challenges this work posed. This time around, after many rounds of listening, with score, I still find this work to be very elusive. At least on the surface, there are not many clear musical ideas, motifs, or gestures which tie the work together, save for the transitional gesture heard in the first few movements and the opening violin run and its resultant destination, which recurs several times throughout the work. The interval of a third is featured prominently as well, but not to the same obvious extent as in the Symphony No. 4.
In 1973 Pettersson received a commission from Uppsala University to compose a symphony for the University’s 500th anniversary celebrations. Along with the commission was a request to produce a work with “contemporary relevance in the broader sense.” For this work Pettersson decided to set the words of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. From the very little I know about Neruda’s history or his politics (and I will NOT get into politics on this blog!) it seems as though he was quite the outspoken communist and, at least for quite a while, a staunch supporter of Stalin.
For this work, Pettersson set the Swedish translation of nine poems from the fifth section of Neruda’s Canto general.
I. De döda på torget (The Dead on the Square)
II. Massakern (Massacre)
III. Nitratets män (The Men of Nitrate)
IV. Döden (Death)
V. Hur fanorna föddes (How Flags are Born)
VI. Jag kallar på dem (I Invoke Them)
VII. Fienderna (Enemies)
VIII. Här är de (They are Here)
IX. Alltid (Always)
Overall, the poems deal with the bloody history of the Chilean people and the continual struggle for justice. Shortly after Pettersson began work on this symphony the Chilean government, lead by socialist Salvador Allende Gossens, was overthrown in a coup. Pettersson, in order to avoid giving the impression that he is trying to make a direct political statement, provided a preface in the score. He discusses how his involvement in the symphony is not political, and that the names and events depicted in the poems are simply representative of a recurring “leitmotif” of human history, that of cruelty. The choral writing excludes solo parts, so that one speaks with the voice of the collective.
The Symphony No. 12 was premiered on 29 September 1977 by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Chorus along with the Academic Chamber Chorus of Uppsala, directed by Carl Rune Larsson.
The first poem, De döda på torget, is a reflection on the bloody history of Chile, and the suffering which did not spare any part of the country. To open the work Pettersson gives us a violin run, ascending frantically, accompanied by a percussion swell. Three brass chords, each of minor triads, take us to our destination of in c min. A lament of typically Petterssonian melody comes in, accompanied by fairly busy counterpoint in the bass. Flutes provide a countermelody. Tinkling celeste and an arpeggiated violin solo lead to the chorus’ first entrance, led by the tenors. As the chorus sings about the fallen from the past, the opening violin gesture returns. Parallel thirds dominate the choral writing as the text describes how the fallen are spread throughout the country. The opening violin gesture comes back again, this time followed by a recapitulation of the opening lament and accompanied by the chorus. A broken version of the opening violin gesture leads to a purely instrumental transitional section, dominated by a rhythmic gesture of two eighths followed by a half and a quarter.
The second poem, Massakern, begins with a description of how the fallen from the past were spread out through Chile, their locations unknown. The poem concludes with defiance and indignation: the fallen will rise again, and those responsible for the massacre in the square did not hide their crime. This movement begins in 3/4 time, a rather uncommon time signature in Pettersson’s symphonic output. The tenors open the movement, singing in parallel thirds, their rhythm in a 3 versus 2 clash with the meter. Cellos provide a mostly steady pizzicato beat, moving to violas, then to second violins. The first violins play a long, foreboding line. As the music intensifies, the snare drum becomes ever more present and insistent. The music reaches a climax, followed by rather dense contrapuntal swirling in the strings, accompanying the choir as they sing about the lost fallen who will rise again. Particularly memorable is the build-up in the section where the chorus repeats the first stanza, when C maj in the orchestra leads to pounding F#s in the timpani. Fragments from the transitional section found in the previous movement return.
The third poem, Nitratets män, to me sounds like an ode of sorts for those who toil away in the mines silently with little reward, while at the same time seeking to make others aware of the unforgiving work which is life for these people. The movement opens with parallel triads in the male voices, sort of reminiscent of the parallel diminished chords played by the trumpets in the Symphony No. 7. Over a nearly unbroken line of galloping triplets in the strings, the vocal line moves queasily upward, chromatically. High woodwinds whistle above in parallel thirds. 4-note blocks, of dotted quarters and usually ascending, is a particularly noticeable gesture here. The opening three notes of the movement return (three low repeated Es in the cellos) and the music takes a different direction. The endless triplets get slightly jammed with duples and tied notes. When the text discusses living in hell, the chorus slithers downward and the music reaches dark chugging section in the low strings. Octave leaps in the brass lift the music out. The rhythmic gesture which closed the previous two movements returns again.
In the next poem, Döden, I feel Pettersson really starts to hit his musical stride and the symphony is much more consistently engaging from this point onwards. From my understanding this poem deals with the murder of the Chilean people who simply sought justice or tried to aid their fellow man. Most of this movement is marked by an insistent rhythm played on the snare drum. Angular writing for the strings and high woodwinds along with muted snarls from the brass accompany the chorus. After a chorus-led climax the music calms down to a beautiful transitional passage which leads seamlessly into the next movement.
The fifth poem and movement, Hur fanorna föddes, is the shortest of the symphony. In this poem Neruda describes how the Chilean flag was born directly from the suffering of its people. Low brass and timpani provide a quiet anchor of a min, despite the chromatic meandering of the orchestra and chorus.
In the sixth poem, Jag kallar på dem, Neruda vows to continue the struggle of those who have fallen. Each stanza begins with a name, followed by a tribute. A falling xylophone gesture outlining a diminished chord, along with driving eighths in the violas and cellos set up the chorus’ entrance. As the names of the fallen are invoked, Pettersson employs fairly level choral writing over rather busy counterpoint in the lower strings. The violins play an endless line. Occasionally trumpets interject with a falling chromatic line. The choral writing becomes extremely jagged as the chorus swears to continue the struggle. The orchestra follows suit with an angular transitional passage, which calms down into one of Pettersson’s most tragically beautiful passages, where the chorus invokes one more time the names of the fallen.
Another jagged passage for high woodwinds, heavy on tritones, sets up the next movement, Fienderna. Here Neruda is demanding justice for those responsible for killing the innocent. You can really feel a sense of rage and indignity in the text, and Pettersson provides music which suitably reflects these emotions. A particularly memorable section of this movement features horns and trumpets, fluttering upwards, while timpani pound below, seething with anger. Also listen to the canonic writing for chorus, starting from high to low, as punishment is demanded for the perpetrators. The opening tritone-heavy gesture returns in the upper strings, followed by a passage of relative calm. The music builds up again, the violin lick which opens the symphony returns, followed by another burst of rage, led by horns and trumpets. The tritone gesture comes back one more time, leading to the transition to the next movement.
In the penultimate poem, Här är de, Neruda reminds us that the struggle for justice continues, and reminders of this struggle will be found everywhere. This idea nicely sets up the text of the last movement (see below). In this brief movement Pettersson gives us music of considerable strain. Strings and snare drum play this insistent gesture of two sixteenths and an eighth, giving the music sort of a nervous drive. A climbing brass gesture, moving through trombones, horns, and trumpets is heard between choral verses. The upper strings repeat this climbing gesture before the strained lament, led by strings again, which forms the transition to the last movement.
The final poem, Alltid, is my favorite movement of the work and has a deeply moving message and equally powerful music to accompany it. I get goosebumps every time I think about or listen to this music. Here Neruda says that the voices of the fallen will never be silenced, and when the day of justice finally arrives, the fallen will be there as well. Tuba and low brass swells bring a call to attention; there is a clear sense of expectation. A rather virtuosic violin solo is featured in the following section, leading to a choral buildup, culminating in a quasi-Mahlerian major-minor resolution. The music moves into a dreamy section, featuring fourth-based harmonies. An interlude-like section transitions to the impressive final buildup, a march. The music comes in from the distance, with percussion and a sea of icy ponticello tremolos from the upper strings. Horns suggest that something ominous is approaching. The music continues its inexorable push, culminating in pounding Janacek-register timpani and a defiant Amaj-Cmaj chord progression. The opening violin lick returns one more time. The final push, led by trombones, resolves to a thunderous f minor. The timpani forcefully interject a G, imposing a dominant which resolves to an equally thunderous C maj, with the chorus screaming the word “day,” full of rage and defiance.
I think any Pettersson enthusiast will tell you that if you’re new to Pettersson the Symphony No. 12 is probably not the best place to start. Although with a somewhat surface study of the score I am beginning to get a grasp on how Pettersson has put this music together, I still think this work remains, for me at least, one of his most elusive scores. Nevertheless, without getting political here, the message of the music is quite powerful and moving. While I am guessing that Pettersson’s desire was to convey a universal message, I certainly think it is possible that this music also reflects, and gives voice to, Pettersson’s own struggle.
Posted by AP100 at 12:32 AM