Saturday, May 11, 2013

Guest blog entry: Jorge López (Part II)

Seven years separate the completion of Pettersson’s SIXTH from that of his ELEVENTH.  He had in this time experienced not only a remarkable success with the premiere of his now relatively well-known SEVENTH, but also a serious deterioration in his health that resulted in a nine-month hospital stay.  Recalling this experience, he wrote about what he called the “tunnel of death”.  His TENTH and ELEVENTH are said to have been jointly conceived during this period.  The TENTH is a hard, loud, and nasty fighting machine.  In the ELEVENTH, which (like the TENTH) unfolds only in fast tempos, life, faced with imminent death, flows rapidly through and down but not quite out the tunnel.  We can try to understand the frescoes and figures and graffiti on the tunnel’s walls.

Over the first measure one reads: half note = 80; (sempre cantato e un po’ agitato) = always lyrical and a bit agitated.  And we start in media res, not with a preparatory texture or with a theme or motivic cell, but with an immediately unfolding polyphonic field of gently intertwined ascending and descending lines.  A middle voice played by the cellos, rising from the E of their tenor register to their highest C, is marked in the score as soli, but is unfortunately not adequately emphasized in either of the two available CD recordings of this piece.  The modally inflected tonality of a minor is pretty clear.  Four before Fig. 2, the violas, doubled by the first flute, are once again marked soli, and play up to three after Fig. 4 something that certainly has the character of a theme being presented after a brief introduction.  The first and second violins are here muted, keeping their gently ascending or descending rhythmically even lines in the background.  Violas and flute: but the flute already splits off from the violas on the second note, playing D sharp against the violas’ F, then doubles in thirds for two measures before taking its own gently spiraling path.  The bifurcation of individual lines within a generally three- to six-part polyphonic texture is in this work not unusual, and sometimes the norm.

Four after Fig. 4, after the violas have finished singing out their emblematic theme-like song, (which we will hear again only at the very end of the piece) we hear ascending and descending tissue from the opening measures, which then at Fig. 5 receives a new impulse from the syncopated figure of the oboes.  Agitated syncopated figures move up and down, while the violas and then the cellos play a line that seems to belong to the string quartet literature somewhere between Beethoven and Reger.  Let’s note the interlocking of the basses, cellos, and contrabassoon on the upbeat to three before Fig. 6: a single voice turns into dirty heterophony, not uncommon in this piece.  Important as well is the cell played by the first violins in the two measures before Fig. 6: expanded, it will later wave like a flag in the wind.  Two before Fig. 7, the piccolo, marked “solo”, suggests the beginning of the pseudotheme that we had recently heard from the violas.  But this pseudotheme has no dominant status:  four-note figures in quarter- or eighth note movement move up and down, are intensified through expanded orchestration (including the new timbre of the celesta), rock back and forth on the tritone B—F natural, and then, four before Fig. 10, settle into a fast eighth-note pulsation on the fourth F—B flat.
Basses, timpani, and low woodwind persistently pulse on this fourth up to two before Fig. 12.  Overlaid on this background are not only the shifting four-note motivic cells that dominate much of this work, often imitated and mirrored in not-too-exact mirrors, but also, starting two before Fig. 10,  a figure beginning with a D flat—D flat octave leap, played successively by the first and second violins, violas, and cellos.  This octave creature will get prominent intensely canonic exposure towards the end of the work.

One before Fig. 14, we meet a new creature: a rhythmically aggressive motif played by the low strings and then immediately imitated by the horns, counterpointed by dactylic leaps and sighs of the violins and by an ascending somewhat permuted whole-tone scale of the first trombone.   The aggressive motif seems to have a “summoning” role and indirectly recalls the fanfare-like figure that appears at the beginning and then shapes much of the progress of the TENTH.  It soon gets hard to differentiate primary and secondary voices within this thicket of sound.  I don’t mean this in any negative sense.  The zone between polyphony and heterophony is a great place to explore.  But when I hear AP’s TENTH and ELEVENTH I sometimes think of the Rondo-Burleske movement from Mahler’s NINTH.  While Mahler, drawing upon his own experience as conductor, orchestrated with clear dynamic differentiations yielding an orchestral sound of intense plasticity, Pettersson often just gives us the prima materia without much dynamic differentiation, thereby making the task of conducting and properly realizing his music even more difficult.  A more differentiated structuring of dynamics could in my opinion have helped Pettersson better realize his intentions, even though the situation that voices MUST sometimes struggle to be heard seems to be an integral part of his artistic intention.
Up to Fig. 20, the fanfare-like figure appearing at Fig, 14 acts as the prime mover; then the music briefly seems to want to return to regular eighth note pulsation, as it did four before Fig. 10, this time in F major + minor.  Fast ascending figures recalling the openings of both the NINTH and TENTH symphonies soon stifle this, but by two before Fig. 22 we have entered a zone where a syncopated quarter-note pulsation alternating between E flat minor and the B flat—F fifth serves a backdrop for the rapid interlocking of motivic cells that freely interact and combine within the steady pulse.

This kind of activity begins to exemplify the fundamental texture of the ELEVENTH:  intensely polyphonic, fluid, deeply logical, but ultimately irrational, and slippery as an eel.  In his later symphonies 10-16 Pettersson achieves, far more than in his more widely appreciated symphonies 5-9, something close to a stream-of-consciousness kind of composition, something close to the surrealist écriture automatique.
Even more than in the case of the SIXTH, this brief seminar is not the place to get into every detail of this immensely complex score, which consistently unfolds at a more rapid pace than that of the earlier work.  But I do want to note the entrance of the xylophone at five after Fig. 26: an instrument that played an important role in the TENTH.  In the following measure, interlocking quintuplet eighth notes of two flutes and the first oboe, all in their low registers, laid over five other voices, show that Pettersson is pretty utopian about can be conveyed and heard.  I like this.  Two measures later, some woodwind experience a brief flashback to the very beginning of the TENTH.  The mosaic is dense and its pieces are often small.
Two after 28, the basses begin to ground events by insistently plucking F natural.  F and B flat have established themselves as dominantic fields respective to the opening a minor.  When, at four before Fig. 30, the timpani begin to double the F of the basses, I begin to get the feeling of a soft shamanistic drum, perhaps ultimately related to Sibelius’ En saga.  Persistent throughout this passage, found in many voices, is the little rhythmic cell: eighth rest—eight note—two slurred descending eighth notes, recalling “sighing” motifs of the Baroque, drawn into a hyperactive but hushed motoric movement. 

The passage beginning four before Fig. 33 is the most complex and intense tutti that we have up to now heard in the piece.  All three trumpets, the first trombone, and the cellos play a broad motif ultimately derived from the figure of the first violins in the two measures before Fig. 6.  Vastly extended, it does now waves “like a flag in the wind” over a complex texture.  The ascending and then descending figure played by tuba and contrabassoon, D—F—B—E—A flat—E—B—F, will prove significant in the further unfolding of the work, but (apart from the just-mentioned “flag”) no less than SIX distinct lines, as well as several accompanying or semi-decorative structures, compete for attention.  The composer’s intentions have here utopian aspects that could however be fairly well realized with a spatial distribution of the orchestra or with the changing amplification of different groups.
After Fig. 35, this field is closed by octave F’s of the timpani and by the descending figure A flat—G—F—E, played by two trombones under an emphatically F minor statement by cellos, piccolo, and first violins, soon answered by an emphatically ascending scalar figure of the oboes and clarinets.  But fluidity lasts only four measures before being curtly intersected by the soft persistent motoric eighth-note tapping of trombones and horns, A flat and C in octaves, underlined by the timpani’s roll on the tonic F of F minor.  Pettersson does not present contrasting thematic ideas, but rather alternates fields of ungrounded polyphonic fluidity with fields where the proliferating self-generating diverging lines play out over clear groundings that don’t slow down but sometimes rather accelerate the velocity of the lines’ bacteria-like asexually reproductive proliferation.  Starting at four after Fig. 36, there is some remarkable writing for the basses, with independently eruptive crescendi to ff, perhaps recalling a detail from the last movement of Sibelius’ FIFTH.  From 5 after Fig. 38 to four after Fig. 39 these basses work out the previously mentioned baroque-like figure in their highest register, whereby the dynamic could perhaps not be just piano as written in the score, but rather incorporate waves of p<ff>p.  Or are the written dynamics in this passage perhaps the perfect statement of the composer’s intention: everything soft, the rapid interplay of fragile interlocking memories as we slide along and down the tunnel?
Four after Fig. 40 F minor is clearly there, A flat and C being rhythmically animated by the three trombones and tuba, locked in with the F of the timpani, always piano, rapidly flowing and hushed.  We hear a stream of self-generating polyphony, slippery as an eel, gleefully self-absorbed, a glass bead game played out after the aggressive discharge of the TENTH.  Interjections on the part of the celeste, like little jewels or sunlit beads of dew, contribute to the specific color of this passage.

Four before Fig. 48, just after a last interjection of the softly thumping F minor pedal node, the texture suddenly clears a bit, but there is no fundamental change.  The two clarinets, imitated by contrabassoon and fourth horn (two bass Wagnertuben might work better) play a line once again recalling Sibelius’ En saga, whereby the clarinets then diverge, being joined by the first violins playing in harmonics two octaves higher.  Four before Fig. 49 the contrabassoon and then the tuba begin to insistently repeat the ascending-then-descending motif that we first noted around Fig. 33.  Two before Fig. 54, doubled in speed, after an increase of density and dynamics, this bass motif has clearly taken on the role of driving force and primary voice, spreading its register through the participation of the piccolo three octaves higher, while the upper strings, moving in five-part polyphony mostly in even half notes, pushed on now and then by the tenor drum, seem to in be searching in the course of their tired long march for a point of cadential repose. 

Two before Fig. 57, over continuous five-part string polyphony, an insistent rhythmic figure that has connections back to patterns that were played by the low strings pizzicato starting at two after Fig. 15 is repeated six times by brass and timpani.  This insistence is leading to some kind of change—and two before Fig. 59 we find the very first tempo change in the piece: stringendo.  Woodwind thirds reminiscent of a motoric passage about 15 minutes into the NINTH, playing against a three-voice string counterpoint, speed up to the tempo whole note = 56.  Up to two after Fig. 66, we experience the most homogenous, aggressive, and clearly goal-directed phase heard so far in the piece.  Eighth note triplet squirming begun by the basses comes to occupy more and more of the orchestral apparatus.  Between Fig. 64 and Fig. 66 we hang in the air, as ascending and descending figures, partly with canonic imitations, cross and intersect.  The plucked basses are playing the cell introduced by the first trombone at Fig. 14.  “Unmotivated” motivic connections over wide spaces of time are for this work typical.  We stand on the lookout and turn our heads: in the unconscious time and space are relative, and all elements are simultaneously present.

What begins three after Fig. 66 contains the most intense and aggressive buildup in the piece.  The emphatic rhythmic figure begun by cellos, basses, tuba, and tenor drum, gradually joined by other instruments, will be repeated fifteen times.  It is a descended from what the brass played at two before 57, and is at first counterpointed by ascending two-note groups in the woodwinds that recall the first pages of the TENTH.  In its insistence, this motif seems to me to have the character of a political slogan, rhythmically shouted in a mass demonstration.  It may look forward to the choral TWELFTH, whose text is taken from Pablo Neruda’s Los Muertos de la Plaza.  Like the “epiphany” chorale theme in the SIXTH, this idea appears only once in the work, and as in the case of the SIXTH seems to represent a determining experience or situation that can by its nature ONLY occur once.  The orchestral crowd shouts and stamps, while the xylophone (so prominent in the TENTH) stubbornly hammers away on octave E naturals, adamantly opposed to the main tonalities.  Between Fig. 69 and Fig. 70, the music slows down, returning to the symphony’s basic tempo half note = 80.

One before Fig. 73, as the fifteenth repetition of the slogan breaks off, virtually every listener has the feeling of experiencing an archetypical recapitulation.  But what low woodwind, bass trombone, and tuba pompously intone here is no principal or even secondary idea of the piece, but rather just a tangential thought, that which was played in canonic structures by the strings starting at two before Fig. 54.  But very soon, by Fig. 74, ideas of recapitulation have been deflected.  Sighing figures and pulsating string patterns, over softly insistent percussion pulsation, are overlaid by two-voice polyphony of the first violins and upper woodwind.  Three after Fig. 76, sixteenth notes (with the xylophone) begin to animate the texture, and one after 73 the celesta (so important in this work) once again joins in.  This field intensifies in accordance with already established norms, and then breaks off abruptly one measure after Fig. 83.
Or better stated, in cinematic terms: we cut to the strings’ self-examination in mirrors.  At first, the first and second violins, both divided, canonically imitate figures derived from what we first heard long ago, shortly after Fig. 5.  When, starting at one before Fig. 84, divided violas and then divided cellos canonically imitate (in inversion) the octave leap figure that we first heard two before Fig. 10 and have since then hardly heard and perhaps just barely recall, we can realize that we are in a later phase of life than that which was so intensely presented in the SIXTH, and that memories and images whose origins are widely separated in time can now freely collide and interact.  The eight-part rotating canonic tower of the strings—like a distant peak that one could have perhaps made out through the mists at the beginning of this SYMFONI no 11 trek—has by Fig. 91 not grown and intensified, but rather gradually wound its spirals back down to structures recalling those we heard long ago, between Fig. 5 and 6.

When at four before Fig. 92 the low woodwind reenter with the “tangential” figure that we heard at one before Fig. 73, the composer seems to hint that this figure was perhaps, even though tangential, essentially tangential to the symphony’s unknown, unknowable, and ultimately (while perhaps fleetingly experienced) unseen center.  We can spell it in German: C—H—A—B … it’s almost B—A—C—H.

Starting at two before Fig. 92, trombones and tuba play a slowed-down version of the prototype for the slogan.  At Fig. 93, horns in octaves bellow a figure ultimately derived from the rough calls heard at Fig. 14, a figure that will later experience a transformed return in the FIFTEENTH.  Then gently ascending and descending lines intertwine, clearly recalling the work’s opening.  As at two after Fig. 95 the violas, doubled by the clarinets and by the muted second and third trumpets, play the emblematic pseudotheme heard at four before Fig. 2, we can finally recognize this entity for what it is: the NAME of the symphonic creature, but not necessarily its essence.  Six measures after Fig. 95, one measure is significantly marked ritenuto, and voices split: the newly entered first trumpet, unmuted, clashes with A natural against the G sharp of the second and third, after which the music is driven by a quarter note timpani pulsation to an uneasy A minor ending.
WHAT DOES THIS PIECE MEAN?  WHERE DOES IT TAKE US?  About twelve years ago a well-known German conductor (who has been music director of a major Scandinavian orchestra) was staying with me as house guest.  I showed him the score and played him the Segerstam / Norrköping CD of the work.  He could only nod in puzzlement and say,schwer, darüber etwas zu sagen” (it’s hard to say something about this).
The participants in the seminar were generally impressed, but also somewhat puzzled by this work.

I can relate to the evident intensity of Pettersson’s creative process and find it remarkable that after a nine-month hospital stay with near-death experiences the metabolic rate of his music didn’t slow down but rather ACCELERATED: transitions are here (relative to the syntax prevalent in Symphonies 5-9) brief or nonexistent.  The music has taken on a higher degree of objectivity relative to the composer’s earlier work, and I can here follow Pettersson’s lapidary statement “I only present information”.  Transformations are often sudden.  In the case of the SIXTH, I was able to tag many ideas with names, as if they were Wagnerian Leitmotifs, unfolding and interactively transforming over longer stretches of experiential time.  In the ELEVENTH, lasting only 25 minutes, every idea is (at least theoretically) capable of suddenly interacting with every other idea.  Names aren’t needed: attractions are sudden and free, and there is little in the way of hierarchical order.

We talked at some length about why Allan Pettersson is still a relatively little-known composer.  Seen from a Viennese point of view, coming from Sweden certainly doesn’t help.  Those who are involved with what is called “Neue Musik” tend to automatically underestimate all works coming from England or the Scandinavian countries that are not explicitly oriented to central European thinking.  And for those with a more “conservative” orientation, the Scandinavian symphony consists of Sibelius and Nielsen and no one else.  Pettersson’s works are generally long and demanding, and those of the late period are quite difficult to convincingly play and conduct.  His way of writing for the orchestra certainly “works”, in that it conveys a powerful and unique characteristic sound, but his handling of the orchestra doesn’t have the virtuosity of, let’s say, Mahler.  His music has little or no connection to what was in his time referred to as the “avant-garde”, but it has a strongly individual character, demanding (and rewarding) concentrated listening.  In German one says “es gerät zwischen zwei Stühle”, which comes out in English roughly as “it falls through the cracks in the floor”. 

I hope that seminars like this can help to close the cracks and provide a small contribution towards giving this great and challenging composer of the second half of the twentieth century the recognition he so richly deserves.  But PERFORMANCES of the works are what we really need.

Wien, am 6. Mai 2013

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