Thursday, August 15, 2013

Guest blog entry, Alun Francis

Dear Friends,

As most of you know, Alun Francis is the most prolific Pettersson conductor on record, having recorded 9 of the symphonies for CPO using various orchestras. Despite the tremendous challenges of this music and the different ensembles involved, Francis and his bands consistently delivered the goods. Imagine the Pettersson discography if it was not for this man's tremendous efforts, of which all of us as Pettersson enthusiasts are eternally grateful.

Well, you can count on me to not disappoint you, oh Pettersson enthusiasts. Similar to Robert von Bahr, I asked Francis if he would be willing to write a piece for this blog in time for Pettersson's 100th birthday. Although I received a positive response, I didn't hear anything until I asked him again a few weeks ago. This time around, we got a piece, and another enlightening one it is. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you Maestro Francis for taking the time to write this! Without further adieu...

Because of my interest in lesser known (or even forgotten) composers I've often been asked to perform or to record the music of composers who have either been forgotten or willfully ignored. So who even got the idea to ask me to take a look at the music of Pettersson? That was of course Burkhard Schmilgun of CPO. At the time that I first met him he was playing in the 2nd violins of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie where I had just been appointed Principal Conductor. We would talk about the various composers I had chosen to perform and I found him to be an extremely knowledgeable musician. At one stage I even tried to persuade him to conduct, for he certainly had the aptitude. 

At another time I was conducting the music of Ernst Krenek with our orchestra at some festivals in Austria and I invited Mr. Schmilgun to listen in on my discussions with Krenek. (Burkhard was also writing and speaking on music for a local radio station). After I had performed his music in Vienna, Krenek apparently told his American wife that, should his lost 4th Symphony (1947) ever be found, I should be the one to bring it to the public's attention. That did in fact happen when the work was found after Krenek's death.

Burkhard Schmilgun went on to become the director, artists and repertoire of the recording company CPO and, as I wrote, it was he who got me interested in Pettersson.

Reading through the scores of his symphonies (half of which were written by hand, presumably by the composer) I was struck by the trichotomy of his musical language. There seemed to me to be three elements in his music, each one fighting to gain prominence. It was only after I read about Pettersson's childhood that I understood why.

I will digress for a moment and suggest that any musician wishing to interpret the true message and spirit of a composer would be at a serious disadvantage without knowing about their background and childhood. If you don't know about Brahm's early life in the slums of Hamburg you will find it difficult to explain his relatively antisocial attitude to many people in Vienna, especially high society ladies. You will find it especially hard to understand his steadfast holding to the rules of structure. Bruckner, Mozart, Beethoven etc., all have stories to tell and that by just "enjoying" their music , you are missing out half of the reasons why they wrote as they did.

This is proven beyond question when it comes to the three major elements that govern Pettersson's works: Banality, Religion and Strife, which only occasionally find relief or peace of mind.

1) Banality. Petterson's father was an alchoholic and the young Allan Pettersson was brought up in one of the poorest areas of Stockholm where alcohol and prostitution were the currency of the day.

2) Religion. Pettersson's mother was a devout Christian and a very active member of the "Salvation Army" the folk harmonies used in their songs appear in every single one of his symphonies. They had become an integral part of his musical language.

3) The Strife that these two opposites caused in the young Allan are so clear to see in his music if you know them to be there. 

(Most of these facts are now on the internet, but at the time I started to study his music, most of my colleagues hadn't even heard of him).

I suppose there might be an extra problem to add to the above, especially around and certainly after his 5th Symphony. His arthritis was truly crippling. I've seen a film of him trying to get downstairs from his apartment to the street. If you can get to see it, it will bring tears to your eyes, as it did to mine. 

Just to know these facts about his life will already make the listener more aware of the tensions under which he existed.

It is inevitable that, partly through his nature, especially after he became ill and partly by the rejection he suffered for most of his life, that he was often not the easiest person in the world and he was not liked, especially in his home city of Stockholm. 

In the nineties whilst conducting both the big orchestras in Stockholm I often brought up the name of Pettersson and it was almost always greeted by either silence or sarcasm. Opinions are hard to change. But to be fair to my colleagues, I had been partly responsible for the resurrection of someone they had rejected.

Do orchestras like performing his music? Most certainly not. As an ex-orchestral musician I am used to hearing comments but in the case of Pettersson, orchestral musicians in different countries would often come up to me in the coffee break and ask me why I even bothered.

Well bothered I did, and I'm not sorry.

Alun Francis.

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