Monday, July 23, 2012

Guest Blog Entry: Per-Henning Olsson

Dear Friends,

As always, having guest entries on this blog fills my heart with joy. Those of you in the Swedish Pettersson community most likely know Per-Henning Olsson, if not, you probably are familiar with him from his contributions to the excellent Pettersson documentary that was released with Christian Lindberg's recording of the Symphony No. 1. Mr. Olsson has also provided spoken introductions to each of the symphonies that Swedish Radio broadcasted during Pettersson's anniversary year. Anyways, without further yapping, I am very pleased to introduce Per-Henning Olsson, who has kindly written this entry on some of the available scholarly resources on Pettersson. Enjoy! 

What is left except the music? A comment on the sources of knowledge of Allan Pettersson and his music.

Allan Pettersson was a loner. He was isolated, partly self-chosen. As a younger composer he wanted to keep himself to himself. But later on his chronic rheumatoid arthritis caused him a great deal of pain and made it very difficult for him to move. And living “in an apartment on the fourth floor without a lift” (as it so often stood in articles about him from the 1970’s), made it almost impossible for him to leave his home. But even though he felt imprisoned, and sometimes suggested he was forced to isolation, there could have been ways to socialize. He could have had friends, musicians, fellow composers visiting him frequently, but simply put: Allan Pettersson was not that kind of person. Pettersson was one of the most isolated Swedish composers, but during the 1970’s he became probably the most public Swedish composer through interviews on the radio, articles in the newspapers and TV programmes focusing on his impoverished childhood. Many Swedes probably felt “they knew Allan”. They probably got a feeling they had entered Pettersson’s private sphere in a higher degree than if he had been sitting in a sofa in a TV show talking about technical aspects of his music. But what mainly created the picture of Allan Pettersson was what he wanted to tell in the interviews, since there was no other sources of knowledge.

The situation for a scholar studying Pettersson and his music today is completely different. All the above-mentioned interviews, articles and programmes are of course still available, but there is also an enormous material in the Allan Pettersson personal archives in the Uppsala University Library. The archives came into the library’s custody by Laila Barkefors. When Barkefors wrote her thesis she had borrowed the material from Allan Pettersson’s widow Gudrun Pettersson. And in 2001 Barkefors donated it, on Gudrun’s suggestion, to the library. The Allan Pettersson personal archives consist of 34 volumes and contains letters, material from Pettersson’s studies, notebooks, press cuttings, photos, marks from school, employment agreements, the composers handwritten biography, ideas and corrections to compositions, sketches (mainly of the second symphony) etcetera.

The archives are of course an invaluable source for several areas of Pettersson research. It is possible to see what books he studied and what music he was familiar with since there are lists of Pettersson’s books on music, sheet music and orchestral scores. It is possible to see the way Pettersson studied Hindemith’s “Unterweisung im Tonsatz” and the twelve-tone technique (according to Křenek) with Karl-Birger Blomdahl, the most influential composer in Sweden in the middle of century. It is possible to read Pettersson’s depiction of the classes with Arthur Honegger, the neoclassical composer who was a sixth part of the famous French group of composers “Les Six”, where Honegger criticized Pettersson’s radical “Concert for violin and string quartet”. It is possible to see how Pettersson described the Swedish modernism in his handwritten biography - problematic material if you are investigating what really happened, but enormously interesting if you are investigating his self-image. And, it is possible to see how his second symphony grew up and to see what the germ of the music was. Most of the material is in Swedish, except for some notebooks that are in French (and some notebooks in a wonderful odd mixture of French and Swedish). The archives are also an interesting source for the research on e.g. Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Arthur Honegger or René Leibowitz. All three were teachers to the industrious Pettersson, who wrote vast amounts of notes and exercises during and after the lessons.

In many texts on Pettersson only a few short utterances by the composer are cited, especially this one: “The composition I´m working on is my own life, the blessed and cursed” (Pettersson interviewed 1968 by I. Björksten), which is often taken as the obvious starting point for understanding and interpreting Pettersson’s music. But in the material in the Allan Pettersson personal archives (as well as in interviews) it is evident that Pettersson’s view of music was way more complex than that. I even venture to say that it is misleading to use the above-cited quotation as The Key to the understanding of Pettersson’s music. Pettersson was well aware of technical aspects of his music; his just did not want to talk about it. Possibly technical aspects of his music were more private to him than sitting in his own home talking about his childhood and his illness: “I think you talk too much about technical problems. Is not such a private affair as well?” (quotation from Pettersson’s own presentation of the Concerto for violin and string quartet, 1951)

There are interesting sources also at The Music and Theatre Library of Sweden, located in Stockholm. In the Bo Wallner archives there are letters from Pettersson, mainly from the period when Pettersson studied composition in Paris. The letters give another dimension to material from the lessons in Paris. In Wallner’s work diary there are interesting phone calls between Wallner and Pettersson noted down. Manuscripts by Pettersson are found at Gehrmans Musikförlag and Svensk Musik (both located in Stockholm).

However, there is some material that has not been donated. For example the two scores (in drafts) to Pettersson’s first, unfinished symphony, the score (in drafts) to the seventeenth, unfinished symphony and some of Pettersson’s private notebooks (ten notebooks containing diary notes, aphorisms, opinions on his colleagues, and thoughts on his works and on art). This is of course also very interesting material that hopefully will be available for research later on. But for the moment we have to “put up with” the rich material in the Allan Pettersson personal archives in the Uppsala University Library. See you there!?

Per-Henning Olsson (department of musicology, Uppsala University, Sweden), writing a dissertation on the symphonies of Allan Pettersson.

Recordings: Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra

Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ida Haendel, Violin
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
CAP 21359

Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Isabelle van Keulen, Violin
Thomas Dausgaard, conductor
CPO 777 199-2
There are currently two available recordings of this work; an ”original cast” recording featuring the same forces involved in the work’s premiere, and the CPO version made about a half-generation later, with the same orchestra but a different soloist and conductor. The two recordings actually present two different versions of the work, the original and revised.

It is most likely that the Caprice recording presents the work in Pettersson’s original conception. Based on my somewhat careful study of the revised version score, it appears that the major differences the revised version presents are as follows:

1.    More regular use of orchestral solo strings rather than full section strings
2.    More “real” tuttis, where the soloist is silent and just the orchestra is playing
3.   Throughout, parts of the solo line are given to the upper woodwinds or orchestral strings (in other words, the soloist plays less in this version, even though no notes are lost)

Although one normally expects excellent liner notes from any CPO release, (this one is no exception), the details surrounding the revised version are a bit lacking. This work was a commission from the Swedish Radio and was premiered on 25 January 1980. This is where I hoped CPO would have said more, but I am guessing that Pettersson heard the recording of the premiere and decided (and/or was convinced by someone else) to make the revisions. He must have made them quickly, because he died on 20 June 1980 and was certainly working on other things up until his death.

Having said that, I personally prefer the CPO recording, for several reasons. First and foremost, I think the revised version is superior to the original. For example, take the opening measures, where the solo (as opposed to full section) strings begin the work, and the soloist emerges from this wonderful chamber music-like texture. Also, having real tuttis without the soloist are also more musically satisfying, as here we have the soloist lead us to these sections, but then the orchestra can then speak for itself. In the original version, I feel like there is a bit of “soloist fatigue” where the soloist plays more notes than is necessary; in places it is just more effective for the orchestra to take over. Finally, both the SRSO and Isabelle van Keulen play marvelously. van Keulen really tries to make music out of this piece, using beautiful tone throughout despite how difficult Pettersson makes it. Finally, the CPO release has noticeably better sound quality (both of CPO’s Pettersson recordings involving the SRSO sound much better than the other releases in the series), which is not necessarily surprising considering the age of the Caprice recording.

Of course, the Caprice recording is not without merit. Here we have Pettersson’s original thoughts on this piece. We also have the scrappy but nevertheless jaw-dropping virtuosity of Ida Haendel, who has a fair amount more notes to deal with in the original version.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra (1977)

One of the nice things about conducting this survey is reassessing and rediscovering works in Pettersson’s oeuvre that I thought I “knew.” Although the Concerto No. 2 for Violin was not a piece I would come back to regularly, when I first heard this work over a decade ago I considered it one of my favorite Pettersson works. This probably had something to do with the somewhat ear-flattering conclusion, when the Barefoot Song Herren går på ängen is stated eloquently and clearly.

While I have always (and still do) find the conclusion to this work to be beautiful and moving, overall I find this work somewhat unconvincing. I was a little surprised to arrive at this conclusion, because with the exception of the Symphony No. 3 and Concerto for String Orchestra No. 2 I have been able to come to some kind of personal understanding of what I feel is the emotional “message” of each work in Pettersson’s orchestral oeuvre. Even the Symphonies No. 11, 12, and 13, which in my opinion possess greater degrees of elusiveness and/or inaccessibility, are ultimately more satisfying.

Nevertheless, despite the work’s length (about 55 minutes) the music is consistently engaging. Even if I found the music completely impenetrable I would still enjoy as a string player, with the work’s nearly non-stop assault on the soloist’s stamina and technique. It might well be the most difficult violin concerto that I have ever heard or heard of that is fully notated and does not employ extended techniques.

Although the Barefoot Song is not clearly stated until the last quarter of the work, this song is the foundation of the entire composition. At least to my ears, the interval of the third is extremely important in the construction of the song’s melody; accordingly this interval is used extensively in the construction of the ideas and motives which Pettersson uses.
The work opens with a climbing bass line, in the bottom depths of the orchestra. The rest of the strings enter, mostly in their upper registers. The soloist enters at the extreme top end of upper register, singing a long melody.  After a brief foray in the soloist’s low/middle register, the music begins, predictably, to become agitated.

The sense of agitation continues as the music moves into double tempo. The soloist weaves this section around the open D string, eventually passing this idea off to the orchestral violins. The soloist strains and climbs upwards, but comes careening down. Following an upward surge from the horns, the soloist returns in its upper register with a desperate melody. Repeated Fs in the horns introduce the next section. The Fs are then taken over by the lover strings.

Listen to the appearance of a clear fragment from the song, played by tuba and contrabassoon. The same instruments, along with double basses, now propel the music forward. The music becomes impassioned as the soloist plays in octave double stops. A somewhat mournful (but satisfying) conclusion to this section arrives.

Sharp brass attacks with snare drum contributions follows. The song is heard again in the low winds, with the soloist participating as well. Orchestral strings accompany with a gesture based on repeated notes. The repeated note gesture is broadened rhythmically, played by horns and trumpets. The soloist takes the song in its low register. A gesture based on neighbor pitches begins to gain prominence. A brief section with slashing orchestral violins, along with contribution from snare drum and horns, follows.

The soloist builds up the next section from its low register, but quickly becomes impassioned, playing octave double stops. Listen to how the orchestra accompanies the soloist with repeated sixteenth notes here.

After an orchestral tutti (listen to the horns here!) comes what could be one of the coolest sections, at least rhythmically, of all of Pettersson’s orchestral output. The snare drum accompanies the soloist, falling into a groove which one might expect Pettersson to repeat for a long stretch of time. Instead, he throws a wrench into the gears, and the rhythm starts getting tripped up in a fascinating and engaging way (Pettersson even alternates between 7/8 and 2/2 time here, something I don’t think I’ve seen before in his music).

When Pettersson arrives at the next section we find ourselves in a different landscape. The soloist, at the top of its register, is accompanied by orchestral strings alone, also in a top register. A solo trombone comes in, followed by contributions from other sections of the orchestra. The music quickly becomes agitated again.

Over a rapidly churning orchestral accompaniment (listen to bassoons and violas) the soloist wanders in its low register. Orchestral cellos take up the song. We arrive at what could be the first true turning point. After a brief, unambiguous c minor, a rising and falling motive, based on the song and harmonized in perfect fifths, serves to accompany the soloist.

A clear statement of the song by oboe followed by flutes and piccolo introduce the next section. The soloist introduces a falling gesture distinguished by four sixteenths followed by a dotted quarter. The music tries to build up but is cut off. The music tries to build up again, but is cut off by an impassioned mini cadenza by the soloist. The falling gesture returns, accompanied by swirling, dreaming woodwinds. An orchestral tutti follows, with horns taking the falling gesture in half time.

The soloist, moving indiscriminately between registers, is accompanied by strained violin pizzicati and arco arpeggios, featuring open strings. The soloist takes up the falling gesture again, against a somewhat clangorous contribution from violin arpeggios and quadruple stops (again featuring open strings) along with muted trumpets.

The next tutti suggests a culmination of sorts. When the orchestra gives way to the soloist, we are given this kinda weird lick in C# major. We come back to a clear c minor, led by horns. After a beautiful, but strained resolution to e minor, the soloist begins a lengthy climb, moving mostly chromatically. Multiple stops from the soloist serve to bridge sections.

Another arrival at c minor feels like a true breaking point, but Pettersson takes us back into the storm. The tuba gives us the song, this time in a higher register. Slashing upper strings and snare drum accompany the soloist. Following a fairly lengthy arpeggio passage for the soloist, we come back, again to c minor. Amid slashing, screaming orchestral violins the music appears to very briefly make an attempt to climb out of the conflict. The music moves to e minor. By now I get the feeling that Pettersson IS beginning to truly loosen the thumbscrews. The music returns to c minor; the soloist sings above. The next section could fall into the Petterssonian “lyrical island” section. Unadulterated beauty is finally trying to establish itself on the once turbulent landscape. Despite this, the music does become strained and many “wrong” notes are found. The music does build up, but a true climax is not reached; rather, the music returns to e minor, somewhat march-like. This does not last long, and the music gently unravels. We hear a lone note held by a solo flute… (see below)

Now Pettersson brings in the song, finally, pure and unadulterated. I have to say I don’t think Pettersson sets us up very well for this; a lone G# held by a solo flute forces us into E major. Once we enter this new world Pettersson even notates the music in E major (I don’t remember anywhere else in Pettersson’s orchestral works where he uses a key signature). The song is led by the solo violin, with beautiful countermelodies provided by muted trumpet and piccolo. The music wanders a bit in this beautiful landscape. Low brass enter with a rocking motive, but the music remains peaceful overall. Orchestral strings take over the song.

Solo horn and clarinet lead a transition back to minor. Pettersson removes the key signature and the music returns to a state of agitation. A held chord on upper orchestral strings leads to a half-step upward modulation, and the solo violin gives us one more phrase of defiance, but this is short-lived, and the song returns, again in a notated E major.
This time around the song is a little broader, and the accompaniment has a stronger rhythmic profile. Listen to the heartbreakingly beautiful arrival on c# minor (G# in the bass). 

The solo violin now moves the song to the top register, and the orchestral accompaniment becomes even more lively, almost jolly (listen to the bassoons here). Something starts to go wrong, as C naturals begin to enter the landscape, however, this never goes beyond the point of being a minor disturbance. Pettersson takes out the key signature, and the music yearns and strains for one final push. Gentle tam-tam strokes further emphasize this sense of striving. A truly cathartic foray into G# major precedes a final flourish in E major, as the soloist rises and fades away while singing the song.

In my opinion it is particularly worth mentioning that in the concerto Pettersson never uses the beautiful amen cadence which graces (pun intended!) the conclusion of each phrase in the original piano/vocal version of the song. Perhaps in the original song the cadence reflects the naïve mindset of the young Pettersson (I doubt it) or, more likely, it is representative of the (naïve?) piety of Pettersson’s mother. In the concerto Pettersson gives us sustained conflict for the majority of the work; although he slowly loosens the thumbscrews as the work progresses I do not think the arrival of the song feels inevitable, rather, it feels forced. So, is Pettersson arriving at some sort of religiously-infused peace at the end, or is he simply forcing the issue, and using a religiously-infused song as his reference point?

Enough pontificating on that point. After this reassessment I find this work engaging, certainly more so on the surface level  in comparison to its predecessor. In terms of it being emotionally satisfying as a whole, well, I don’t think I’m quite convinced yet.