Sunday, November 3, 2013

Norrköping 2013: Concert Review!

I am not sure if my non-American readers know of the children's story called The Little Engine That Could. It is basically about a small engine who managed to pull an entire train over the hill. Larger, stronger engines refused this task, leaving it to the small one. As the small engine struggles to climb to the top of the hill, he never gives up, repeating to himself "I think I can, I think I can." I had this image in my mind while listening to this Norrköping SO concert featuring not one, but two Pettersson symphonies. As you probably know by now, the NSO is not just performing Pettersson regularly, but they will also record the rest of the symphonies not yet recorded for BIS. The larger, stronger "engines" (uh, let's call them the Göteborgs SO and RSPO and SRSO) have refused, but here the little engine steps up and accomplishes the task which others think is impossible. 

On to the concert then. The evening began with the Symphony No. 16, a work which I still feel is quite elusive and not as effective as its predecessors. I was quite impressed with the orchestra, who seemed to be more comfortable with this extremely busy and densely scored music when compared to the Symphony No. 4. The soloist, Jörgen Pettersson, was in complete control of this music and put passion and energy into every note. It really does make a difference when Pettersson's markings and dynamics are followed literally, which is what happened here. Bravo!

The fast and loud music (such as the first and third sections) were visceral and exciting and the slow music was beautifully played, but I still cannot get into this piece. I have no doubt in my mind that when the recording is available, it will be the most convincing argument to date for this work. 

On to the main course, the Symphony No. 4. In my opinion this is, at least on the surface, one of Pettersson's most accessible symphonies. However, it feels like a transitional work between his early and middle orchestral styles. Although the orchestra seemed to struggle a little in the morning rehearsal the evening performance was in a different league. During the concert, I could feel the intensity of concentration and the results were a testament to this orchestra's professionalism and commitment. It goes without saying that Christian Lindberg lives this music and his conducting reflects this. 

I was a little surprised how empty the hall seemed--I think the performance of the Symphony No. 9 last year was better attended. However, it is quite likely that the people who were present really wanted to be there, and they listened with the requisite concentration. The response was very enthusiastic for both symphonies.

I heard that the orchestra had only three rehearsals for this program. Although the performance felt like a work still in progress, convincingly performing two Pettersson symphonies on one program is superhuman, and Christian Lindberg and the NSO should be praised for their incredible physical and emotional stamina. While I felt that the performance of the Symphony No. 6 two years ago also felt like a work in progress, we all know how absolutely amazing and enlightening the recording is. I have no doubt in my mind that when this program is released on CD the results will be equally stunning.

Way to go guys! 

PS. Some extra details: for the Symphony No. 16 the performance time was about 27 minutes, Pettersson marks in the score 25 minutes.
For the Symphony No. 4 the performance time was about 38 minutes, Pettersson marks in the score 35 minutes.

Norrköping 2013: Rehearsal, Press Conference, Vox Humana, and Post-Concert

It is now becoming an established fall tradition that I wake up at an ungodly hour in darkness and under grey skies to fly to Sweden, where I am greeted by more grey skies. That's right, the yearly trip to Norrköping, Sweden, to watch Christian Lindberg and the extremely hard-working Norrköping band as they continue to work their way through the Pettersson symphony cycle. 

This year, however, was different. I wasn't just attending a concert, but there was practically a whole day of activities dedicated to Pettersson ahead of me. I arrived at the concert hall at approximately 10:30, where after asking around a little bit I was escorted into the dress rehearsal. At this time, the orchestra was drilling a few more passages in Lindberg's Kundraan and the Arctic Light, before moving on to the Pettersson works. Shortly after I showed up in the hall I was greeted by Jean-Christophe of ResMusica, Markus from the German Pettersson society and Robert van Bahr of BIS. 

I can seriously say that if it was not for Robert, my life would probably be dramatically different. It was because of BIS' recordings of Pettersson, Sibelius, Tubin, and Aho that I decided to take the plunge and move to Finland, where I could be "closer to the action." Robert is an extremely energetic and enthusiastic person and unfairly gifted with languages. Robert took a seat next to me as the orchestra began to rehearse the Symphony No. 4, and we followed the score together. 

I was a little surprised at how difficult it seemed to put everything together, considering how the technical demands of this symphony are generally lighter in comparison to the rest of Pettersson's symphonic oeuvre. During the break Christian Lindberg enthusiastically greeted me and we discussed a few sections in the score. 

After the break there was some spot-checking in the Symphony No. 4, after which the saxophone soloist Jörgen Pettersson came on stage to begin rehearsing the Symphony No. 16. I've made it pretty clear on this blog that I find this work to be quite problematic, starting with my personal bias against the saxophone in an orchestra context. During the rehearsal I was surprised by a number of things: I actually started to think that this piece "works," that the saxophone soloist was not completely drowned out, and that the orchestra seemed to play this work with more confidence than the other symphony on the program. 

At 13:00 the much-anticipated press conference began. This was attended mostly by orchestra staff, people from BIS, and die-hard Pettersson fans like myself. I actually do not have much to write here, since the entire press conference has been uploaded to YouTube and the orchestra's plans have been outlined on their webpage as well as here. In brief, between now and 2018 Lindberg and the orchestra will perform and record all the remaining symphonies for BIS which have not already been recorded on this label. There will also be a new recording of the Symphony No. 7 which will include the Symphony No. 17, in a completion by Lindberg. In 2018 the orchestra will take Pettersson's music on tour. Furthermore, several of the new recordings will be coupled with bonus DVDs featuring old Pettersson documentaries. You can hear Lindberg talk about the project here.

Included with the upcoming release of the Symphony No. 9 is a bonus DVD of Vox Humana, the documentary film made by Peter Berggren in the 1970s. This film was shown after the press conference. Again, I won't say much here since you can see it for yourself when it is released, but I will say this: I knew Pettersson was ill, but what I saw and heard shocked me. The fact that Pettersson was able to write what he did given the circumstances only further increases my admiration of this amazing artist. 

After the concert (I will post a review of the concert itself soon) Lindberg and several friends and close contacts went out for food and drinks. I was lucky enough to be seated next to Lindberg, and we enthusiastically talked about (you guessed it!) Pettersson. We also came up with a plan of action to get Pettersson performed in Helsinki, which is something I am extremely excited about. 

What a day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Pettersson tre gånger/Pettersson kolme kertaa

Dear Friends,

I am a very lucky person.

When I was living in the states, I resigned myself to the likelihood that Pettersson was just another one of those composers who I could only enjoy on recordings, but never in concert. 

In the next 14 days, I will experience something I never thought was possible in one lifetime. In the next 14 days, I will hear three, that's right, three (tre/kolme in Swedish/Finnish) Pettersson works in concert. If you include the performance of the Concerto for Violin and String Quartet that I attended last April, that will make four Pettersson works in a little more than half a year. 

Tomorrow I will be heading to Norrköping to attend a performance of Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping SO in Symphony No. 16 and 4, and on 15 November, in my adopted home of Helsinki the Tapiola Sinfonietta will be performing the Concerto for String Orchestra No. 1 under the baton of Jan Söderblom, who himself performed the Symphony No. 7 in Tampere, Finland (I was there too!) back in 2008. 

Regarding Norrköping, it looks like I will have a full schedule: dress rehearsal in the morning, followed by Christian Lindberg's press conference on the Pettersson Project 2013-18. There will also be a viewing of Vox Humana, the old Pettersson documentary which will be included as a bonus DVD with the upcoming BIS release of the Symphony No. 9. In the foyer of the concert hall there will be a exhibition of Gunnar Källström's darkly intense black and white photos of Pettersson. Following the concert there are rumors of some kind of party? Throughout the day and evening I look forward to meeting with Pettersson enthusiasts who have come from near and far for this massive event.

Expect to hear my reports on all of these upcoming events and concerts in the coming weeks. 

I am a very, very lucky person. I thank everyone who has made this possible!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Guest blog entry, Christopher Russell

Dear Friends,

Earlier this year, some very fortunate people in east Los Angeles had the opportunity to hear the first live performance of a Pettersson symphony in the US in almost 30 years. The conductor of that performance, Christopher Russell, has kindly agreed to share his thoughts for my blog. Enjoy reading, and thank you very much Chris!

In March of 2013, I conducted a performance of Pettersson’s 7th Symphony in California with my terrific orchestra at Azusa Pacific University. I have long been fascinated and moved by Pettersson’s music and was very happy to finally get the chance to program one of them. Amazingly, this was the first performance of a Pettersson symphony in the US in almost 30 years and was the first time one of his symphonies had ever been played in California. I know that on the Allan Pettersson Enthusiasts Facebook page, a lot has been said about wishing to program symphonies other than the 7th since that one seems to be done more than all of the others combined. I thought very hard about programming the 8th instead, partly because that was the first one of his symphonies that I heard and that is the symphony that started my lifelong admiration for his music. In the end I decided on the 7th because I believe it to be a perfect introduction to his music for those in the orchestra and audience who did not know his music, which was virtually everyone. Plus at about 45 minutes, it’s not as long as some of the others and would not need as much rehearsal time. Overall, of course, it is really a masterpiece and one that I felt very strongly about being able to do successfully. Much of my thought process, some player reactions and a short video were kindly published by Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc back in February. In my orchestra we have recently done Mahler’s 2nd Symphony and a couple of Shostakovich symphonies (the 10th Symphony and the weird but wonderful 2nd Symphony) so I told them that they may hear some similarities at first when playing Pettersson but in the end Pettersson sounds like no one else. I also told them I have heard all of his symphonies by and in them there are moments of great anger and overwhelming sadness but also unbelievable beauty and peace. However, I told them, I’ve never heard a single happy or joyous moment in any of his works (if any other listener knows of one in his symphonies, I’d be curious to know). With that we launched in. Once they started tackling the difficulties and the uniqueness of it, many began to understand the music more fully. Pettersson is a composer who likes writing in extreme registers, particularly very high registers in the flutes and violins. You need to have very strong sections here in order to pull off his pieces. Fortunately, I have that. Also, the horns frequently play lots of high, loud and long tones, which is incredibly taxing on the players. I told my principal that he would absolutely need an assistant and should not play first on any other piece on the program, which he did. These are absolutely not easy pieces to play. (The program had two Brahms pieces on the first half, Tragic Overture and Alto Rhapsody, making for a very somber evening.) We had about three weeks to put the program together. This is longer than a professional orchestra but about average for most top music schools. Rehearsals progressed at a good pace but I had to make sure to leave a couple of rehearsals for complete run throughs. Playing for 45 minutes is not a big deal, playing 45 continuous minutes is a big deal. When you play for that long, you need to carefully pace yourself in ways that are different than a multi-movement symphony. One part of the score that I always found enigmatic was the high harmonics at the end. I couldn’t quite decide whether this was a peaceful end or a prelude to another tragedy that would occur after the music ended. While rehearsing it, I was told by a colleague of mine that Pettersson told him that the ending is either angels singing or gang members whistling sardonically. These two very opposite images actually made complete sense to me. The ending that I always thought enigmatic is actually supposed to be that way! The end of the 7th can be interpreted by any listener to decide which way the ending leans. Before we played it in concert, I gave a spoken introduction to the audience and had the orchestra play excerpts from it to give them a deeper understanding of the journey they were about to take. The performance went extremely well and I was very proud of my players. It got a standing ovation from many in the audience. For me personally, it was one of the most exhausting pieces I’ve ever conducted both mentally and physically. I felt more drained after this performance than after other giant pieces I’ve conducted like Beethoven 9th and Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, both longer than the Pettersson with the Shostakovich also played continuously. My orchestra’s reaction was a little different than Alun Francis’. It was certainly mixed there is no question about that (comments are in the Slipped Disc blog.) I did have some great reactions though. I will give you two examples. One was the contrabassoon player, who I hired for the occasion. He is a seasoned player with many orchestras. After the concert, he came up to me and said how grateful he was to have played this piece. He told me how the string chorale in the 7th was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever heard and how he would be listening to more of his works. I’ll close with an email that I received the day after the performance. It perfectly encapsulates the power and long lasting effect that Pettersson’s music can have:
I was at the symphony orchestra concert last night and I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the performance of Pettersson's 7th symphony. When the piece was introduced I had no context it and was fairly worried that I wouldn't be able to track with the music, as it is such a long, continuous movement. However, once the orchestra started playing, I was completely enraptured and enjoyed every moment of it. This piece spoke deeply to my being and I was left with a sense of awe at the end. I've found that when you come across a piece of music that resonates so purely with you, you hold onto that moment for all its worth. This was one of those moments for me. For me, and I think for Pettersson, there were angels singing at the end in those violins. Christopher Russell Orange County, California

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.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Some thoughts on Pettersson from Robert von Bahr, BIS records

Dear Friends,

Exactly two years ago I thought I'd ask Robert von Bahr if he'd be willing to write a piece for this blog. As most of you know, Robert and BIS are a major driving force in promoting the music of Pettersson. Although he said he'd be willing, I hadn't heard anything since our initial exchange, and I assumed that he was just too busy. A few days ago I thought I'd ask one more time, and Robert promptly responded. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that Robert has taken the time to do this, and I am sure you will find that what he has to say about Pettersson both fascinating and enlightening. 

Robert wrote his response around several topics which I suggested. THANK YOU Robert!!!

What was your first encounter with Pettersson's music?

***happened when I was a choir member of the Stockholm Phil, then to become the resident recording engineer for the Orchestra, where Antal Doráti (with whom I became a friend and seriously discussed doing the cycle) was premièring the Pettersson 7th.  It made an indelible impression on me.***

How did you discover this music? 
***See above.  Being so mesmerized by the 7th, it was only logical that I continued to explore it.***

What motivated your decision to begin this project?
What are the main issues with recording Pettersson?
How do you find artists and orchestras for the project? 

***These questions hook into each other, and so I answer these three in a lump.  My interest and - after many years - ability to start pulling it through.  It may seem like a contradiction in terms, having started so long ago, that I consider this one of the more urgent projects in the history of recording music, but the music being non-commercial (doesn't sell many tickets) and extremely difficult to play, at least properly, it is an uphill struggle to get someone to programme and record it.  I firmly believe that, if one does something, one does it right or not at all.  The technical difficulties in playing Pettersson's music are formidable - the small strings in particular are written fiendishly "anti-instrumentally", but are, in fact, the only way to express the anguish, the emotional uproar (and, yes, justified self-pity) within the composer.  But that's only the technical part of it.  Much more important is the emotional part.  Quite simply, the music is draining on the emotions of the players, unless they are automatons.  It is one thing to play a concert and give all;  quite another to take it over and over again (which is necessary because of the technical difficulties) and still give the whole range of emotional impact necessary for the music to really live.  For that reason it is totally necessary to employ artists that are willing to give their all each time, every time, and, frankly, not so many conductors have the emotional depth, the talent to feel into the heart of the composer, and the stamina to pull it through.  Normally, therefore, recordings of Pettersson's music are live performances which - in the best case - do give the emotions, but usually are technically unsatisfactory. 

It is my great luck (or perhaps perspicacity) that I have found one orchestra and two conductors, willing to undergo the torture to programme and record this music in high-charge renditions.  The Norrköping SO, having performed on 3 records with the Finnish musical genius Leif Segerstam, until he pulled out of the project for undisclosed reasons many years ago, was having to think very long and hard, until they accepted to continue the cycle, now with the live-wire Christian Lindberg at the helm.  I had of course thought about this in the interim (some 15 years!), but never found anyone that had the emotional, mental and intelligence build-up to match Segerstam, so nothing happened.  Until Christian came along.

So, a few words about Christian.  I have known Christian, warts and all, for some 30 years.  He is about the most single-minded person I have ever had the pleasure to know, which his different careers prove - he was the one that made the trombone into an accepted solo instrument;  he has inspired the composition of around a hundred (yes, 100!!) trombone concertos, by the most respected composers there are;  he has branched out to start composing feverishly (the Flute Concerto I commissioned from him for Sharon Bezaly remains a masterpiece, albeit almost impossibly difficult) and, to cap it, steered his endless energy and energizing personality to inspire others on the podium, conducting them.

It is my luck (and Pettersson's) that Christian has been caught up in Pettersson's web and is devoting much of his energy to programme and promote Pettersson's music.  We started off by recording the 3 String Symphonies with a small band, for which Christian was Chief Conductor, and where he was sharpening his teeth, and now we have gone on to the big "nuts" in doing the symphonies, with Norrköping.  Since the project has such a magnitude, and is costing so much, we all had to delay the final decision about it, until we had the first recording behind us, but after that, it was voted through with a vast majority, even though the orchestral members knew that they'd be put through the wringer in the process.  There is noone - and I mean noone, with Christian's almost manic energy and stamina (not for nothing is he a good marathon runner) and to work with him means that one has to prepare even physically.  We now have the 6th, the "lost" No 1 + No 2 behind us, and the 9th safely in the can - and the way Christian has shaped it is sheer magic!!!  Thanks to Christian's generosity, we are also in the position to include DVD:s of Pettersson for free in the package - the 9th will come with an incredible, almost 2-hour interview DVD with Pettersson, made in the last years of his life - a totally mind-boggling DVD.  I consider this to be one of the very most urgent projects we have, and we will produce an "every-note-he-ever-wrote" Edition of Pettersson's music, the same way as we did with Sibelius.**

What does Pettersson mean to you, and why you are attracted to his music?

***The emotional contents, the total involvement necessary to listen to it, the lines I can draw from the music to the Pettersson person I experienced.***
Anything else of interest?

***I actually never met him, but, after having released "Vox Humana" in the late '70:s, he took as a habit to call me daily, or should I say nightly, at around 2.30 a.m., when his pains were at their worst, and basically scream out his frustration and sheer pain into the receiver.  This continued for about three months, and then it stopped without warning, never to be resumed.  I can only hope that this meant that his pains stopped/were stopped, but I will never know.  I asked several times if I could come and visit him, but he always refused adamantly - he didn't want anyone to see him in his condition, which of course I respected.  But the TV teams could?  He was an enigma, was Allan Pettersson!***


Thursday, May 23, 2013

A chat with Leif Segerstam

The other day I went to a concert of the Sibelius Academy Orchestra and saw Leif Segerstam in the audience. During intermission I went up to him and started a conversation with him about, what else,  Pettersson. It goes without saying that without Segerstam, the Pettersson discography would be dramatically poorer.

However, you can count on me to not just engage in some Pettersson pleasantries. I dove right in and asked him a question he probably has never gotten before, perhaps not since he recorded the Symphony No. 15.

(Apologies Maestro Segerstam if you do not want your thoughts here. Contact me right away if you want them removed!)

I asked him if he remembered making the recording, and why he conducted the last measure of the piece the way he did (see the second to last paragraph here for a reminder of what happens). As I'm sure many of you know, there is a beautifully searing section of the piece about 2/3rds of the way through. Here, Pettersson very clearly brings out the tritone: a harmonic progression of C Maj - F# Maj. These two chords, in an extremely strained fashion, make the last two chords of the piece. Segerstam asked me to remind him of what happens here, and he simply responded with something to the effect of:

" bring out the tritone."

Ah yes, to bring out the tritone! Segerstam then reminded me that in the standard Western tonal system, F# Maj is as far from C Maj as possible (think of the Andante in Mahler's Symphony No. 6). While both Comissiona and Ruzicka try to bring this out by inserting a pause between the two chords in the final measure, Segerstam cuts out the winds an eighth beat earlier to allow this key harmonic transition to be played strings only, without being obscured by the winds. EDIT, 12.1.14: Segerstam followed the score exactly as written. See here. Was this an orchestrational mistake on Pettersson's part? I cannot say for sure, cause I have yet to hear a recording/performance which follow's Pettersson's score literally!

I of course asked if any more Pettersson was on Segerstam's future agenda, and I was told that everything was planned through 2015 and he wasn't sure if he would still be around beyond that.

I have made it pretty clear throughout my posts over the past two years that I do not divorce the biographical circumstances of Pettersson's life from his music. Others will tell you (and for good reason too) that Pettersson's music should stand on its own merit and that getting too caught up in these biographical circumstances actually serves as an obstacle to Pettersson's music gaining further recognition. Segerstam briefly talked about how in his interpretations he was not interested in bringing out the "problems" of man (I think I remember him saying that word) or the "self-pity." Self-pity? I was surprised to hear that, as Pettersson himself was quite adamant that self-pity was not found in his music.

Well, it was a pity that I didn't have more time to chat with one of the great living Pettersson conductors. It was also a pity that I did not have my score of the Symphony No. 15 with me at the time, as surprisingly I do not carry it with me at all times (that was sarcasm). However, it gave me some more things to think about. 

I'll be sure to have my score with me next time.  

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

Guest blog entry: Jorge López (Part I)

Dear Friends,

Get out your scores, find a comfortable chair, and get ready to learn something. For those of you who are active on the Pettersson groups on Facebook, you surely have read the many highly informative and enlightening contributions by Jorge López. I am pleased to say that Jorge has agreed to share his very eloquent and comprehensive thoughts on both the Symphony No. 6 and 11, based on a Pettersson seminar which he moderated in Vienna earlier this year. There is a lot of material here, so dig in and enjoy!


17. January 2013: About 20 people showed up, including a lady from the Swedish Embassy in Vienna, whose financial support had made my work possible.  The conservatory’s Professor Susana Zapke, who had organized the seminar, provided an introduction, while Dr. Peter Kislinger of the Vienna University, who has done some excellent radio programs for the Austrian Radio ORF on composers such as Pettersson, Eliasson, and Aho, kindly served on short notice as moderator.

I kept the Pettersson biography short and simple.  The arthritis was certainly crippling and real, but that Gudrun had money so that Allan could compose also seems to be real.  Just reeling off the same highly emotional AP quotes about this and that is in my opinion, 33 years after Allan’s death, essentially counterproductive.  What we have and what we should deal with is HIS MUSIC.

He had studied not only in Stockholm with renowned Swedish composers but also in Paris with René Leibowitz, and through Leibowitz thoroughly absorbed the music of the Second Viennese School.  And this often comes through—when I hear the beginning of AP’s FIFTH I sense in the four-pitch groups something subliminally reminiscent of Webern’s (weak and cramped) String Quartet—here set free by Pettersson into experiential time and space.

Ah yes, time and space.  There is a concept or model or field or archetype for Scandinavian symphonic writing that I find to be fundamentally different from that of Central European thinking: one grounded not on consciously worked-out contrast and dialectic but rather on the intuitive experience of the symphony as JOURNEY through time and space.  So I called the score of Pettersson’s SIXTH a MAP, and holding up a topographic map of the mountainous Sarek National Park in the far north of Sweden, referring to my personal experience, called that map a SCORE.  If we hike a rugged circle around the multi-peaked massif Akka, its continuous presence and changing form yield a rondo-like Gestalt.  If we camp to the northwest of the mesa-like mountain Kisuris and then ascend to the icy lake at 1254 meters to the east of its summit, we are totally enclosed by somber talus slopes.  Scrambling to the top of one of these slopes yields a view, an open panorama, and a complete transformation of the experiential musical tissue.  A journey of several days from north to south or from east to west will involve lots of uneventful monotonous marching between gradually transforming shapes, whereby memories recur and fantasies develop: a symphony in time and space.  More prosaically, I remember reading how Kalevi Aho drew on mountain shapes in northern Finland for the melodic lines of his Tuba Concerto.

Back to Allan Pettersson and to the beginning of his SIXTH.  A bass creature appears, apparently self-sufficient, “soft but sonorous”: G#-B-F-E-F#.  Here I have to think of Pettersson’s study with Leibowitz: is this part of a Webern row?  NO: it remains self-sufficient, circles irregularly around itself, its slow dragon breathing slightly pulsating: longer, shorter. 

I call this first field Das Vorhandene, that which Exists.  The upper strings trace soft lines over the sleepy dragon; the shapely sequence G-C#-C-A-G#, sluggishly but repeatedly intoned by the second violins and violas, though not the highest voice, achieves a profile within this primal ooze. 

At Figure 6 this sequence, transposed a fifth higher, in a faster tempo, tonally supported by wobbling F minor pillars, acquires the status of a theme.  I call it Das Ich, the Self.  In the course of the work it will prove persistent:  sometimes inhibiting, sometimes initiating.  Characteristic for “the Self” is also that it has by Figure 8 already begun to disintegrate into four-note groups (which suggest the workings of the ELEVENTH … but I’m getting ahead of myself).  In the voice played by oboes and high cellos in the third and fourth measures after Fig. 8 one actually finds key four-note cells from the ELEVENTH (B—C—D—E) and TENTH (F—E—D—C#) symphonies, micro-premonition within this brief disintegrating field which is then stiffened at Fig. 9 through an E—G—B—D#--F# sequence repeated three times by low woodwind and low strings.  I call it Riegel, Bolt.   Its harmonic compression E—G—F#--D# is then after Fig. 10 also repeated three times by low winds, brass, and percussion.  I call it Fluch, Curse.  These repetitions do not convey reassurance.  They suggest rather a morbid fairy tale: things I tell you three times are TRUE!  The interval molecules, capable of building up into melodic compounds, also suggest to me the influence of twelve-tone thinking, transmitted through Leibowitz.

Five measures after Fig. 11, over an ascending snake drawn out from the last three tones of that which Exists, violas and then timpani hurriedly tap uneasy triplets on F.  These triplets will often return. 

One measure after Fig. 13, over the snake and the triplets, a new aggressively descending idea is hammered out by the violins.  I call it Knote, Knot.  Its sequential extension leads only to empty space and then, one measure before Fig. 16, to a more extensively worked-out return of the Self (the theme-like structure of Fig. 6), which is then connected back to the Knot in the third and fourth measures after Fig. 18.  

From here up to three measures before Fig. 29, the music, with its extensions and intervallic expansions of already existing cells, has aspects of classical Durchführung, development.  Then a new acoustic space appears: that of suspended empty waiting, where violins sustain B natural in three octaves while high woodwinds and other strings twine around (or struggle to untie?) the Knot.  Different event densities, that of concentrated development and that of empty almost eventless suspension, are here juxtaposed, in a manner different from but parallel to that of juxtaposing different thematic or harmonic structures.  This variation in event density will turn out to be the ultimate forming principle for the macrostructure of the whole symphony.

This brief seminar is not the place to get into an exact blow-by-blow description of every motivic happening and detail.  The point is that Pettersson works up his music here through differing combinations and extensions of several more or less related molecules, not through the presentation of contrasting groups.  Phases interpenetrate one another.  Starting three measures before Fig. 41, the cell we named that which Exists (the idea of the Introduction) returns in the bass register, underpinning figures of the Knot and the Self

Four measures after Fig. 43, the descending tritone of that which Exists underpins a new cell: high woodwind playing the ascending tones F—A flat—G.  I call this Raubvogel, bird of prey.  Starting one measure after Fig 44, it provokes a transposed spinoff of the F—E—F# segment of that which exists: violins repeatedly playing G flat—F—G, in rapidly dashed-off dactylic rhythm.

And the figures further interact.  Reaching Fig. 49 I note that the cells have no clearly laid-down primary or secondary roles, but seem rather to be the acoustic equivalent of figures in a landscape: what one sees (hears) depends on where one turns one’s head, or on where the composer’s composing consciousness turns.  I recall Pettersson’s statement: “the work of art lives deep in the subconscious.   I’m just a kind of gate-keeper, helping it to get out.”

We don’t have time here to detail every development, but I do want to point out one remarkable new shape: that played by piccolo and xylophone starting at Fig. 89.  I call it Kakerlaken, cockroach.  At first it crawls with wriggling antennas through a moronically insistent rhythmic ostinato of flutes and tenor drum, laid over molecular instabilities of the Self in the low register.  Starting two measures before Fig. 92, other woodwinds, some brass, and the second violins provide a slimy chromatic background enabling more rapid and effective crawling.  A more coherent version of the Self played by first violins and trumpets starting two before 95 leads, not unexpectedly, to cockroach-like behavior of the entire orchestral apparatus, which finally (one measure after 104) has knocked, shaken and wriggled its way through to an intensive statement of lines derived from the Self, a statement which shows how this self has developed: the parts are marked “desperate”.  I also note the ascending lines played by the low instruments from two before 105 to three before 106.  I hear these as being a premonition of a much later phase of the work.

The hypertrophic tutti starting two before 114 and going up to two after 115 astounded many of those who were at the seminar hearing the piece for the first time: Richard Wagner meets Edgar Varèse: several cells contrapuntally combined over the thunder of timpani and SIX percussionists.

But of course it dissolves.  And when the intensive triplet movement returns, at Fig. 118, it does not just carry out an empty expectant or threatening pulse but presents rather an (how could Pettersson be so academic? This must mean something!) AUTHENTIC FUGATO!  The density and velocity of this fugato quickly transform it into a noise-like background for a dense counterpoint of more coherent albeit distressed figures related to the Self and the Knot

This field breaks off, one measure after Fig. 123, as high woodwind and first violins sustain the third B—E flat.  The second violins—and ONLY the second violins—play the first five notes of the Self.  Here the topos of suspension has been welded to what seems to be the most thematic essence of the piece.  And the second violins repeat this cell, with the last two notes drawn out.  I’ve asked myself if this might perhaps be a miscalculation in the matter of orchestration.  After years of thinking it over (and also relating it to my own compositional experience), I think Pettersson was right on target here.  It is sometimes dramaturgically appropriate or even essential that essential ideas be delivered “from the side” or “from behind”.  They MUST struggle and strain to be heard.  A spotlighted orchestration of this repeated utterly important cell would be banal.  

What follows at Fig. 125 is regarded by virtually every listener as the turning point (peripetia) of the symphony, and has for me the character of an epiphany: a deep sudden awareness that will never be repeated.  I call it Todesbewußtsein, awareness of mortality.  The C minor tonality is completely unambiguous.  The line played by the trumpets has the character of a chorale, but also anticipates—while only suggestively and inexactly-- another important long-drawn-out line that we will later hear.  The counterpoint of the horns and second violins draws upon developed elements of the Self and the Knot.

That the minor ninths so quickly turn into octaves C—C is not rationally justifiable.  It has rather the character of a miracle, or a very sudden change in the weather or of a fluid camera pan over the figure of an androgynous Shiva.  And, two measures before Fig. 130, C major is there.  The epiphany was tough but at least briefly sweet.

At this point, I stopped the CD player.

I asked the participants for their reflections on what they had just heard and on their thoughts about how the piece might continue.  I must mention here that I had in almost the last minute decided to use the 1976 live recording with Okko Kamu conducting the Norrköping orchestra.  While the recently released BIS CD studio recording with Christian Lindberg conducting the same orchestra is in almost every aspect the best and most accurate realization of this work available on CD, I finally felt that the earlier recording still makes the best introduction to the piece.

I asked if the chorale-like passage just heard might perhaps turn out to be the heart and eventual culmination of the piece, an idea now to be subjected to development and evolution, but didn’t get much in the way of answers.  Reservation and puzzlement seemed ubiquitous.  One young Austrian lady studying horn at the conservatory was very impressed by the heroic horn playing she’d heard in these 25 minutes and asked me if six or eight horns were used.  I could only reply that there are four parts in the score, whereby it’s conceivable that the orchestra might have staggered these among six players.

So: we continued.  The tones F and A flat soon color the C major triad.  Emphatic clockwork pushing and shoving on the part of trumpets and horns intensifies and at two before 134 the triplet pulsation on the insistent F returns.  Starting at two before 136, we experience the extension and expansion of the three-note group that we first heard at Fig. 44.  Pettersson’s way of gnawing and expanding upon a little intervallic cell sometimes subliminally reminds me of some aspects of Indian classical music.  One can at least fantasize the microtones in the Raga AP 6.

Once again: this seminar is not the place to get into every magnificent little detail of this score.  But as I remarked on the “ticking clock” character of the Pettersson viola F triplets starting at Fig. 145, Dr. Kislinger made the interesting observation that digital technology will (or already has) made this association virtually obsolete.  I don’t want to get too off-topic, but would like to mention that the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has suggested “museums of extinct or endangered sounds”.
Starting at four after 157, oboes and clarinets play a line that indirectly suggests the trumpets’ statement heard at the epiphanic Fig. 125.  At Fig 159 this line is fragmented into smaller interval groups.  Three before 161, the upper strings, “Con accento doloroso”, draw us definitively into the sorrowful hollow of E flat minor.  When the strings (and only the strings) reactivate at Fig. 166, with moving bass lines and some interconnecting dialogue between the voices, this has for me the character of a vestibule: a space that one most briefly go through to again reach the main hall of the piece.  Two after 166 and two after 167, first violins and the upper cellos emphasize the cell D flat—C—F.  This looks back to the epiphany and forward to a coming open acknowledgement.  Some figures in this vestibule, particularly the ascending cello line starting three after 171, also look forward to the TENTH and ELEVENTH symphonies. 

At Fig. 172 we see that this tangent has only served to draw us back down into the E flat minor hollow, even deeper.  But at Fig. 176, the bass note changes to F.

Three measures after Fig. 177, I stopped the CD player, and we cut directly without interruption to another (small portable) CD player with rather tinny sound, positioned BEHIND the listeners, playing Han ska släcka min lykta, #24 of Pettersson’s Barefoot Songs.  At the end of the song: a direct cut back to the SIXTH.  This montage had an effect not unlike some passages in the music of Charles Ives, for example from his Fourth Symphony or Second Orchestral Set.

I find it significant that Pettersson presents his long-drawn-out song line through mixed timbre, that of cellos and English horn.  Might it be conceivable to also have an alto voice sing along, not to the fore but blended in, so that the words of the text could be just half-perceived, with dreamlike or hallucinatory effect?  This section also has a generally soft but insistent almost-martial tenor drum accompaniment, marked “sempre solo” in five-measure phrases that cross against the phrasing of the song.  Presenting this appropriately in the sense of orchestral balance is certainly not easy.  I have the feeling that the brain splits here: hypothalamus and frontal lobes are occupied with the song and its accompaniment, whereby the ticking of the tenor drum happens in the cerebellum, a mechanical process manifesting the eroding progress of time.  If I could conduct and were to conduct this piece, I would at least experiment with having this passage played by a distant (offstage) tenor drum, playing ff, heard in the hall as piano.  This radical opening-out of the acoustic space might perhaps correspond to Pettersson’s (half?) conscious thoughts.   Such things in this section also remind me of Birtwistle’s orchestral piece The Triumph of Time, composed in 1971.

I find it quite good that the line of Han ska släcka min lykta corresponds only elliptically to the line played by the trumpets in the above-mentioned epiphany at Fig. 125.  But if the trumpets had in the second measure after 125 played as their second tone not D but D flat … another world … such small details have the capacity to decisively change the effect of a long work.

The oscillating minor third E flat—C hangs on insistently two measures after 193 and then even more emphatically at Fig. 213.  These are two of the moments in what we perceive as the second half of this symphony where I recall Stockhausen’s vocal sextet Stimmung, composed in 1968.  Pettersson lets a black Aeolian harp hang in the breeze, like a background drone instrument in Indian classical music, a harp that yields the tones B flat—C—D flat—E flat—F—G flat.  Stockhausen’s B flat overtone structures and the E flat prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold are, for my way of hearing, not far away.  Christian Lindberg’s recording does in my opinion the best job of expressively animating the contours of these drone-filled Petterssonian fields of sorrow.

Ah yes, songs and drones.  I take it that the title of Pettersson’s Barefoot Songs was suggested by the text of Schubert’s Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-gurdy Player), the 24th and last song of the Winterreise: Barfuß auf dem Eise wankt er hin und her” (barefoot on the ice, he staggers here and there).  Han ska släcka min lykta is also #24 of its cycle and has clear harmonic connections to Schubert’s model.

Insistent fast triplets on F, probably the “little light” of the song’s title, are played by the piccolo starting at two after 215, then joined by the first violins (playing in harmonics) at two after 221.

The line played by the first trumpet, flutes, and clarinets starting at Fig. 212 incorporates the little three-note chromatic figure we first heard at one after Fig. 44.  I love this aspect of Pettersson’s large-scale forms.  Relatively small details can be presented 30 or 40 minutes apart in time and experiential space, and have for me the effect of the same mountain seen from different angles in the course of a long trek.  Two after 218 flutes, oboes, and clarinets (a distinctly Mahler-like sound here) begin to play and to draw out a diatonic version of the same contour.  Its repetitions lead me to microtonal fantasies. 

After this figure has been expanded with octave leaps (Fig. 226-227, in a faster tempo) we can feel the hush two before 228 as a new element of mostly offbeat stabbing chords infiltrates and then takes over.  These are of course the pitches of the previously mentioned ubiquitous black Aeolian harp.  I described the passage from three before 229 to three after 234 as a “Blanketparty für den Protagonist”.  I didn’t know how to express this in German but most people understood after I referred to a scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and after Dr. Kislinger noted that the idiom ihm die Decke geben was current in Austrian usage up into the 1960’s.  But one could also think of Allan’s blacksmith father hammering away.

Two contrapuntally intertwined melodic lines struggle to be heard through the stifling stabs of brass and percussion, second violins and violas.  Both have motivic connections to the song.  The higher line, marked “espr. molto”, played by the first violins doubled by the flutes and later also by the piccolo, gets through.  The lower line, “con passione”, played by the cellos on their (highest) A string, has a harder time.  I find this to be perhaps an error of Pettersson’s orchestration.  The two clarinets, which rest in the first part of this passage and then join the oboes in unison two after 231, adding little to the sound, should in my opinion play together with the cellos throughout this entire passage.  Actually, two BASS clarinets might work well here, playing in their clarino register parallel to that of the high cellos.

The ascending line in the bass instruments starting three after 232 suggests Parsifal, and has, as I previously pointed out, been fleetingly anticipated at two before Fig. 105.  It clearly serves the processes of dissolution and reconciliation, processes furthered by the descending line of the first violins starting at two after 241, a line that we had first heard from the woodwind at four after 157.

The eighth note triplets on F which we first heard at three before Fig. 12 show up for the last time two after 248, quite strangely: played by the first desk of basses, interspersed between glissandi where they moan a minor ninth down from their high G flat.

After Fig. 250 B flat minor is total and we hear the last long line of the piece, drawn from the song, played by the first trumpet and first violins.  Four after 257 F major, pp; and then B flat minor to the end.  Pettersson will reverse this at the end of his NINTH.  The last sound of the piece: a soft bass drum roll and the contra B flat of basses and contrabassoon, whereby I would have the contrabassoon play an octave lower, sub contra B flat.

After a couple of minutes of near-silence it gradually became possible for Prof. Zapke, Dr. Kislinger and I to draw out reactions from the twenty or so listeners.  Connections were felt to Bruckner and Sibelius, and at first also to USA minimalists like Glass and Riley. But we soon agreed that Pettersson’s use of repetition is fundamentally different from that of the more-or-less-mellow minimalists, in that his repetitions tend and intend to convey psychic disturbance and oppression.  Dirk d’Ase, who teaches composition at the conservatory, referred to Pettersson’s repetitions as “verbohrt”, a word that means something between “pigheaded”, “stubborn”, and “cranky”.  He also pointed out the tendency to use the orchestra as more or less a mass, with relatively little use of solo instruments, including a quasi-choric use of the percussion, with the persistent triangle in unusual contexts getting a particularly thorough workout.  The young lady hornist felt that “die Musik vermittelt Leid, und JA, man kann mitleiden (the music conveys sorrow, and yes, one can feel along).

I tried to provoke thoughts as to whether a dramaturgically different unfolding of the symphony after the epiphany at Fig. 125 might have been possible.  Could this chorale-like idea have entered into conflict with what we had previously heard, and then either lost out, or perhaps come to dominate the work?   Or could the opening cells of that which Exists, or the theme-like structure of the Self, perhaps have played a crucial role in the work’s later phases, either linearly or as compressed harmonic structures?  And was the ultimately hymnic presentation of Han ska släcka min lykta consciously planned from the beginning of the composition, which stretched out from 1963 to 1966, and is said to have been interrupted for reasons of poor health?  My intuitive feeling is NO.  I suspect Pettersson decided on the so prominent presentation of the song at some point around or somewhat before the middle of the composition.  The fact that the motivic cells of the song begin to clearly emerge only after the epiphany speaks for my theory.  But we would need to see his sketches (in the Uppsala University archives?) to know for sure.

Then we got into what is in Vienna certainly a relevant theme: comparing Allan Pettersson’s way of integrating his songs into his symphonies with that of Gustav Mahler.  Just considering Mahler’s first four symphonies, we find on the one hand songs which are actual symphonic movements (Urlicht in the 2nd, then the fourth and fifth movements of the 3rd, and the last movement of the fourth), and on the other hand movements where the original song is expanded and serves as a source of “material”: the first and third movements of the 1st, the third movement of the 2nd, and the third movement of the 3rd.  There is no movement in any symphony by Pettersson that just consists of a song.  In our SIXTH the song is gradually arrived at and then presented whole like a faded picture from an old family album.  In the FOURTEENTH the song basically functions as a passacaglia theme.  In the Second Violin Concerto the long culminating presentation of the song is something that is striven for.  In other symphonies (such as the unfinished FIRST) the song appears as a brief image or quote.

And then we talked about the global form, the Gestalt of Pettersson’s SIXTH.  In almost everything written about this work one reads that the second half of the symphony is some kind of “coda”.  I disagree.  In the terms of the Viennese classics a coda carries on a further phase of what happened in the course of the development, drawing further conclusions, and fundamentally using similar principles of formation, albeit perhaps in a concentrated or diluted way.  What happens in Pettersson’s piece is for me quite different.  The epiphany situation of Fig. 125 acts to dissolve the music’s ability to form complex syntax and is (despite several polyphonic protest rallies along the way) the inciter not only of time extension but also of musical tissue degeneration, meant here not pejoratively but existentially.   In the terms of dream logic the symphony’s shape is not that of ONE or of TWO, but that of ONE WHICH IS BROKEN, quite original and unusual in the symphonic literature.

Yes, dream logic.  Sigmund Freud spoke of Verdichtung, Verschiebung, und Verdrängungas being the fundamental processes of dream (or art) formation.  Condensation, displacement, and repression (or: supersession) are concepts that can help with the understanding of Pettersson’s music.

What about the stature and value of Pettersson’s SIXTH?  I agree with Christian Lindberg’s opinion that AP’s SIXTH is on the level of Mahler’s SIXTH, and could (should) several decades after Pettersson’s death become as well known and highly regarded as Mahler’s SIXTH did in the course of the 1960’s and 70’s.  The reactions of the participants to this statement were generally thoughtful and reserved, but not negative.

We took a break.  An Iranian student who had been deeply impressed and was fascinated by the idea of “Scandinavian symphonic thinking” showed me the information on Pettersson recordings that he had collected through spotify on his smartphone.