Pettersson Symphony No 8
Allan Pettersson (1911-80) studied composition under Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Otto Olsson at the Stockholm Conservatoire and with Arthur Honegger and Rene Leibowitz in Paris. However, he spent most of his working life as a violist, until rheumatoid arthritis put a stop to this in 1964. His first real breakthrough as a composer was the performance at a youth concert in Stockholm in October 1968 (the last premiere of any of his works that he was fit enough to attend) of his Seventh Symphony (1966-7) by the Stockholm Philharmonic under Antal Dorati, a fervent champion of his music. Pettersson once said (in a letter to his friend and biographer Leif Aare): ''The music forming my work is my own life, its blessings, its curses: in order to rediscover the song once sung by the soul''. It is widely accepted that his symphonies are autobiographical comments on the wretchedness of his childhood: his upbringing in a Stockholm slum by a violent, atheist father and a weak, pietist mother; the humdrum existence of a gifted but unrecognized composer compelled to earn his living as an orchestral player; and miserable health culminating in cancer.
Most of his 16 symphonies (a seventeenth was left unfinished when he died) are gigantic single-movement pieces lasting about 45 minutes—''mighty songs of anger and accusation'' as Andreas K. Meyer puts it in his valuable and comprehensive, if sometimes rather oddly translated, articles in the accompanying booklets (which include some music examples)—although the musical idiom, but not the formal design, always remains relatively conventional and tonal.
Symphony No. 7 follows this one-movement pattern and is characterized by an obsessive atmosphere of menace, heightened by insistent percussion ostinatos; by the building up of motivic patterns that grow out of short germ-cells, the most important of which is a two-bar motif for trombones and tuba first heard 52 bars into the piece; such themes as do emerge are sombre and elegiac, though there are occasional stretches of lyrical tranquillity. The Eighth was composed in 1968-9 but not performed until February 1972 (by Dorati and the Stockholm Philharmonic). Unusually, it is in two moments of roughly equal length. Both begin with contrasting introductions (gentle, if uneasy in the first, threatening in the second) but are based on a germ-cell of a two-fold rising semitone, E-F, which is expounded and elaborated in the first movement and further developed in the second. The Fourteenth, again in one vast movement, dates from 1978 but did not receive its first performance (by the Stockholm PO under Sergiu Commissiona) until 1981, a year after Pettersson's death. The work is more varied in style and, on the whole, more animated than Nos. 7 and 8 (though insistent use of percussion is still a feature). The whole piece is based on one of Pettersson's 24 Barfotasanger (''Barefoot songs'') of 1943-5, or variants of it: ''A flower passes you by, in a hand, my hand''—an astonishingly simple, innocent source for such a sprawling, seemingly endless musical structure.
Much as one must admire the craftsmanship of Pettersson's symphonic oeuvre, as demonstrated in these three impressive examples, and the breadth of his vision, it is hard to sustain concentration over the huge time-span that is involved when the sense of formal design and direction is so imprecise and the thematic material so undistinguished. Since only three Pettersson symphonies (Nos. 5, 12 and 16) are at the moment available on CD, these new releases from the German company CPO, all recorded at fine live performances, will be warmly welcomed by devotees. Newcomers should approach with caution: I would suggest starting off with No. 7 which, after all, first brought Pettersson's music to the notice of the musical public; but it is not a venture for the faint-hearted!'