Music For Writers: The Pettersson Legacy Of Fire And Ice


‘When Inspiration Flows’

The opening tone — lonely and anticipatory — is the last serene moment of the late Allan Pettersson’s Symphony No. 4.

Whether he has his strings rush up to a precipice and hold while the woodwinds dither on the edge — or sends whole sections of his orchestra chasing each other, repeating a pushy, impudent little phrase — there’s a restlessness in this work.

If you’re working on a passage of your own in which you need energy and attack, you’ll find the newly released album, Allan Pettersson: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 16, a solid companion.

The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra is conducted on this release from BIS Records by Christian Lindberg. And thanks to New York Public Radio’s 24-7 contemporary classical stream Q2 Music, you can listen to the album here as you read — the CD is Q2 Music’s Album of the Week.

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As Daniel Stephen Johnson writes at Q2 Music, contrasts are one of the defining elements of what you hear in Pettersson (1911-1980).

In his liner notes, Per-Henning Olsson is in agreement, writing:

Pettersson was aiming for balance in music, a balance between dissonance and consonance, between tension and relaxation — something he expressed verbally on numerous occasions. Incorporating these longer passages with simpler harmonies may well have been a way of counterbalancing the rest of the music and to create tension between the various sections.

Not unlike the kinds of debates that can develop around styles and approaches in literature, the influential Scandinavian music scene in 1959 had become embroiled in a discussion pivotal to the development of “modern music,” as it frequently was termed.

Olsson writes:

In December 1956 an intensive debate had begun in the Swedish daily newspapers concerning ‘radical music’. Among the topics discussed were tonality and atonality, and some regarded the tonal medium as a spent force. In one article Lennart Hedwall wrote: ‘The language of tonality has become so compromised that actual renewal of it would seem impossible.’

Characteristically, the Fourth is interspersed with pastoral, gently poised chorale-like passages that seem to show us a composer who loved nothing more than to intercut sunshine with sudden, cascading percussive dives into worrisome sequences.

At 33 minutes into this 37.38-minute recording, for example (the symphony is played in one movement), woodwinds seem to dog the otherwise peaceable ensemble with alarm. Their quarrel succeeds in toning the work for what will become its ominous conclusion. While Pettersson was neutral in the tension between traditional and “radical” parts of the music community of his day, he brought his Fourth Symphony to a place of rich negativity.

Olsson points out that Pettersson dedicated the piece to his mother, but it was finished shortly before she died. While some have supposed that Pettersson was influenced by his loss in his use of anthemic sequences, Pettersson insisted that this wasn’t the case. Olsson quotes the composer:

“There are apparently some who think that when I write my music I still have my old mother on the kitchen bench. And that she is singing songs of salvation. And that in the square outside I am seeing Salvation Army soldiers marching past… No, it’s madness to believe anything like that… My music comes from what I feel at the very moment when inspiration flows.”


The work of Stravinsky in his Ebony Concerto may come to mind for some in hearing Pettersson’s Symphony No. 16. Like the Fourth, it’s played in a single movement and features a strong role for saxophone, here performed by Jörgen Pettersson.

What starts as a creative restlessness in the Fourth Symphony gets cranked to frenetico, as Olsson points out the score is marked. You barely get a break at around 16 minutes into this 27.30-minute work — a sequence that sounds like a gathering of forces into another of those chorale-like moments — when a busy bass undertow churns the work into echoes of Shostakovich’s often militant, ill-tempered energy.

Indeed, this one opens with snare drum and vaulting horn. It’s hard to think that this concert stage isn’t some sort of battle arena, and you hear something akin to what Andrew Norman discusses with us in his Music for Writers interview here at Thought Catalog about a kind of contention between the instruments — setting them at odds and watching for arguments to develop.

Pettersson was taking no prisoners, and this, it turns out, was the sound of his life’s end. The rising plumes of belligerent brass that begin to overpower the field 20 minutes into the work are the sound, perhaps, of what Johnson writes about as the composer’s irascible, gruff nature. Having suffered severe rheumatoid arthritis for many years, Pettersson would die in 1980, with 1979 as the completion date on the Sixteenth.

Is it too much of a leap — like “old mother on the kitchen bench” — to think that Pettersson knew he was approaching the end? Perhaps it is. Pettersson had begun to work on yet another symphony before his death.

But in the kind of quick concluding pivot that can reconfigure a novelist’s work in a burst of new light at the last moment, the composer makes a fascinating swing to the positive in the final moments of the Sixteenth. The piece ends in a faltering, fateful search…the horn again calling, mid-strings issuing a four-note question… and then an almost exhausted major chord, a surprise resolution. Something lost seems found, something embattled seems suddenly calmed.

The saxophone’s bounding wails haven’t brought us to this, either. The symphonist has. The man who created so much tension in so many works here seems to relent, and barely, only at the last moment. But it’s a warmth we don’t see coming, a glow in the icy friction of so many passages before it.

As in so much good characterization, Pettersson’s personality caused him to lead with his fist, if you will. Pulling few punches, his music is less hot and cold than it is headlong and pugnacious. The seemingly uncooperative figure that Johnson has described in the documentary is fully in sway and unapologetic.

The more you listen to Pettersson, the more you understand why the best writing coaches are always hammering away at contrast; at how no villain is ever fully bad; at how no hero is ever fully good; and at how no genuinely moving resolution is ever quite forever. Don’t get comfortable.

Conflicted, tempestuous, and fitful, this is music for the mind wide awake and energetic, an hour of finely nuanced emotional power.

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