Not my words. Just the title of a 1974 TV interview with Pettersson (1911–80).
The simple answer? Pettersson was the most significant Swedish symphonic composer of the late 20th century.
But that’s hardly a simple answer, because Pettersson’s achievement gets qualified in too many ways. Why “Swedish,” for example? Is there something distinctly national about his work? No—it draws upon the same variegated stylistic streams that influenced his Western contemporaries. He studied for short periods with Arthur Honegger, René Leibowitz (12-tone music), Karl-Birger Blomdahl, and others, then went his own way.
And why “symphonic”? Actually, that makes more sense. Aside from a couple of early song cycles and a smattering of chamber music, Pettersson devoted himself exclusively to extended orchestral works and an oratorio, Vox Humana. He needed epic scale and textural complexity, orchestral color and power, to flesh out narratives he created in the manner of Beethoven, whose work remained a lifelong touchstone for Pettersson. Just to give you a first taste, here’s an early-ish work, the Symphony No. 3, in four movements [Introduzione, 0:00; Largo, 13:38; Allegro comodo, 22:16; Allegro con moto, 16:53]:
So: dead serious, as they say. But also full of drama, energy, rhythm. You might not want this as your daily swim, but once you jump in . . .
Pettersson realized his narratives largely between 1955 and 1980. It was an era hostile to the creation of new orchestral music. The Young Lions of the day were Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, and—insofar as symphonic music mattered—that Old Lion Charles Ives. Innovators like Ligeti, Lutosławski, and Penderecki brought in fresh textural notions and aleatoric concepts. Pettersson swam valiantly upstream in the face of all that.
As his New Grove biographer Rolf Haglund noted, Pettersson “was brought up in poverty by his atheist father [a blacksmith and a violent alcoholic] and deeply religious mother, who sang Salvation Army hymns to her children.” Gradually and fitfully he acquired musical training, becoming a violist and then a composer; you can read more about his struggle here. Pettersson’s professional breakthrough came in 1968 with the premiere and subsequent recording of his Symphony No. 7 by Antal Doráti and the Stockholm PO. From then on his reputation grew steadily. The rheumatoid arthritis that increasingly confined him to his apartment in Södermalm (home to Lisbeth Salander and other Stieg Larsson characters, incidentally), also left him free to compose music received warmly in Sweden and abroad. Eventually the efforts of Doráti and others were supplanted and redoubled by energetic conductor-composer-trombonist Christian Lindberg, who is recording all of Pettersson’s major works for BIS.
If you’re curious about Pettersson, the next place to go might be Lindberg’s set of Symphonies 5 & 7 (BIS-2240; 2018). The fifth symphony (1960–62) presents Pettersson fully formed and speaking with his own voice, yet in recognizably traditional form: it flows in one continuous movement, but the music clearly breaks down into four principal sections. First comes a meditative introduction, its atonal language leavened—surprisingly—by simpler chordal “resolutions”:
This gives way to an urgent Allegro retaining the introduction’s dualisms: on the one hand, we hear a Beethovenian combination of upper-voice melody and steady rhythmic accompaniment, enriched by short-breathed motivic interplay. On the other hand, the music’s bleak melodic lines generate considerable tension.
And so we are propelled into a scherzo-like third section. Texture thins out, but not rhythmic drive:
A fresh buildup of tension dissipates only in the fourth and final section. Here, traditional harmonies dominate newly transformed, slower themes as the symphony winds down reluctantly to its final chords. Vestiges of rhythmic intensity linger. Although C remains a focal point, there is no triumphant turn to C major à la Beethoven. If this is victory, it feels hard-won, temporary.
Symphony No. 7, written a scant five years later and dedicated to Doráti, won two Swedish “Grammis” awards and was featured repeatedly on Swedish television. Choreographer Birgit Cullberg used it for her ballet Rapport (1976). Its slow-burning but ferocious opening motive was even adapted as a jazz composition:
Like Symphony No. 5, this work flows continuously, its reliance on contrasts between motives, tempos, and moods even more pronounced. Listen to this early section, in which sustained chords from the trombones compete with restless chromatic gestures from the violins:
Several good performances of the entire work show up on YouTube. Below, we offer a live 2018 performance by Lindberg and the Norrköpping SO, but you may want to compare it with Daniel Harding’s more expansive reading (which reminds us that Sergiu Celibidache was another enthusiast for the work).
What next? Why not Violin Concerto No. 2 (BIS-2290; 2019)? It was written in 1977 for the great Ida Haendel and then revised, presumably with her input and that of other interested parties, between 1978 and ’80, making it one of the last of Pettersson’s works. (Another, similar work is Symphony No. 16 for alto saxophone and orchestra, completed mere months before the composer died; see below.)
This violin “concerto” is really an hour-long, single-movement symphony of sorts, but with a virtuosic solo violin part. Indeed, the violinist plays almost without interruption, “seemingly in a contest with the orchestra . . . which, for long stretches, plays powerfully,” as annotator Per-Henning Olsson puts it. Pettersson himself acknowledged his radical departure from concerto idiom:
The solo violin is incorporated into the orchestra like any other instrument. Contrasting with a conventional concerto, this work is a matter of lengthy, expansive sections that frequently resolve themselves in eruptions—not the compartmentalized type of tutti sections in the usual sort of concerto. Thus the solo violin is [often] eliminated as regards audibility.
Eliminated!?! That’s not something the “usual sort” of violinist would stand for. Clearly, Pettersson found himself so deeply committed to portraying certain truths that he could not turn aside his creative impulses for Ida Haendel or anyone else. His lifelong experience with various implacable oppressions—childhood abuse, institutional indifference, chronic illness, wartime chaos, musical politics, and more—played a role. We may gain further insight from his comment that the work depicted “the little man’s struggle against [Leonid] Brezhnev,” who led the USSR from 1964 to’82. I believe he offered this as a means of depersonalizing a struggle that was obviously personal. In any case, his protagonist displays remarkable defiance:
At the end, Pettersson offers a measure of tranquillity:
After these searing experiences, where to next? Perhaps Symphony No. 16, composed with American saxophonist Frederick L. Hemke in mind. In sketches and notes, Pettersson repeatedly referred to this work as a “saxophone concerto.” Yet, like the Violin Concerto No. 2, it resists the typical soloistic constructions. You may find it useful to compare Hemke’s own performance (on YouTube here) with that of Jörgen Pettersson (no relation) under Lindberg and the NSO (here). Hemke makes it a wilder, somewhat more idiomatic ride, although Per-Henning Olsson, writing for BIS, asserts that in Lindberg’s reading, the score “has been followed to the letter, including the saxophone part,” which “has not always been the case.” Duly noted. (The SACD includes that “Who the hell” interview, incidentally. Pettersson was an uncooperative subject.)
Over the past few years I have also collected and enjoyed most of Christian Lindberg’s Pettersson releases. Good sound, scrupulously commited performances. But I’d love to hear from other ardent Petterssonians out there about your own favorite recordings.