Music For Writers: The Pettersson Legacy Of Fire And Ice

Image - iStockphoto: balhash
Image – iStockphoto: balhash

‘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.

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.

Pettersson Symphonies Nos. 4 and 16Not 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.”

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: The Pettersson Legacy Of Fire And Ice

Originally published by Thought Catalog at


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