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An outcast composer, 33 years dead, is about to make his West Coast debut

Slipped Disc makes no secret of a long-standing fascination with the Swedish composer, Allan Pettersson, a symphonist shunned as much in his own country as abroad. So when we heard that conductor Christopher Russell was preparing a California performance of the 7th, we asked him for an account of the run-up. Here’s his report, with exclusive video and stills. Take it away, Chris, with exclusive rehearsal footage:

I don’t remember why I bought the DG recording of Allan Pettersson’s 8th Symphony at Tower Records when I was about 17 and 18 years old.   Maybe I heard it on the radio.  Maybe as I was looking at the record, I read the liner notes on the back and was intrigued.  Maybe it was the cover with the bright green background and a profile of the composer looking at something far away.  Maybe it was a combination of all of them but whatever it was I bought it that afternoon.

Soon after putting it on, I was gripped by the drama of the whole work especially by those two incessant and haunting rising half notes that start a few minutes in.   This was a composer that I had to know more of.  And indeed I did.   Over the years I got to know all 16 of his symphonies. Soon afterwards I bought the Dorati recording of the 7th.  I wasn’t sure that anything could beat the 8th but this one was just as first rate.

Conductors normally have wish lists of being able to conduct certain pieces.  I have many on that list but one of them was a Pettersson symphony.   So when I was planning my repertoire for 2012-13, I realized that the conditions were right for me to program one of them on my March 5 concert with my excellent orchestra at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California.  The question was whether to do the 7th or the 8th.  I got copies of both scores and listened to them several times.  After a while, I came to the conclusion that the 7th is the one where Pettersson got it “just right” from beginning to end.  It’s no wonder that it’s the most performed of his symphonies.

Not however in the United States.  When I decided to program the piece, I researched Pettersson performances in the US and got some surprising facts:

1. This would be the West Coast premiere of this great work finished in 1967.

2. It would be only the second US performance of the 7th.

3. This will be the first performance of any of his symphonies in the US in 29 years.

4. No Pettersson symphony has ever been played west of Chicago.

So performing this takes on a special importance for me and my players.

We’ve had three rehearsals on the work as I write this.  Rehearsals have been a bit different from other works mostly because I’ve been speaking a lot about Pettersson to the orchestra since no one, of course, had ever played anything by him and most had never heard of him.  I also spend time speaking about the dramatic journey that he takes us on.  Much of this is through the transformation (or not) of the melodies and also how his harmonic language is an integral part of the drama.


To prepare for this essay, I asked a couple of orchestra members take anonymous comments from the other players.  Reaction has been mostly positive but certainly mixed.  Some said it was “frustrating” and “demented”.  Others are still not sure what to make of it with one saying that “understanding this piece is incredibly exhausting”.  On the more positive side, some caught the mood of the piece comparing it to a Greek tragedy, recognizing “amidst tragedy there are moments of beauty…[T]hat sense of beauty is more powerful that I normally experience.”  Other comments have called it “awesome”, “wonderful” and “hauntingly beautiful”.

I’m glad to hear it’s making an impact and don’t mind the negative comments.  Perhaps as we start running and eventually perform the piece, it’ll come more into focus for those unsure about the work.  One thing I can guarantee is that performing Pettersson is something the orchestra and I will not soon forget.

The concert’s next Tuesday, right here.

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  1. Hello,

    a collegue of mine made a tip about this article. This was wonderful to hear about! Pettersson is really under-rated, not least by the Swedish orchestras, who almost never play his music.

    Of course everyone won’t like his long and mostly heavy works. But they are important, communicating really existential matters.

    Pettersson has inspired me a lot as composer.

    Best wishes from Göteborg (also West Coast!), Sweden

  2. richardcarlisle says:

    Vibrant mix of wind and strings, unique percussion… tonal range intriguing, mood provocative; repeat listenings finding new aspects, not for everyone I guess but for me far better than most of Stravinsky if you’re going century 20..

    Again indebted, Norman

  3. Good luck on the performance!

  4. Stephen Aechternacht says:

    I have been a fan of Pettersson’s music since the late 1960s, when, as a teenaged classical record collector, I nabbed his 7th Symphony on the old London LP with Dorati conducting. After hearing it, and after picking up my jaw from the floor, I thought, “Holy crap! This dude has written at least seven symphonies? What do the others sound like?” I’d never heard anything quite like it, and was enthralled…obsessed. I knew little else of his, save the Symphony Nr. 2, the “Mesto” from one of his String Concertos and some of the Barefoot Songs. I noted that he was born in 1911 and immediately drew the comparison with Mahler, who died the year Pettersson was born. Was Pettersson Mahler reincarnate? Fast forward: From 1982 to 1987 I was the Artistic Administrator of the Houston Symphony. The conductor at the time was Sergiu Comissiona. He had scheduled Pettersson’s Symphony Nr. 7 for subscription performances on October 23 & 24, 1982. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. At our first artistic planning meeting in late August of that year, Comissiona, the late Gideon Toeplitz,(HSO’s Executive Director) and I met to discuss the upcoming season’s repertoire and artists. Sergiu was concerned. The program was:

    Wagner: Rienzi Overture
    Bruch: Violin Concerto Nr. 1 (with Kyung-Wha Chung)
    Pettersson Symphony Nr. 7

    Sergiu was worried that we’d lose audience after the Interval because no one had ever heard of Pettersson and would assume they would have to endure something really contemporary and horrible, forty minutes of “Tortured Souls in Hell” music.

    I offered an elegant solution: Reverse the order of the program:

    Pettersson: Symphony Nr. 7
    Bruch: Violin Concerto Nr. 1
    Wagner: Rienzi Overture

    We did. We “forced” the audience to attend to the Pettersson, and, if they didn’t like it (many did, some didn’t) by the end of Rienzi they’d forgotten about their dislike and exited Jones Hall humming Wagner.

    To Maestro Russell: In you fine rendering od your upcoming performance, did you account for the HSO performance in 1982? You said it had been 29 years since it had been performed in America, and your performance would only be the second in the USA, and that no Pettersson Symphony has been performed west of Chicago. Well, it has been 31 years since we performed the Seventh, and Houston is considerably farther west than Chicago.

    That said, I applaud your efforts in promoting this amazing Symphony and wish I could be there for the performance.

    At 64, I am quite certain that I will never get to hear another Pettersson Symphony live in my lifetime, but I am grateful to the grave that I heard the Houston Symphony Orchestra perform this “sui generis” masterpiece. I consider those evenings two of the greatest few musical events of my life, exceeded only by my trip to London in July of 2011 to hear Martin Brabbins’ Proms performance of Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony.

    Now, of course, in the CD era which has, however counter to my prediction at the dawning of it, explored the fringes of the repertoire far, far greater than ever imagined in the LP era, I own everything of Pettersson’s that is recorded, and will continue to collect the BIS cycle of the Symphonies, which, I expect , to be even more definitive than cpo’s landmark survey of AP’s Symphonies.

    Now, if only someone would perform and record Kaikhosru Sorabji’s gargantuan symphonic/choral music. Then my life would surely be complete.

  5. Allan Pettersson DESERVES to be ignored. To be a less plausible composer, one has to be a minimalist.

    His fans are of an especially low order of awareness. His program annotator does not even remark on his quote from the Barber Adagio for Strings. Quoting Barber was a big mistake for Pettersson, since the quote stands out as the best content in the ten or fifteen symphonies or concertos of his I at least have heard. I listened for some time to his music thinking he steals from the Bartok MUSIC more often than Dvorak steals from Beethoven. At least Dvorak’s Beethoven thefts are small matters, and usually not too close to the level of content; you have to know Beethoven pretty well to hear them.

    Pettersson’s saxophone symphony deserves to be in a Music Criticism course as a textbook case of “horror vacui” in melodic writing. Listening to a whole work of Pettersson is like eating a whole jar of jelly.

    • Christopher Fulkerson, you are joking… or not? I heard your “Ceremonial III” with these bad midisounds but i think you should give Pettersson some more chances as your music is in some ways very similar to Petterssons i.e the use of insisting melodic cells. So i think you like a whole jar of jelly. And we “fans of Pettersson” are much aware about his music.

      • Of course you know I’m not joking, and the mere fact of working with “melodic cells” is an insufficient “similarity” between any two composers. [Redacted] It is in no way information for a person who likes something to say he does, in fact, like it.

  6. Thank you for this information Mr. Aechternacht. This listing had escaped the Swedish and US publishers of his music so I’m glad to know about it. Indeed then, our performance will be the 3rd in US. Still not enough in my opinion. The last Pettersson symphony played in the US was the 16th(!) on a tour by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (w/Yuri Ahronovich) in Long Island, NY in 1984 thus still making it 29 years since the last Pettersson symphony was played here.
    By the way, I have conducted a couple of Brian symphonies already (#27 and 32) and I’d love to conduct the Gothic someday here. Plus, the US premiere is still up for grabs. But mounting that is no easy task!

    • Stephen Aechternacht says:

      Chris: All the best of luck with AP’s 7th! I wish I could be there! Thank, as well, for conducting HB’s 27 & 32! Is there more Brian in the future? I am a member of the Havergal Brian Society and have been doing some research on a US Premiere of “The Gothic,” although my efforts are in their infancy. My friend Andrew Litton is also interested in mounting a production. The logical venue is the Armory in Manhattan. It could easily grant enough room for the performers and still have enough space to seat a couple of thousand concert-goers, maybe more. By my estimate, it would cost around $500,000-$700,000 in today’s money, more if the project takes a great deal longer to mount. If I had the money, I would be working day and night to see the project through. Frankly, I’d love to live long enough to see this eventuate (I’m certain that one day it will).
      Are there other neglected symphonic composers you are considering for performance? Holmboe perhaps? Sorabji? Tubin? Miaskovsky? Popov? Rautavaara? Ivanovs? Panufnik? Sallinen? Kokkonen? Arnell? Atterberg? I could go on.

      Regardless, thank you for your commitment to AP’s Symphonies! 6 and 8 could use another US performance, too. Didn’t the Chicago Symphony perform Nr. 8 years ago?

      All best wishes,

      Stephen Aechternacht

      • Actually a good university with an excellent chorus and orchestra (albeit a lot of chorus and orchestra!) could mount the Gothic and it could be done at a fraction of the cost. Many of Brian’s works are very playable by younger groups.
        Yes, the CSO played the 8th, again with Comissiona, right around the time he did the 7th in Houston. Many thanks for your well wishes!

  7. Chris, on the way to Brian give Pettersson 12 a lift (the choirs will then be fixed) :-)

  8. MichelLONCIN says:

    Il est tout bonnement SCANDALEUX qu’un tel GENIE continue à faire l’objet ‘un tel ostracisme, d’un tel rejet de a part du “monde musical” officiel !!! Je n’aurais jamais cru que même aux Etats-Unis, ce soit aussi le cas !!! Il semble qu’il soit relativement joué en Allemagne et en Angleterre … par contre … RIEN, ABSOLUMENT RIEN en France et en Belgique !!!

    J’ai entendu pour la première fois une oeuvre de Pettersson en juin 1980 : c’était l’extraordinaire, la sublime 8ème Symphonie dirigée par Sergiu Comissiona et l’orchestre de Baltimore sur disque DGG. Musicalement, cette symphonie est supérieure à la 7ème, du grand chant d’entrée à la “Coda” finale en La bémol mineur du 2d mouvement en passant par la Coda du premier mouvement (ces deux notes Mi-Fa sur fond de Si bémol mineur !!!), le début hyper dramatique du 2d mouvement, la longue “suspension” (au sens où Adorno entendait ce terme chez Mahler), le climax en Fa mineur et la longue première section de la Coda … Cette noirceur en musique est fascinante et témoigne PLUS QUE JAMAIS, 50 ans après sa composition, de la misère morale et spirituelle de notre Temps …

    Le Temps de Pettersson viendra (comme est venu le Temps e Mahler ou de Chostakovitch) mais … QUAND ?

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