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Gustav Allan Pettersson

(1911 – 1980)

"The music forming my work is my own life, its blessings, its curses: in order to rediscover the song once sung by the soul."
- Allan Pettersson

Allan Pettersson occupies a lonely place in 20th-century music – seemingly alienated from any "school", professing an empathy with criminals and outcasts, and using the tools of an earlier generation: symphonies, songs, and concerti. Yet, more than any composer of our time, he has been able to provide a musical testament of a spiritual longing faced with the existential void that we see in the faces of the homeless, the sick, and the beaten-down. Although his music has been labeled "pessimistic", it is inherently hopeful and consolatory – we come away exhausted but enlightened. Isolated first by choice and later by crippling illness, he remained essentially unknown outside of Sweden until Antál Doráti championed his music with the recording of the Seventh Symphony in 1969. Today, 15 of his 16 symphonies have been recorded; one recording label is closing their complete cycle of his work, and another is well underway. (Pettersson withheld his First Symphony, and we are unlikely to hear it.)


Gustav Allan Pettersson was born September 19, 1911, in the Västra Ryd parish of the Uppland province of Sweden. He was the youngest of four children. When he was very young, the family moved to Skanegatan 87, in the Södermalm district of Stockholm, a lower-working-class neighborhood.

The Petterssons lived in a one-room (and kitchen) apartment that was below street level, rat and insect infested, and which had bars on the windows. Pettersson's father, Karl Viktor Pettersson, was a blacksmith, and a violent alcoholic who beat his wife in front of the children. Pettersson's mother, Ida Paulina, was a woman of simple faith who sang Salvationist hymns to the children and earned some extra money for the family working as a dressmaker. When he was twelve, Pettersson saved enough money (earned by selling postcards and Christmas cards) to buy a violin. This was perceived by the father as an act of defiance, and Pettersson was beaten and told in no uncertain terms that selfish acts such as that would alienate him from his working class family. When he reached the age of 14, and after finishing his elementary schooling, Pettersson devoted himself to full-time practice on the violin. He was largely self-taught on the instrument, much to the distress of the neighbors and disgust of his father. However, he developed sufficient skill on the instrument to enter the Stockholm Royal Conservatory of Music at age 19 (in 1930), and he studied violin, viola, harmony, and counterpoint there for the next nine years. He also began composing: he wrote his Two Élégies for Violin and Piano (1934), Six Songs (1935), the Fantasy for Viola Solo (1936), Four Improvisations for Violin, Viola, and Cello (1936), and the Andante expressivo for Violin and Piano (1938) during this period. (The cpo CD 999169-2 has most of Pettersson's chamber music, but I find the majority of it to be academic in nature and not representative of his later music.) His working class origins isolated him from the wealthier students, but his studies cut him off from his family and neighborhood. He was committed to advanced contemporary chamber music, and performed in the first Swedish performance of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" in 1937. In 1939, he won the Jenny Lind prize, and continued his viola studies in Paris with Maurice Vieux. He became a concert violist with what is today the Stockholm Philharmonic from 1939 until 1950, when he went on what became permanent leave.

His first works of major importance were the 24 Barefoot Songs, written for voice and piano to his own texts and published in 1943-45. The name comes from one of the songs, which is about a young girl who walks barefoot through thorns and thistles. Pettersson was to return to these songs for motifs in many of his symphonies and concertos, and I encourage the interested listener to obtain the Swedish Society CD of the complete cycle (Swedish Society 1033). Pettersson married his wife Gudrun in 1943. In 1949 he composed his Violin Concerto #1 (Concerto for Violin and String Quartet), which was written during a bicycle vacationing trip in Holland. Pettersson commented,

"That summer the bicycle trip did not produce much of what I had imagined it would – a musician and soloist has to be in top physical form. I had to stop at almost every fork in the road to write down the notes."

He studied composition with Blomdahl and Otto Olsson in Stockholm, and returned to Paris in 1951 to study with René Leibowitz and Arthur Honegger in 1951. He composed his First Symphony in 1951, but at the time of writing this, it remains unpublished. In 1952, the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Tor Mann, performed the premiere of his Concerto #1 for String Orchestra. The Corporation's Director of Music was induced to commission a larger work for orchestra, which resulted in the Symphony #2. In 1953, the first symptoms of the crippling arthritis that would eventually lead to his complete disablement appeared, and Pettersson was unable to attend the 1953 International Festival in Cologne. There, his Concerto #1 for String Orchestra (1949-50) was the only Scandinavian composition on the program, which was conducted by Hermann Scherchen. The last symphony he was able to complete in his own hand was his Fifth, composed in 1960-62. In 1964 he was awarded a state prize with guaranteed income, and in 1968, after the premiere of and widespread acclaim for his Symphony #7, he was awarded the Prize of the City of Stockholm. In 1970, he developed serious lesions to his kidneys and was confined to a hospital for nine months, during which time he sketched out the drafts of his Symphonies # 10 and 11. In 1973, he received a commission from the University of Uppsala and its music director, Carl Rune Larsson, for the University's 500th anniversary for what was to become his Symphony #12, "The Dead on the Square", with the text being the poem cycle "Los Muertos de la Plaza" by Pablo Neruda. The same year (1974), Pettersson also composed a cantata, "Vox Humana", also on poems by Neruda.

At this time, Pettersson was living in virtual isolation with his wife on the fourth floor of an old apartment building. Unable to move freely because of his crippling arthritis and plagued by construction noises and the ever-present sounds of popular music from neighbors' apartments (which he termed "acoustic irradiation", Pettersson was forced to forego commissions for operas, as he felt his living circumstances were not conducive to creating in a new genre. His situation improved considerably when in December of 1975 he was awarded 10,000 Swedish crowns of the Kurt Atterburg Stipend of the Swedish Copyright Society (STIM). In March of 1976, he was awarded another 10,000 crowns from the Carl Albert Fund, and in May, 25,000 crowns from the Bergen Festival for his Symphony # 13. (The Thirteenth should be listened to with the understanding of the living conditions Pettersson worked in at the time.) Pettersson was promised state living quarters in 1976, and in fact the house to which he and his wife Gudrun moved (at Bastugatan 30 in Stockholm) had been the residence of an earlier renowned composer and conductor, Ture Rangström. The new quarters were not only on the ground floor, they also contained a garden, which Pettersson enjoyed immensely. 1978 proved to be a very productive year, in which he finished both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth symphonies and the Violin Concerto #2, which was a fully orchestral work in comparison with #1's chamber-music forces. Unfortunately, his health continued to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with cancer. In 1979, Pettersson completed work on his Sixteenth Symphony, highly unusual in it's prominent use of a solo saxophone, and the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Pettersson died on June 20, 1980. ~ Mark Shanks

Recommended Recordings

24 Barefoot Songs

24 Barefoot SongsSwedish Society Discofil SCD 1033
Margot Rödin (mezzo-soprano), Erik Sæden (baritone), Arnold Östman (piano)

Concertos #1-3 for String Orchestra

Concertos #1-3 for String Orchestra/CPO 999225-2
Johannes Goritzki/Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss

Symphonies (Recommended Work by this Composer #7)

Symphony #7/Caprice CAP21411
Sergiu Comissiona/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #7 (with Symphony #11)/BIS CD-580
Leif Segerstam/Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra
Symphony #7/CPO 999190-2
Gerd Albrecht/ Hamburg State Philharmonic State Orchestra