When I first heard this symphony as a college student, it so intimidated me that I didn't return to Allan Pettersson's music for about ten years. (Far better to start with the Symphony #7.) Part of the problem, as I recall, was that the LP included the texts in Swedish, but that there were no English translations. Well, once again, cpo's booklet reprints the Swedish texts and a German translation, but no English. At the end of the printed text, there is a short note from cpo: "We regret that – for legal reasons – we cannot print the original poems of Pablo Neruda and the corresponding English translations. We ask for your understanding for this fact." Understand I do, but anyone interested in penetrating the symphony's surface is advised to hunt down an English translation first, if at all possible. As the texts in this symphony are taken from the fifth part of Neruda's Canto general, commonly regarded as his magnum opus, this should not be terribly difficult.
Pettersson selected nine of Neruda's poems for this symphony, whose English title is "The Dead in the Square." This is an allusion to an event in Chilean history: on January 28, 1946, eight Chilean workers affiliated with the resistance movement were killed, and more were injured, by police forces in a public square in Santiago de Chile. Pettersson, whose background in Sweden was firmly proletarian, probably shared at least some of Neruda's political viewpoints, but he insisted that the Symphony #12 was not a political work, but rather a commentary on the seemingly unending story of human cruelty towards those who are disenfranchised. Neruda's texts are full of unsentimental solidarity with the dead, and anger against those who betrayed them and ordered their slaughter. There's hope too: the final poem is a portrayal of the "day of judgement" as a day of hope for those who died in these and in similar circumstances. In the Swedish translation set by Pettersson, the final word that is sung is "dag" (day), and how telling it is that this symphony, so full of struggle, comes to an end 53 minutes later in a brilliant burst of C Major!
The symphony was premièred in 1977. Pettersson had been asked to compose a symphony marking the 500th anniversary of the founding of the University of Uppsala. The finished work is anything but celebratory – at least in the traditional academic manner. Apparently it did not set well with those who wanted something to make them feel good. They should have known, however, that Pettersson's background of poverty, misunderstanding, and debilitating illness made it unlikely that he would have written a "feel good" symphony on demand.
The chorus is rarely silent and acts as a protagonist – the communal voice of the people, if you will. Pettersson did not write extensively for the voice, but he had an almost instinctive talent for setting words, and what he does with Neruda's impassioned texts is very poetic and moving. Even though the dominant mood is one of anger and protest, Pettersson keeps the symphony from becoming a 53-minute rant by frequently turning to introspection. The orchestral writing keens with anguish in the composer's familiar style. It is, however, never so complex or harsh that it becomes incomprehensible to the open-eared. Pettersson never talked down to his listeners, but neither did he forget his origins. Despite his modernism, he always communicates.
The symphony's first recording appears to be out of print, so this new release is most welcome. It was recorded live in Stockholm in 2004, and it has an electricity I don't recall from that Caprice LP I once owned. There's no doubt that this is an important addition to the Pettersson discography. I encourage those who disliked the Symphony #12 the first time around to give it a second chance in this passionate new recording by Honeck and the Swedish musicians.
Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle