Summary for the Busy Executive: Fjords and tors and more.
Kurt Atterberg trained as an electrical engineer and spent almost all of his working life in the Swedish Patent Office. Indeed, they had to force him out of the job, kicking and screaming, at the age of 81. Beyond that, Atterberg enjoyed a considerable conducting career and was active in Swedish composing circles. This provides more than enough activity for two, but Atterberg also created a substantial catalogue of mainly large work: nine symphonies, about five operas, several orchestral suites and concert pieces, at least three concertos and two string quartets. His catalogue lacks, oddly enough, many miniatures. The Patent Office must have been awfully understanding. After Atterberg got the gig, he even managed to study music for an extended period in Berlin and toured as a conductor internationally.
In general, Atterberg writes as a late Romantic nationalist, although he considered himself a classicist-nationalist. The symphonic form attracted him, and he wrote his first four between 1908 and 1918, one roughly every two years. He tended to avoid the "organic" forms favored by post-Wagnerians like Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Ture Rangström, using instead classical forms fitted to a Nineteenth-Century harmonic idiom and strongly influenced melodically by Scandinavian writers like Grieg and Stenhammar. I find him near early Nielsen or even Sibelius in outlook, but although at times he comes close, without those composers' power and range at their best.
In three substantial movements, the Symphony #2 fulfills all of a listener's preconceptions of what a Swedish symphony should sound like. Horns and double winds make their presence known. The music often lies in the middle register. A pastoral feeling predominates. However, Atterberg offers more. In contrast with the symphonies of Hugo Alfvén, for example, this score cleaves to symphonic forms like sonata-allegro fairly tightly and with a great deal of sophistication, rather than fall back on essentially programmatic or even operatic procedures. The first movement works out exposition of two thematic groups, development, and recapitulation, for example, with plenty of thematic transformations and an elegant rhythmic "shadow" argument to the melodic ones.
However, as fine as the first movement is, the second tops it. Boldly conceived as a slow movement interrupted by two scherzi, it begins with a long-breathing theme that can make strong men weep before its beauty. At least, that's the image it gave dry-eyed, cynical me. One can hear bits of Wagner, Bruckner, Sibelius, even Mahler in it, but it nevertheless comes through as something strikingly individual, with harmonic sequences simultaneously out-of-the-way, bone-simple, and extremely affecting. This winds down into the first appearance of the scherzo. I find it hard to describe the transition from one section to another. Unlike my earlier comment, the scherzo doesn't really interrupt; rather, the cantabile seems to melt into the scherzo. And the scherzo drives, pounds, and stomps. It's as if you're living through your first major heart attack. The adagio returns in the same way it left, sort of melting out of the scherzo. Now, however, both the cantabile theme and the scherzo begin to intermingle within the context of the adagio. This lasts through the second formal appearance of the scherzo. I must say that you don't need a degree in musicology or theory to pick any of this up. The themes are so distinct and so memorable, you can't help but hear this. Who knew that you could combine them? Atterberg might have felt like the chef who invented fried ice cream. Furthermore, he saves the best for last, turning the minor-key cantabile into major to create with the splendor of brass a Mahler-like apotheosis. The symphony could well have ended at this point, and indeed Atterberg originally did end it with the second movement. Critics, however, complained that he had short-changed them, and gradually he came to agree with them. A couple of years later, he added a third movement. This new finale, fine in itself, nevertheless doesn't give you anything new. Indeed, it provides the same sort of narrative progression as the first. I find myself more sympathetic to Atterberg's original impulse: the symphony seems stronger without the second thoughts.
The Fifth Symphony (1922) appeared after a five-year struggle, during which Atterberg suffered an artistic crisis and doubted his talent. He worked and reworked the score. Although one has to jump through mental hoops to describe Atterberg as a true modernist (Modernism didn't really take hold in Scandinavia until the Thirties and Forties, arguably due to the fact that these countries stayed out of the First World War), nevertheless the symphony shows some assimilation of new ideas, and chord formations and progressions are slightly more daring. Atterberg makes some use of a musical motto, a mainly harmonic idea, but fails to work it into the symphony's structural depths. Nevertheless, the first movement is as lean and athletic as Nielsen. The second, the most conservative and the movement which gives the symphony its subtitle, begins as a lament which melds into a funeral march. The cohesiveness of the movement and Atterberg's ability to build powerful climaxes impress the most. The third movement follows without a break as a quick march, with the motto turned into fanfares. The main theme speeds up and martializes the main theme of the second movement. Ideas from the first movement also show up through the beginning part of the first movement, in a somewhat scattershot way. However, at a certain point, the meter changes to triple-time. We get a grotesque waltz on the main idea, and from then on, the symphony goes like gangbusters. Again, the main idea is simply the chief theme of the second movement in a different suit, so we're surprised and not surprised when the second-movement lament comes back in close to its original form. Atterberg handles the transition superbly and even manages us one last revelation – a coda based entirely on the motto. This is superior composition brainwork.
Finnish conductor Rasilainen and his German players do well delineating each symphony's architecture, although inner parts are slightly murky. Rasilainen does particularly well capturing the balance between Atterberg's passion and his emotional reserve. CPO has released the complete symphonies with these forces (CPO 777118) in a 5-CD set. I'm seriously considering it.
Copyright © 2009, Steve Schwartz