Who was Allan Pettersson?


He answered the question himself with his music, in particular in the Barefoot Songs, and also in interviews: “A voice crying in the wilderness that is nearly drowned by the noise of time”, was how he described himself.  (Allan Pettersson Society in Sweden)

This is a belated acknowledgement of Petterrson’s birthday, who was born on 19 September 1911.

He grew up and lived virtually all his life in Södermalm in the south of Stockholm. With mixed feelings he witnessed at close quarters how his childhood haunts were transformed from a poor working-class district to a picturesque residential area for a large proportion of the city’s cultural and artistic elite.Petterson’s gift for music was first discovered at school. He played in various cafés and cinemas from an early age, but it was not until he was about fifteen years old that he began to have regular lessons in violin-playing and music theory.  (Laila Barkefors, Gerhman’s Musikfoerlag)

petterrson2Allan Pettersson was a remarkable man, who overcame extreme personal hardship to create highly distinctive and deeply affecting music. His expressive range is broad, from lyric simplicity and haunting beauty to dense, contrapuntal climaxes of absolutely terrifying ferocity. His music is often complex, but its expressive content is always direct. It may not be for everyone; but once you have been touched by Pettersson’s music, you will never forget it. It may even keep you up at night…. (Paul Cauthen’s Pettersson site)

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.  (Classical.net)

“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

petterrson1In 1951 Pettersson began work on the Sisyphean task of writing his first symphony – which he in fact never completed. The same year he also wrote Seven Sonatas for Two Violins, which is an impressive addition to the repertoire for violin duo. Pettersson returned to Paris for the year 1951-52, this time to study composition. After a period of not particularly successful studies with Honegger, Milhaud and Messiaen, he sought out the composer, conductor and twelve-tone theoretician René Leibowitz (1913-1972). Although Pettersson never came to use an orthodox twelve-tone technique in his composing, it is obvious that the way of thinking which he assimilated during his at times daily lessons with Leibowitz had a significant influence on his compositional technique.  (Laila Barkefors, Gerhman’s Musikfoerlag)

Pettersson wrote 17 symphonies, all are available from BIS Records.

petterrson3Symphony #7 (1966-67)

“When will the angel come who restores the song to the soul, so simply and clearly, that a child will cease it’s weeping?”

– Allan Pettersson

Certainly the most well-known and most frequently performed of all of his symphonies, Pettersson’s Seventh was dedicated to Antál Doráti, whose recording of it brought the world’s attention to the reclusive composer. If the Sixth is a dark and desperate cry ending in resignation, the Seventh is the “song sung by the soul” that Pettersson sought so yearningly to reveal.  (Mark Shanks, 1996, Overview to the Symphonies)

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