Allan Pettersson

1911 1980

Allan Pettersson



Swedish composer Allan Pettersson is a lone wolf in the sea of 20th century composers. He belongs to no particular established school of composers and identifies with criminals, outcasts and the lower drudges of society. He brilliantly expressed both utter hopelessness and despair with moments of resolution and acceptance through outdated musical forms such as symphonies, songs and concertos. His music received worldwide recognition through the conductor Antál Doráti.

Pettersson was born in the Uppland province of Sweden in 1911, the youngest of four children. The family lived in squalor, occupying a one-room basement apartment infested with rats and insects and had barred windows. Pettersson’s father was a violent and abusive alcoholic who worked as a blacksmith and beat his wife, Ida Paulina, a simple woman who sang hymns to the children and earned extra money for the household as a dressmaker.

Pettersson received a harsh beating at the age of 12 when he bought a violin with the money he had saved up selling cards. His father believed this to be a defiant and selfish act and warned that it would alienate him from his family. By the age of 14, Pettersson devoted himself completely to the instrument, practicing religiously, despite the wishes of his family and the neighbours. He received no formal instruction, yet was eventually able to gain enough skills to enter the Stockholm Royal Conservatory of Music, where he studied violin with Ruthström, viola with Runnquist, harmony with Nordqvist and counterpoint with Melchers.

During his studies he participated in chamber music, theatre music and jazz. He also took part in the first Swedish performance ofSchoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. Pettersson studied further with Maurice Vieux in Paris on a scholarship and won a position with the Concert Society (now the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) where he played for 13 years, until 1953. During this time he gained a positive reputation as a musician but a negative reputation as a person, as he proved irritable and difficult.

During his studies, Pettersson composed many works including his Two Elégies for Violin and Piano (1934), Fantasy for Viola Solo and Four Improvisations for Violin, Viola and Cello (1936), though these are not at all representative of his later, mature work. To further his skills as a composer, he studied privately in the second half of the 1940s with Herbert Rosenberg, Olsson, Mann and Blomdahl. Between 1951 and 1953, he lived again in Paris, studying with René Leibowitz andArthur Honegger.

After a difficult period, living on the fourth floor of an apartment building surrounded by his neighbour’s music and construction, he refused to compose any operas as he found the conditions unsuitable for composing in a new genre. After receiving state-funded living quarters, Pettersson’s quality of life greatly improved and he was able to compose his final works.

Pettersson died in 1980 after being diagnosed with cancer. Though his works are wildly untraditional, they provide a vivid emotional journey, leading Pettersson to be one of the most important Swedish composers of the 20th century.

Header image courtesy of Pettersson Fanpage Other images courtesy of Sveriges Radio and James Wagner

After returning to Stockholm, Pettersson focused on composition until his crippling rheumatoid arthritis took over and he was unable to even attend concerts from 1968 on. Despite the vicious disease, Pettersson finally rose to fame the same year, after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony under Dorati with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. From the 1970s he won various awards, though the press tended to focus on his illness, his empathy for the impoverished and his striking personality.

When the Stockholm Philharmonic toured in 1975, they decided not to include Pettersson’s music, enraging the composer to the point of banning the orchestra from ever performing his music, leading to an elevated level of notoriety. During the ban, which lasted a year, Pettersson was very inactive as a composer. After his death, perhaps because his cantankerous personality was no longer an obstacle, all of his works were recorded and interest in his music increased dramatically.

Pettersson’s first important work is the 24 Barfotasånger (‘Barefoot Songs’) (1943-45) for voice and piano based on his own poetry. The works focus on topics such as loneliness, poverty, sorrow and death.  The name of the work comes from the text of one of the songs, about a girl who walks barefoot through thorns and thistles. Many motifs from these songs reappear in his symphonies and concertos.

Pettersson next wrote two final chamber works; his technically advanced and emotionally haunting Violin Concerto No. 1 (1949) for violin and string quartet was written during a bicycling vacation in the Netherlands, in which he ‘had to stop at almost every fork in the road to write down the notes’. His Seven Sonatas for two violins are just as spectacularly technical and emotional as the concerto. Both works are inspired by the sounds of Hindemith and Bartók. During the 1950s he also completed three concertos for string orchestra, which feature extreme contrast and fragmentation.

Most impressive in Pettersson’s output is his vast array of symphonies, totaling 17, all of which pay little attention to tradition. Symphony No. 1 remains to this day incomplete, and Pettersson withdrew it from his output; Symphony no. 17 also remains incomplete. Though the majority of the symphonies use massive forces, they are not all lengthy. Three of the symphonies (Nos. 10, 11 and 16) last less than 30 minutes. While these works all have a nontraditional two movement form, his 9th and 13th symphonies are comprised of just one colossal movement, lasting more than an hour.

Of the 15 complete symphonies, they can be grouped into three groups: Nos 2-4, 5-9 and 10-16. While the first group of works is characterized by struggle and conflict, with moments of unsure resolution, perhaps resembling death, the middle group is more consonant and minimal. Most notably, the coda of the 7th Symphony features an accompaniment, lasting nearly six minutes, of almost only the B minor triad.

The final group of symphonies is the harshest and most extreme. While lying in the hospital recovering from kidney lesions, Pettersson drafted the 10th and 11 th symphonies. His gloomy surroundings and probably feelings of hopelessness are evident in the work. The high tessitura of the brass and strings adds to the musical tension and unease of the work, and the difficulty.

Pettersson’s most important vocal work is the cantata Vox Humana (1974), which uses text by Pablo Neruda. Neruda’s text is also used for the 12th symphony.