Richard Strauss, best known to film fans as “guy who composed the 2001 music,” was both one of the 20th century’s most skilled and famous composers. He possessed equal gifts for harmonic progression and careerism, working well with whoever was in power, including the Nazi Party. (He wrote “I made music under the Kaiser. . .I’ll survive under this one as well.”) His technical skill allowed him, as few other composers could, to control his music over large stretches of time; his symphonic poems such as Death and Transfiguration and Metamorphoses are some of the century’s biggest and most heroic works.
Now take that same level of talent and give it to a man who grew up beaten by an alcoholic father, who lived most of his life in a cramped, noisy apartment away from the centers of culture, got little recognition for his work, and who spent the second half of his life with progressive arthritis that eventually paralyzed him–and because of that, couldn’t even write most of his music. That’s pretty much Gustav Allan Pettersson (1911-1980) and his music does in fact sound like Richard Strauss, really fuckin’ pissed off. Pettersson wrote many orchestral works–cantatas and concertos–but the symphony was his best genre, with 16 of them plus one unfinished in his lifetime. The Sixth (premiered in 1968) isn’t just his best, it’s the real forgotten masterwork of the 20th century.
One of the simplest things and most unique things to appreciate about the Sixth is that it’s a single hourlong movement. Music, in its most basic definition, is the transformation of sound over time, and symphonic music (I think “symphony” makes a better adjective than noun) works with the broadest range of sound over the longest time. Symphonies, since Wagner, have worked at the length of an hour or so, but they’re almost always broken into distinct movements. Uniquely, almost all Pettersson’s symphonies are 45-60 minutes, almost all of them a single movement with a single throughline. Again, the comparison to Richard Strauss makes sense; Strauss’ “tone poems” were single movements around 30 minutes, but he anchored them to literary plots. Pettersson works with entirely musical continuities.
It begins quietly, ominously, in the lowest registers (like all great composers, Pettersson is in fact all about that bass), muttering around a few notes like the beginning of Jan Sibelius’ 4th symphony. A rumble from the bass drum makes it even more ominous, and then we’re off. Horns begin to blare, even shriek; the percussion thunders; strings start going in an intense rhythm. Like a lot of great works, it’s the perfect realization of a simple idea: Pettersson places what should be the climax of a symphony–intense, chaotic, dissonant, and fucking loud–at the beginning. It’s one of the great technical accomplishments here that it stays that way for the next half hour.
All through the first part of this symphony, Pettersson manages so many contrasts: between different instruments, between brief consonant passages and the shrieking horns and strings that swallow them up. (Around the 32’ mark, there’s a definite false-dawn moment.) Writing music at this level of complexity without having it disintegrate into boredom takes an incredibly high level of skill, as Elliott Carter, Ornette Coleman, and Gyorgy Ligeti would all tell you. Pettersson does it by constantly shifting between things–no one group of instruments or musical motive gets to hold in place for too long. He uses percussion much more freely than any other symphonic composer except perhaps Shostakovich. In the hands of someone else, this could come off as overdramatic, but Pettersson keeps pushing music close to noise. There’s something primal about these noise passages; this isn’t music that expresses but simply is, and what it is is chaos. Throughout this entire half-hour-plus, it feels on the verge of falling into something even more awful.
The Sixth doesn’t belong to the avant-garde, and that’s clearest in how Pettersson employs dissonance. Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone method led to what he called “the emancipation of dissonance”: the use of dissonant intervals and chords for their own sake and an expansion of musical grammar. (Schönberg intended this to further the tradition of Western music, and instead he blew it up, the maniac; following the twelve-tone method, there has been no agreement in how to compose music.) Pettersson, however, uses dissonance in the same way it was used in music for 400 years: as a delaying tactic, as something that leads to eventual consonant resolution. He just uses it better here than anyone else. In the first part of the Sixth, for roughly 35 minutes, the music climbs through distinct plateaux of dissonance, growing more tense each time, and just as it seems like it will break into some kind of resolution, it grows quiet but not less tense and keeps going. It’s never repetitive, it never feels like avoidance but always feels like the necessary progression; I once listened to this while nightdriving after a storm, and this image came to mind: clouds that keep breaking only to reveal a greater darkness.
Now, a shift: Pettersson’s careful management of the gradations of dissonance has led us to expect something to happen, and now it does. For the first time, Pettersson focuses on one thing. For the first time, a real melody appears, long, drawn-out, mournful. Low rumblings from the horns make it feel processional, a staggering march where everyone keeps dragging their feet. We’ve heard elements of this theme before, but now it completely reveals itself. Pettersson actually lifts this melody from one of his compositions from over 20 years earlier, “He can put out my little light,” the 24th of the 24 Barefoot Songs, and plays it here at half-speed or slower. That denies it any character of a song and turns it into a dirge. Pettersson embodies the feeling in the music so well that you don’t need the lyrics. Here they are anyway:
I stretch out, I lie flat out
in my fresh white shirt–
there: HE nears through the corridor,
a foreigner to no door.
I want to stand up well
to tie my shoes
but must find HIM
goggle-eyed there in the mirror.
HE can put out my little light
so that I see nothing;
HE can smash my little bell
so that I hear nothing.
More no one can guess,
though one may perhaps wish it,
if wishes are still to be advised,
for one pale and face to face with Death.
(translation: Andreas K. W. Meyer, Susan Marie Praeder)
HE might be God, or the father who beat Pettersson, or Death, or what Thomas Pynchon said was “not the sea come to claim its due but the human counterpart to that same utter absence of mercy” (Against the Day) but whatever it is, it’s here and there is no escape, not even in the mind. At the point where the rules of harmony told us to expect relief, Pettersson made everything worse and it just doesn’t stop. The music moves so slowly here, quieter but not any less relentless than the first part. Pettersson doesn’t just compose a long piece of music but he uses that length and the repetition against us. We know what’s coming and the music takes too long to get there, one more way he traps us in pain and in the world of HIM.
The rhythmic strings and horns and percussion of the first part start to come back and begin to overwhelm the melody, the chaos reminding us that it will never be gone. (I’m sure Terence Blanchard took a little of this music for the end of his score for Spike Lee’s Clockers.) Near the end, there’s a brief, lyrical passage in the strings and horns; in any other work, I’d call it warm and affirming–it sounds a little like Beethoven’s “Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Deity” in his 15th string quartet. Here, it’s something more isolated, beauty without relief, and it doesn’t resolve, it just stops. Then the instruments fade and the symphony closes, so quietly, as if it had simply given up.
The Sixth Symphony isn’t a great work that just happened to be written in the 20th century (it could mmmmmmaybe have been written in 1898) but a great work of the 20th century, of the time when the human ability to commit evil finally caught up with the evil that was always present within humanity. Art hasn’t always caught up with that; although I don’t agree with Big Ted Adorno’s pronouncement “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (he didn’t fully agree with it either), a non-barbaric poetry would have to confront it. (Another 20th century classic, John Zorn’s Kristallnacht, confronted it in the most direct musical way possible.) Pettersson’s Sixth Symphony is a post-Auschwitz work, in time and in consciousness. It uses the resources of harmony and the orchestra to create something that isn’t grand, but deeply felt, not beautiful, but necessary for its time. Pettersson called it “the identification with the small, unsightly, anonymous, with the eternally immutable but ever new and fresh. It is in this way that one saves one’s own life.” Maybe saving your own life is all you can do. Maybe what the symphony’s final minutes mean is you lived. The Sixth is the score for walking out of a death camp. It’s survivor’s music for the most murderous era of recorded history.