Allan Pettersson

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Gustaf (or Gustav) Allan Pettersson (Granhammar, Västra Ryd parish, Uppland, 19 September 1911 – Maria Magdalena parish, Stockholm, 20 June 1980) was a Swedish composer. Today he is considered one of the most important Swedish composers of the 20th century. His symphonies developed a devoted international following, starting in the final decade of his life.


Pettersson, one of four children of a violent, alcoholic blacksmith, was born at the manor of Granhammar in Västra Ryd parish in the province of Uppland, but grew up in poor circumstances in Stockholm, where he resided during his whole life. He once said of himself: "I wasn't born under a piano, I didn't spend my childhood with my father, the composer... no, I learnt how to work white-hot iron with the smith's hammer. My father was a smith who may have said no to God, but not to alcohol. My mother was a pious woman who sang and played with her four children" [1]

In 1930, he began study of violin and viola, as well as counterpoint and harmony, at the Stockholm Royal Conservatory of Music. He became a distinguished viola player but also started composing songs and smaller chamber works in the 1930s. At the beginning of the second world war he was studying the viola in Paris. During the 1940s he worked as a violist in the Stockholm Concert Society Orchestra, but also studied composition privately with Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Otto Olsson. His production from this decade include the twenty-four Barefoot Songs (1943–45) and a concerto for violin and string quartet (1949).

In 1951 Pettersson composed the first of his seventeen symphonies, which he left unfinished. This work has recently been recorded in a performing version prepared by trombonist and conductor Christian Lindberg. The later symphonies were to follow in rapid succession. Also in 1951 he went to Paris to study composition, having been a student of René Leibowitz and Arthur Honegger.

Pettersson returned to Sweden in 1953. That same year he was given the diagnosis polyarthritis and, by the time of his fifth symphony, completed in 1962, his mobility and health were considerably compromised.[2] His greatest success came a few years later with his seventh symphony (1966–67), which has also received more recordings than his other works. The conductor Antal Doráti made premiere recordings of several of Petterson's symphonies and contributed to his rise to fame during the seventies.

He was hospitalized for nine months in 1970, soon after the composition of his ninth and longest symphony, beginning to write the tenth (1972) from his sickbed.[3] He recovered, but ill health confined him permanently to his apartment.[citation needed] The release of a recording of his seventh symphony (with Antal Doráti conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic) was a breakthrough, establishing his international reputation. During the last decade of his life he also wrote the cantata Vox Humana (1974, on texts by Latin American poets), concertos for violin and orchestra (1977–78) and for viola and orchestra (1979), a twelfth symphony for mixed chorus and orchestra (1973) to poems by Pablo Neruda and a sixteenth symphony (1979) which features a bravura solo part for alto saxophone. He also started to write a seventeenth symphony, but he died before finishing it.[4]


Pettersson's writing is very strenuous and often has many simultaneous polyphonic lines; earlier works are close to tonality in their melodic approach, later works less so.[5] Most of his symphonies are written in a single movement, making them all the more demanding. Overwhelmingly serious in tone, often dissonant, his music rises to ferocious climaxes, relieved, especially in his later works, by lyrical oases.

Pettersson’s music has a very distinctive sound and can hardly be confused with that of any other 20th century composer. His symphonies, which range in length from 25–67 minutes, are typically one movement works made up of successive stretches of music of varying rhythms and figurations. The effect is like listening to a gigantic toccata or chorale prelude. Sometimes the effect is predominantly that of dance-music, as in the Symphony No.9, which sounds for long stretches like a huge Mahler scherzo, sometimes the effect is grimmer, with march rhythms or angry declamation predominating, as in the Symphony No.13.

Pettersson maintains the listener’s interest by varying the sounds and moods of the different sections, so some are more lyrical, others faster and more angry. The architecture of his symphonies is built on similar thematic material emerging at key points in the work (rather than classical statement-development-recapitulation), by rhythmic vitality and tonal progression. Even though his symphonies are some of the longest single movement orchestral works ever written[citation needed], they are intensely compelling. The effect they convey is of great vitality and unstoppable momentum.

Most of his music has now been recorded at least once and much of it is now available in published score.


The discography includes the original format of the recording and releasing label. Some of the LP releases have been reissued on CD. A 12 CD pack of the Complete Symphonies of Allan Pettersson has been produced by CPO (Classic Produktion Osnabrück, [1]) based on recordings of 1984, 1988, 1991-1995, 2004.


  1. ^ Dagens Nyheter, 5 March 1972, as cited in the comments of CD CPO 999223-2.
  2. ^ Leif Aare, notes for CD BIS CD-55, 1994
  3. ^ Andreas K.W. Meyer, notes for CD CPO 999 285-2, 1997
  4. ^ Andreas K.W. Meyer, notes for CD CPO 999 284-2, 1996
  5. ^ His symphonies all end on common chords-- major or minor chords - but tonality, which depends on some sense, however attenuated, of tonal progression, is found mostly in slower sections- see e.g. the openings and endings of his 6th and 7th symphonies, and the end of his 9th. The musical argument at least seems to be determined, in faster sections, by motivic requirements far more than by harmonic resolution - so see just for example the study score of the 7th symphony, pp. 20-44, for a representative example.


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