Gustaf (or Gustav) Allan Pettersson was a Swedish composer, considered today one of the most important of the 20th century in Sweden. Pettersson was a symphonist, specializing in giant, single-movement structures chronicling pain and despair. Born in a violent environment, mostly created by his alcoholic father, began to study violin on his own, and in 1930 he was admitted to the Conservatory of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Here he further studied violin and viola and began to study counterpoint and harmony.
He soon became a distinguished viola player and also started composing songs and smaller chamber works in the 1930s. At the beginning of the second world war he was studying the viola with Maurice Vieux in Paris. During the 1940s he worked as a violist in the Stockholm Concert Society Orchestra (later Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra), but also studied composition privately with Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Tor Mann and Otto Olsson. His production from this decade include the song cycle twenty-four Barefoot Songs (1943–45) based on own poems and a dissonant 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, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. He rejected the neo-Classicism of the first, and the 12-tone proselytizing of the last-named of these. His long, difficult works failed to attract much enthusiasm at home, but he went through with his plans to resign from the orchestra in 1952. Soon, though, he began suffering joint pains that would later be diagnosed as polyarthritis. By the time he completed his fifth symphony in 1962, his mobility and health were considerably compromised.
Most probably due to his bad health, the completion of his sixth symphony took nearly 3 years (1963-1966). His greatest success came a few years later with his seventh symphony (1966-1967), which received its premiere on 13 October 1968 in Stockholm Concert Hall with Antal Doráti conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. This one-movement work depicts a harsh inner struggle, relieved by a radiant Adagio section. The release of a recording of his seventh symphony with same conductor and orchestra in 1969 was a breakthrough, establishing his international reputation (Grammis 1970). The seventh and the eighth symphony (1968–69) have received more recordings than his other works. The conductors Antal Doráti and Sergiu Comissiona premiered and made first recordings of several of Pettersson's symphonies and contributed to his rise to fame during the 1970s.
Pettersson received commissions for new works, and wrote a new symphony nearly every year. In 1976 the government moved him to a luxurious, ground-level apartment, and provided first-class medical care for him. He died while working on his Seventeenth Symphony. He left 15 extant symphonies and a formidable Second Violin Concerto in a single 50-minute movement.
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. 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: e.g., the openings and endings of his 6th and 7th symphonies, and the end of his 9th.
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 22 to 70 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.
Even though his symphonies are some of the longest single movement orchestral works ever written, they are intensely compelling. The effect they convey is of great vitality and unstoppable momentum. His best-known works are symphonies 7 and 8. Most of his music has now been recorded at least once and much of it is now available in published score.
Here you can find a list of recorded compositions by Allan Pettersson.