Measure by Measure

Who the Hell Is Allan Pettersson?

The composer as outcast

By Sudip Bose | August 24, 2017
Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho/Flickr
Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho/Flickr


These days, Stockholm’s Södermalm district, with its boutiques and cafés, has a bohemian, gentrified air, but in the early 1900s, the neighborhood was very much the province of the lower working class. You would have expected a fighter, not an artist, to emerge from its hardened streets, yet in Allan Pettersson (1911–1980), who grew up and spent most of his life there, Sweden had both. Pettersson was the finest Swedish composer of the 20th (or perhaps any) century as well as a combative loner, though I suspect that few people outside Scandinavia would recognize his work, let alone his name.

How many other composers wrote music that so closely mirrored the circumstances of their lives? Pettersson’s 16 symphonies are, generally speaking, essays in despondency and anguish—not surprising, given his biography. For much of his adult life, he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, with symptoms so debilitating that he became a shut-in, confined to a fourth-floor apartment in a building with no elevator. The feeling of imprisonment was nothing new. The squalid, rodent-infested, one-room apartment in which he and his three siblings were raised had one prominent feature: bars on its window. Pettersson’s father was a blacksmith, given to fits of alcohol-fueled rage—he regularly beat his wife, a dressmaker who sang churchly hymns to the children. There was little to eat, each day was a struggle, yet there was music in the house, and after earning some money by selling Christmas cards on the street, Pettersson was able, around the age of 10, to purchase a violin. He essentially taught himself. Lessons were out of the question.

Later in his life, Pettersson would talk about those musical beginnings only with the greatest difficulty. I recently saw a documentary that aired on Swedish television in 1974, titled—aptly, I think, given the note of defiance—Who the Hell Is Allan Pettersson? Throughout the 50-minute interview, Pettersson sits with his eyes closed behind dark glasses, clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera, as he recounts his struggle to become a composer. He remembers playing football in the park, getting into schoolyard scraps, and running around barefoot on warm summer days, and though he notes his father’s indifference to his aspirations, what he doesn’t mention is that Karl Viktor Pettersson considered his son’s musical activities a disgraceful waste of time, worthy of a thrashing or two.

Pettersson didn’t give up. He made a name for himself in neighborhood pubs and dance halls, where he performed until he was 19, at which time he gained acceptance to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. (Shunned by his father for betraying his working-class roots, he faced equal disdain from his new, wealthy classmates.) He spent his conservatory years mastering both the violin and viola, as well as studying harmony and counterpoint, and when he finally left the Academy in 1939, after nine years, he received the prestigious Jenny Lind Prize. He traveled to Paris to continue his viola studies, though his time abroad proved to be short-lived once the Germans arrived. He went to his viola lesson one day, oblivious to the exodus taking place around him, only to learn that his teacher had fled the city the week before. The Swedish Consulate sent Pettersson back home, where he got a job in the viola section of the Stockholm Concert Society Orchestra, later the Stockholm Philharmonic. Despite his talent, Pettersson was not well liked and was soon demoted to the rear of the section. In Who the Hell Is Allan Pettersson? the composer remembers how tough it was to fit in: when the legendary Willem Mengelberg came to town to guest conduct the orchestra, he took issue with the “soloistic” way Pettersson was playing, dressing him down during a break and finally sending him away for the day. Increasingly isolated and defensive, he would go home following rehearsals and play chess with himself—an edifying experience, he said, because it allowed him to both win and lose. It should come as no surprise that Pettersson lost interest in the life of an orchestral musician.

What he wanted to do more than anything was compose. His breakthrough came in 1943 (the year he got married), when he published the first of his 24 Barefoot Songs—solemn, folk-inflected pieces, at once lyrical and direct, that seem influenced by the lieder of Schubert. There would be one more sojourn in Paris. Taking a leave from the orchestra, he went to France in 1951 to study composition with Arthur Honegger and René Leibowitz. That year he wrote his Symphony No. 1. He never returned to the orchestra.

For years, he worked in obscurity and impoverishment, enjoying little contact with anyone other than his wife. All the while, his health deteriorated, the pain in his joints becoming unbearable, with Swedish doctors providing neither medicine nor emotional support. With the 1968 premiere of his Symphony No. 7, however, Pettersson was propelled to overnight renown. Antal Doráti led the performance, with the Stockholm Philharmonic, and made a much-heralded recording of the piece the following year. Thus did Pettersson become a celebrity in Swedish culture. For me, the Seventh Symphony seems a distant musical cousin to the works of Carl Nielsen or Dmitri Shostakovich. It is a relentlessly bleak and driven piece, an episodic work in a single movement. What makes the symphony immediately accessible—the repetition of its motifs—also gives it its hypnotic character. There is pain, there is heartbreak, there are passages that sear themselves into your memory: the hero’s struggle against an uncaring world laid bare in sound. Yet just when you think you can’t take the intensity anymore, Pettersson introduces an extended moment of beatific calm—those luminous passages he wrote for strings are all the more moving given the darkness from which they coalesce. The cathartic ending is one of the most haunting and unforgettable in the entire symphonic literature, yet it leaves contradictions in the mind; as with Pettersson’s chess games, one always has the sense of both victory and defeat.

The composer’s newfound fame did nothing to relieve the strains of daily life. A serious kidney ailment now added to his woes—he made initial drafts of his Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies during a nine-month hospitalization. When he was confined to his apartment, the sounds of nearby construction grated on him, as did the rock music blaring from his neighbors’ apartments at all hours—“acoustic irradiation,” he called it. Still, he continued to write, symphony after symphony—intense one-movement works that were overwhelmingly grim but also shot through with chorale-like passages of spiritual serenity—as well as excellent concertos for violin and viola. Two years before his death, he was moved to a state-funded, ground-floor apartment—he could gaze now upon a garden, not a junkyard—and finally received attentive medical care. Ultimately, it mattered little: after a diagnosis of cancer, he had only two years left to live.

Pettersson’s story is that of a man who had no friends other than his wife, who hated amateurs and dilettantes, who suffered at the hands of authority figures, classmates, and second-rate colleagues who had gamed the system better than he ever could. He remained a champion of the downtrodden, an underdog to the extreme. It was his imagination—and what a fertile, nimble imagination he had—that allowed him to escape, to peer beyond the prison bars and take flight.

Listen to this recording of the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra performing Pettersson’s Symphony No. 7, conducted by Antal Doráti

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