Photo: Gunnar Källström

Allan Pettersson

Sixteen completed symphonies and the symphonically conceived concertos for violin and viola make Allan Pettersson (1911-1980) one of Sweden’s foremost 20th century symphonists. With its direct appeal and powerful imagery, Allan Pettersson’s music belongs to a Scandinavian tradition with Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius as the leading names, but his temperament is more intense and the conflicts in his music more bitter. Allan Pettersson’s music has also been choreographed and used in films and television documentaries.

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Allan Pettersson was born on 19 September 1911. He grew up and lived virtually all his life in Södermalm in the south of Stockholm. With mixed feelings he witnessed at close quarters how his childhood haunts were transformed from a poor working-class district to a picturesque residential area for a large proportion of the city’s cultural and artistic elite.Petterson’s gift for music was first discovered at school. He played in various cafés and cinemas from an early age, but it was not until he was about fifteen years old that he began to have regular lessons in violin-playing and music theory. 

Years of study
In 1930 Pettersson began to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. He had a succession of principal subjects: at first the violin was his main interest, then the viola and finally his studies in counterpoint. In the mid-30s he wrote his first compositions, chamber music works which reflect the young Pettersson and which show definite signs of his idiosyncratic temperament and originality. The most significant of these compositions are Six Songs for voice and piano to texts by Swedish and Finnish modernists, Fantasie pour alto seul and Four Improvisations for string trio. As a result of his successful viola studies, Petterson was awarded the prestigious Jenny Lind Scholarship in 1939 to study in France with the viola professor Maurice Vieux. His period of study (1939-1940) was somewhat chaotic due to the outbreak of war, but it nevertheless gave him valuable musical inspiration and human experience. 

Throughout the 40s Pettersson played the viola in the Stockholm Orchestral Society (now the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra), and at the same time he also took up composing again. In 1943 he began work on his Barfotasånger (Barefoot Songs) for voice and piano to texts of his own. In these songs the grown man comes to terms with his childhood experiences in original texts and a musical idiom which is inspired by Schubert’s Lieder – but which is also full of references to Swedish poets and to composers in the sphere of popular music as well as art music. The songs later reappear (hidden to a greater or lesser extent) in a series of works throughout his entire instrumental oeuvre and constitute an integral part of his musical narrative technique. 

Parallel with his composing and his work as a professional musician, Pettersson studied composition during the 40s with the composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl, as well as orchestration and instrumentation with the conductor Tor Mann. These studies resulted in works for string orchestra and for smaller ensembles. The Concerto for Violin and String Quartet (1949) and the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra (1950) are the most important works from this period. In both works Pettersson used quotations and fragments from Barefoot Songs in a manner which radically affects the structure and design of the works. 

In 1951 Pettersson began work on the Sisyphean task of writing his first symphony - which he in fact never completed. The same year he also wrote Seven Sonatas for Two Violins, which is an impressive addition to the repertoire for violin duo. Pettersson returned to Paris for the year 1951-52, this time to study composition. After a period of not particularly successful studies with Honegger, Milhaud and Messiaen, he sought out the composer, conductor and twelve-tone theoretician René Leibowitz (1913-1972). Although Pettersson never came to use an orthodox twelve-tone technique in his composing, it is obvious that the way of thinking which he assimilated during his at times daily lessons with Leibowitz had a significant influence on his compositional technique.

The Symphonies
 After his return from Paris in 1952 Pettersson could devote himself to composing full-time. In 1953 he completed his remarkable Symphony No. 2. Sketches which have been preserved show that he was consciously working on different planes - one influenced by serial techniques, and one programmatic, inspired by two different milieus - his childhood surroundings in Södermalm and a number of poems by black Americans. There are also traces of Mahler’s influence and musical references to Webern and other composers, and the whole is presented in a form which came to be the pattern for all his symphonies during the 60s, and which in its ideological essence even leads forwards to his late works from the 70s. After this Pettersson composed two more string concertos and the Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4 in rapid succession. 

From the 1960s onwards a crippling rheumatic disease made Pettersson’s personal contact with the world around him increasingly difficult, but it does not seem to have prevented him from composing. The symphonies nos. 5-8, which so far are the most frequently performed of Pettersson’s works, were all written during the 60s. Among these the Symphony No. 7 (1966-67) came to be his major breakthrough with audiences. The oscillation between violent angst-ridden sections and tranquil, almost meditative passages is characteristic of each of these symphonies. The monumental Symphony No. 9 was completed in 1971 and marks the end of the development which began with the second symphony. 

In the 70s Pettersson appeared to compose incessantly, producing a series of major works, both symphonies and solo concertos. Symphony No. 10 and Symphony No. 11 were written when he had more or less recovered from a long and difficult time in hospital; they are on a considerably smaller scale than the earlier symphonies. In 1973 and 1974 two works for mixed choir, soloists and orchestra were written which focus on texts by Latin-American poets - Symphony No. 12 “Los Muertos de la Plaza”, and the three-part cantata Vox Humana. In both works Pettersson renews his commitment to the socially and politically oppressed – a commitment which can already be perceived on a hidden programmatic plane in the second symphony. 

In Symphony No. 14 and the major Violin Concerto No. 2 Pettersson returns to his earlier concept of reusing one of the Barefoot Songs in a symphonic context. Symphony No. 15 (1978) has been described by the composer and Pettersson expert Peter Ruzika as the focal point of Pettersson’s late works - his swan song - with a force and beauty which can be compared to the last movements of Mahler’s late symphonies. However, the fifteenth symphony was in fact followed by three more works: Symphony No. 16 (a symphony in concertato style for alto saxophone and orchestra), the posthumously discovered Viola Concerto and the unfinished seventeenth symphony. 

Laila Barkefors


Pettersson's complete oeuvre has been recorded by the CPO and BIS record companies.

Link to the International Allan Pettersson Society:

Selected works:

  • Barefoot Songs
  • Concerto for Violin No. 2
  • Mesto from Concerto for Strings No. 3
  • Symphony No. 7