Thursday, February 7, 2008

Kurt Magnus Atterberg

Kurt Magnus Atterberg, born in Göteborg on December 12, 1887, is perhaps the greatest composer you've never heard of. (Yes, that ends in a preposition, because it sounds better than "of whom you've never heard.") By the time he died, he had composed five operas, nine symphonies, eight suites, five concerti, two ballets, and numerous chamber works.

Three weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of broadcasting nearly all of his recorded works (which is but a fraction of those he wrote). Occasionally when this or another blog puts forth a little-known modern composer, they do so with an explanation of why he's little known, and it usually reads like something along the lines of: "He was unfairly snubbed by the high-brow musical elite." Yet there is no such explanation for Atterberg: his well-constructed, tuneful music more often than not received glowing reviews; and his symphonies were programmed by what essentially amounts to the entire set of great conductors: Stokowsky, von Schillings, Nielsen, Nikish, Strauss, von Hausegger, Furtwängler, Toscanini, Beecham, Bruno Walter, and Eugene Ormandy.

So why have they disappeared? Who knows. But one can imagine that an audience attending a concert nowadays might be mesmerized by this.

That's just the exposition of the second symphony. (Granted, it's an extended one, with long arching melodies) What really separates Atterberg from those hundreds of merely good composers who write accessible music of a nationalistic nature is that he is always strict with his application of form: each theme is developed, finds itself fragmented, reversed, inverted, mashed in with the second theme, reduced to guttural howls or elevated to divine exaltation. For a long time, this second symphony, full of soaring hope, deep longing, and willful triumph, was far and away my favorite of his nine symphonies. Yet the one I find myself coming back to again and again is his ninth: the choral symphony (go figure). The theme here isn't a long melody, but a downward chromatic scale, and a leap of either a fourth or fifth, presented in the mezzo's entrance Jag Jätterna Minns ("I have the giants in mind").

The ninth symphony is very much an apocalyptic vision, taking as its subject the creation and destruction of the world, from the text of the Poetic Edda: The first war between Aesir and Vanir, the death of Balder, Odin's death, and the Ragnarok. While the music is far from atonal, there are dissonances abound as we are swept along the narrative, all the while this theme reappearing, sung by the baritone or chorus in inversion, or in reverse. By the time Rym, the world serpent, comes out from the roots of the Yggdrasil ("Rym styr un östern"), this chromatic descent and leap has transformed into this.

It's very Wagnerian: the theme that opened the narration, the creation of Midgård, becomes the theme of its destruction. It's a tremendous experience to listen to this symphony, especially with the libretto in front of you.

Now, about the performances from the cpo compact discs. Ari Rasilainen does a very fine job with the music, eliciting from the orchestras he directs the music's great power and majesty. Yet from time to time, the music seems in want of tenderness that isn't quite there in these performances, and certainly it would benefit from a more virtuosic orchestra. But, on the whole, these are very good performances, and I think very much worth exploring. It would be fantastic to see one of these symphonies performed, but until more people have made my discovery, I will content myself with these recordings.


Webrarian said...

Nice to see someone else discovering Atterberg's music.

I was first introduced to his symphonies by my dad who long ago had had a set of the 1928 Beecham recording of the Sixth Symphony and then lost it. Eventually, thirty years ago I tracked down another set of the 78s - and then explored the other symphonies from the Swedish Society LPs.

I've not heard a modern recording of the Sixth which does it justice in the way that Beecham did eighty years ago. The committee which selected Atterberg's as the winning symphony from the competition (in memory of Schubert) included such names as Nielsen and Glazunov. It's said that Atterberg didn't take the competition seriously and wrote something he thought would win. I'm not sure of the truth of that, but I still enjoy the piece.

aficionada said...

I just attended the closing gala concert by a young chamber group of Canadian musicians (Northern Lights Music Festival conducted by Mark Skazinetsky) in Ajijic, Mexico. They performed Atterberg's beautiful Suite for Violin, Viola, and String Orchestra superbly. What a great introduction to this composer whom I didn't know existed until last evening!

Anonymous said...

Atterberg received glowing praise up through the late 1920s. Later he felt the snide, pedagogical chill of the 12-tone novelty-workers, their press-agents and dupes. That he is now being rediscovered in the 21st Century is a joyous and wonderful thing! It only proves once again the essentially empty and preposterous nature of the Schoenbergian-Boulezistic-Babbittry. For a newcomer to the colorful and emotionally profound Atterberg, I would recommend his Symphony #5 "Sinfonia funebre" (a compact, Sibelian work of immediate attractiveness); and his grand Third Symphony "West Coast Pictures" -- the slow "sunrise" finale of which always reminds me of a long-desired yet infinitely delayed reunion with the love of my life. It is a Nietzschean triumph as exultant as the finale of the one and only symphony by Bernard Herrmann -- another very great composer whose ghost is laughing at the pedants! By Vaughn Ralph Ackermann, Manchester, N. H.

Anonymous said...

I've loved Atterberg for many years - the first music of his I heard was his Symphony No. 2 which included the Suite for Violin, Viola, and Strings. To this day, these are some of my very favorite works. I think the reason he isn't more famous is because the shadow of Sibelius loomed so large and it is hard not to find the influence of Sibelius in this music - I think Atterberg is somewhere between Sibelius in his melodic shapes and colors and somewhat troubled colors and Rachmaninoff with his long lines and bittersweet melancholy. These are terrific comparisons, but it shows a big part of why he isn’t more famous – there were others who were better at doing what Atterberg does. As for me, I find good second rate music to still have very much worth exploring.

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