Notes on the unknown

By Tony Lundman

Anders Eliasson’s passing of course put an end to the creation of new pieces, but at the same time it opened other doors: to what had been hidden. Anders Eliasson did not leave a well-sorted archive to posterity – a lot is difficult to interpret and practically always undated – but a few years after his death, all saved sheet music in the apartment was brought to the Music and Theatre Library in Stockholm.

There, around 30 volumes with autographs, prints, sketches and drafts can now be found. It is quite surprising to discover the amounts Eliasson saved. In many cases not only the handwritten and finished scores, but also the material that led up to them: both the preparatory “particella” scores, the condensed prequels to the score, and early sketches. All of this was compiled and catalogued in 2018.

This is a treasure trove for researchers, for investigations and increased understanding of Anders Eliasson’s work processes. Sketches show, for example, how he plans and groups tonal material, “modes”, with indications of harmonic progressions. We also see the use of pitch class set (each note in the chromatic scale is named with numbers, C=0, C sharp=1, D=2 etc.) and mathematical calculations in marginal notes. What these calculations are about is a little unclear, but it is obvious that mathematical proportions and a kind of numerical mysticism were part of his creative process and imagination. Of course, he isn’t alone in the history of music; it goes back at least to ancient Greece. Disegno per quartetto d’archi was for instance structured on prime numbers. The clarinet quintet Ombra is also based on mathematical principles.

It goes without saying that the archive also provides indispensable help to musicians who, for example, want to check misprints in published material against Eliasson’s manuscripts. The vast majority of the original scores can be found here: from 1968’s Exposition to 2012’s string trio Ahnungen.

And there are numerous unfinished works, and a lot of material from his youth that should rather not be included in any official work list. Many times, these fragments and drafts consist of a couple of pages; simple music by an aspiring composer who is trying to find his way. One finds, among other things, a very early piano piece, aptly titled Klavierstück, a Benedictus for baritone and piano, a work for chamber ensemble called Natura Ornatus and a piece for cello and piano titled Chiamare. In addition, he began works for choir and there are about 60 measures of a work for clarinet, cello and piano.

There are also several early attempts at string quartets. Eliasson experienced a first breakthrough in 1976 with the string quartet Disegno per quartetto d’archi. He told me that a precursor to that music went by the title Aurora. This piece is in the archive: 14 score pages, 175 bars of music. It is strikingly driven and expansively flowing music by the young composer, but the work does not really appear to be an early version of the Disegno Quartet. Rather, it is an independent piece, possibly from 1970/71 and in a more conventional and less austere style than that of the Disegno Quartet.

The Aurora string quartet.

Yet another string quartet has come to the surface here, possibly composed even earlier: nine pages of score in what appears to be finished music – however, the first page seems to be lost. There is also a graphic score for string quartet: a playful, theatrical kind of ”staging”, with instructions instead of notated music. For example, we read: “Take down the music stands, then throw them in one pile on the floor”, “Pull the chair quickly along the floor”, and “Move out!”.

Similar visual ideas can be found in the material for his official debut work Exposition, which was first performed in Copenhagen in 1968, stylistically to be placed somewhere in the borderland between free jazz and art music. In Exposition, however, the musical material is specified in more detail, and grouped in different ways for improvisations within the indicated frames. The impression is that the above-mentioned quartet was outlined much earlier, perhaps during his early teens. There are further attempts in the string quartet genre that have been known about for some time, such as the modally orientated Melos from 1970.

So, in addition to only two string quartets in the official work list – the Disegno per quartetto d’archi of 1975 and the Quartetto d’archi of 1991 – Eliasson tried his hand at string quartets on several occasions and in different styles, above all in his younger years.

A surprising find is Essalazione per orchestra, which furthermore comes in two versions, both unfinished. One is a work for large orchestra, with 27 score pages and 132 measures of music in full orchestration. The other one is as a work “per orchestra e coro” – that is, with an added choir, although without composed choral entrances in a torso of a score that can be found in the archive, comprising of 33 pages, 105 measures.

These appear to be two different works with the same title and in a similar style. Perhaps they were intended as parts or movements of the same work, but it is even more likely they represent two different starting attempts. In both cases, one encounters some quite dense, massive and powerful music, perhaps reminiscent of the so-called New Polish School with its combination of teeming effects and repetitive elements. This was an aesthetic that had gained some ground in Sweden in Eliasson’s generation of composers.

Essalazione, unfinished score.

One guess is that the music of Essalazione might have been composed some time during the middle or second half of the 1970s, perhaps around 1977. Essalazione could then be the musical footprints eventually leading up to Canto del vagabondo, whose creation was protracted and marked by re-examinations and certain setbacks.

Thematic relations might also be discerned. Essalazione means exhalation (in modern Italian spelling it’s written with one ”s”). In relation to Canto del vagabondo, Eliasson talked about a passage in Carl Linneaus’ Lapland journey, which to him was the most important impulse for the work. Standing on a mountain in Sweden. Linnaeus looks down and speaks of the fog being “the exhalation of the earth”.

This poetic description of fog as an exhalation is not unique, but Eliasson specifically pointed to that passage by Linnaeus in connection with Canto del vagabondo. Dante Alighieri, for instance, also writes about the fog as l’essalazion de l’acqua e de la terra – i.e the exhalations by the water and the earth (occurring in Purgatory in The Divine Comedy). At the top of Dante’s mountain is the Garden of Eden, the Earthly Paradise. On Linneaus’ mountain outside the town Sundsvall, people had scouted for Russian attacks along the coast in Linneaus’ time, in the early 1700s.

Regarding In medias for solo violin, dated 1970/1992, both versions are available in the archive. Eliasson was not normally a composer who went back and revised works, so In medias is a unique example. We see here that it was not a matter of the more experienced composer in 1992 making a simple revision of this early work, composed when he was 23 years old. No, he rather recomposed it. The basics and some gestures are repeated from the 1970 version, but it is a thorough re-interpretation.

In medias, beginning of the original 1970 version.


In medias, the 1992 version.

Already in the first bar a number of changes are noticeable, and so it continues throughout the entire piece: the rhythmic aspects have been further developed, and also harmonically there are changes and additions, including more double stops in the final version. He reworked In medias at the time of composing his first violin concerto, the Concerto per violino ed orchestra d’archi.

Then we have the uncertainty surrounding Symphony No. 2, which exists only as a numbered void between Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 3. Anders Eliasson always shied away from any questions regarding the Symphony No. 2. Fair enough, possibly he simply didn’t have the answers, perhaps it appeared inexplicable even to him. On some occasions though, he did mention that at some point he would return to the music and complete it, possibly for a slightly smaller orchestra.

Much about that symphony has seemed enigmatic – and because of that also hard to completely let go of. What became of the music, whose non-existence he nevertheless chose to acknowledge as a kind of ghost between symphonies nos. 1 and 3 … The question is of course: does it exist in any form?

Yes, it does. There in the archive it can be found, in some form or state. When, after his passing, we collected the remains of his papers in the apartment for transport to a proper archival environment – at the time without conducting any detailed inventory – I had seen a fair copy of a score with the title Symphony No. 2. Alas, it was only a few pages, 33 bars of music.

However, our knowledge that Anders Eliasson was at that time using particella before writing the fair score led to the assumption that there could be more music for Symphony No. 2 among his sketches and working material. And there is. It is a messy story, with somewhat whimsical and hard-to-determine numbering of pages and measures.

In total, there are around 40 pages of sketches for Symphony No. 2. They add up to far more than 200 bars, perhaps up to 300 bars of music in particella score – that is, in a condensed score with four staves. Among these, we find a longer section of about 150 bars of continuous music. Other things are, as already mentioned, more difficult to interpret and and fit in the right place in the work. Could it be reconstructed and even orchestrated? Well, the result would not be a complete symphony, but a fair amount of music.

Sketches for Symphony No. 2


Sketches for Symphony No. 2

The orchestral work Fantasia per orchestra was written at about the same time as Symphony No. 2 was being planned This raised some questions. I regard Fantasia per orchestra a weaker work in Eliasson’s oeuvre, for instance in form and development. A “fantasy” does not necessarily lead to the same expectations as a symphony does; a fantasy can be more spontaneous and rhapsodic in nature, compared to what we usually expect from a symphonic work.

Could Fantasia per orchestra have been Symphony No. 2 in disguise? As with Sibelius’s seventh symphony, but the other way around. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 was first performed in Stockholm under the title Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, but was shortly afterwards “upgraded” to Symphony No. 7. Was Eliasson’s Symphony No. 2, in a reverse maneuver, “degraded” to Fantasia per orchestra? The answer must be no. Based on the material outlined for Symphony No. 2, Fantasia per orchestra appears to be an original and independent piece of music. It is not a renamed or reused Symphony No. 2.

As stated earlier, there is a surprising amount of material saved by Anders Eliasson over the years, among it even the charming attempts of the young teenager. And since not only the final manuscripts have been left to posterity, there are rich sources to study more closely.

Eliasson, for example, devoted practically his entire life attempting to explain his musical discovery, the “system” that gives his music its own special unity – and which to us average listeners simply constitutes The Eliasson Sound; which is neither atonal nor tonal, constantly on the move and without an obvious “home”. Eliasson believed, even towards the end of his life, that he had only uncovered a fraction of the infinite possibilities he sensed in the musical universe he had discovered. The fact that he saved and generously left behind so much of his sketches and drafts – i.e. the very building blocks and blueprints of his music – seems like an invitation to future music research.

This survey was based on one of the new chapters of the revised and expanded 2022 edition of the Anders Eliasson biography. Available in Swedish. Publisher: Lundmanuskript

Book Cover of the Anders Eliasson biography