Some basic observations on the musical development of Anders Eliasson with regard to his Fourth Symphony

By Oliver Fraenzke

In his music, Anders Eliasson remained a loner, without any direct predecessors, without any identifiable school or stylistic orientation, although we seem to understand his music by simply listening to it: we follow the metamorphoses of the themes, recognising an almost iron unity of form, remaining caught in the continuous flow of sounds. Eliasson is at once extremely modern and –compared to today’s “noise music” – traditional. He remains anchored in the system of the twelve tones and spoke openly against modernist sound experiments, and the vacuity of minimalism. “I was shocked,” Eliasson said in an interview with Christoph Schlüren, now widely known as “Autobiographical Dialogue”, which has become one of the cornerstones of Eliasson research, “especially later when I entered Ingvar Lidholm’s composition class. I suddenly lost all touch with music in myself when I came into contact with ‘genuine’ composers like Haubenstock-Ramati, Karkoschka, Ligeti, and so on. But if I wanted to study composition, this class was the only option. […] It would’ve been very simple to express myself in scores à la Riley. But I didn’t. I sensed an antipathy.“[i]

Eliasson was to study and experience all this in order to follow his own path, which he eventually expressed in the form of a musical alphabet. It should be noted that this is not a system or a set of rules, but simply a framework of possibilities and modes of expression which, while seemingly restricting the scope of possibilities, at the same time it offers a maximum of freedom. Just as every person has their different manner of expression, a different style when speaking, so also in music. Eliasson expressed his in this alphabet: it is the concentrated representation of those peculiarities and particularities that define him.

Although Eliasson’s scores appear transparent and make it clear to the musicians what they have to do on a mechanical, and also partly on an emotional level, the notes close themselves off from any kind of analysis or in-depth examination under the seemingly self-explanatory surface. So before we now attempt taking a more detailed look at an individual work, in this case his Fourth Symphony, we should first of all clarify Eliasson’s fundamental characteristics, even if these become apparent to us at best in fragments, and remain to a large extent encoded.



II a Tonal considerations

Eliasson’s music is tonal throughout, albeit not in a traditional way. The music does not float freely in space, but is drawn by natural gravity to a keynote or “letter” of the alphabet, which is either actually reached or touched briefly before the flow draws the notes away towards another centre. In substance, this principle is not dissimilar to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, considered by Eliasson to be an ideal[ii], which also progresses continuously from one centre of attraction to towards another centre. Music is H2O – melody, harmony and rhythm –, always in a state of flux –, i.e. with both composers.

So far, no one has been able to completely “crack” the sketches of Eliasson’s tonal alphabet and thus provide a key to the study of his works. Indeed, I doubt very much that a code can ever be found, as Eliasson has always wrested new possibilities from his inexhaustible alphabet in each composition and has vigorously resisted the existence of a closed system: “The tonal system can move far away from the foundation, extremely far away, but to me it’s still related to the foundation. I can’t think of anyone who’s discovered this in my music yet. So many people have talked about or reviewed my pieces, but none of them has discovered this most basic thing about them. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter at all. I couldn’t write about it either.“[iii]

II b Intervallic considerations

In Eliasson’s sketches of his tonal alphabet we find, first of all, two modes: one derived from Doric, the other from Lydian, although for Eliasson the properties of his modes do not match the characteristics of these church modes. From these modes he derived two chords, which are quite instructive: d-f-h-c and c-d-a-b. In both of these chords we find a minor second and, in the root position, a major second in one and a minor third in the other. If we invert the chords in various ways, a whole cosmos of intervallic resources opens up to us: the first chord contains, depending on the arrangement of the notes, every interval except the major third or its counterpart, the minor sixth; the second chord contains every interval except the tritone. Consequently, these harmonies leave open the potential of the melodic possibilities that result from them without almost any limitations; in their root position, they lay simultaneously the foundation for the focus on the narrow intervals of the minor and major second as well as the minor third.

The minor third plays a special role for Eliasson: if you stack them on top of each other, you get (as with the stacking of major seconds) a scale free of fifths or fourths, thus detached from any fundamental references. We know this minor third scale, seen harmonically, as a fully diminished seventh chord: a chord which, according to classical harmony, can lead to eight possible target chords by descending fifths, thus keeping the possibilities equally open.

Eliasson continued his research to probe the minor third stratification through the circle of fifths – that is, the most elementary interval already defined from the overtone series as determining all musical references. He drew a triangular figure, which spirals outwards, becoming larger and larger, respectively unfolding backwards into three-dimensional space – just like a three-sided prism. On each side he wrote a root note in order of the ascending circle of fifths. After the entire circle has been run through once, we find on each side (or one after the other in the three-dimensional space) exactly the same notes of a fully diminished seventh chord (C/A/F sharp/E flat – G/E/C sharp/B – D/B/A-flat/F), to be read from top to bottom. If we follow the structure in three-dimensional space, then each side of a triangle, and thus each tone, can be a member of three different triangle groups: 1) with the two previous sides; 2) with the previous and subsequent sides; 3) with the two subsequent sides. The tone E, for example, is contained in the triangle E/B/F sharp, also in A/E/B and in D/A/E. From a harmonic point of view, depending on the arrangement of the tones, this results in chords that are mainly known from jazz, where they are called “suspended chords”: The third of the triad is either altered downwards into the major second or upwards into the perfect fourth. In the first case, depending on the inversion and positioning, Esus2 (E-F sharp-B) or Hsus4 (B-E-F sharp) is produced in the first example, in the second Asus2 (A-B-E) or Esus4 (E-A-B) and in the third Dsus2 (D-E-A) or Asus4 (A-D-E) – the resulting pattern can be continued in sequence. The harmonies created by layering fifths unify the characteristics of the major ninth or major second. For Eliasson, these have a “round” effect: while he called the two harmonies d-f-b-c and c-d-a-b “square chords” because of their minor second, he called those composed of three or even four fifths “round chords”.

II c Formal conception

The last considerations, which are an essential basis, lead to the formal conception. Eliasson tried to keep the role of the composer as small and passive as possible, which means: he sought to follow the natural course of the music instead of actively influencing it. He followed the motifs, harmonies and their evolving events, merely paving the way for a smooth flow. In other words, Eliasson saw himself merely responsible for the starting point, the germ cell from which everything else originates of its own accord. He observed the cells once found and gave them the space they needed to unfold without being overstrained or falling silent in the early stages. The music thus begins as a personal statement and develops from the initial material to the point of becoming impersonal until it leads to a conclusion that already existed in the beginning. This idea of music is clearly reminiscent of Celibidache’s musical phenomenology, and indeed Celibidache said, “Eliasson’s music could take on a meaning for our time like that of Bartók in his time.”[iv]



III a The Fourth Symphony

The Fourth Symphony had been finished in 2005, and was premièred by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Christoph Poppen on 12 January 2007 at Munich Herkulessaal as part of Musica Viva, a festival for contemporary music founded by the composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann in 1945.

Just a year later, Sakari Oramo performed the work with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic at Konserthuset Stockholm, in 2015 with Deutsches Sinfonieorchester at Berliner Philharmonie.

Andrew Manze and John Storgårds also added the work to their repertoire. Johannes Gustavsson was the last to study the work and perform it with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

For a work composed in the 2000s, Eliasson’s 4th Symphony thus has received an astonishingly large number of performances, despite initial mixed reviews. After the première in the avant-garde stronghold of Musica Viva, some voices were raised that the work was too backward-looking and did not fit into the Musica Viva framework. After Manze’s performance in Glasgow (with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) in 2011, Kate Molleson from the British daily “The Guardian” noted that “[i]f nothing else, it contains one of the best flugelhorn solos in orchestral repertoire.“[v] In November 2019, Martin Nyström in Dagens Nyheter identified “an impetuous romantic feature” as “Eliasson’s link to tradition. It is a brilliant work.”[vi]

The symphony, which according to Eliasson “takes no prisoners“[vii], captivates its listeners with immense orchestral effects, with rough percussion passages and garish tutti, as well as with ravishing flugelhorn solos in the middle and final sections, and on the other hand with its stringent structure and the unity of all musical processes, which can be traced back to a single nucleus. The work has a playing time of about 25 minutes and is divided into three sections, fast-slow-fast, although given the motivic and harmonic interrelationships it would be going too far to describe these as independent movements[viii], especially since the tempo changes are gradual.

So how are the basic characteristics in this work reflected? It is important to note that this symphony was composed more than a decade after the sketches that led to Eliasson’s basic theoretical considerations: as can be expected, they have been elaborated and expanded, yet are still perfectly recognisable.

III b The basic musical material

In order to allow the greatest possible development and distance from the point of departure, Eliasson, as in most of his works, reduces the basic material to a minimum. The Fourth Symphony begins with a pithy motif of a descending major second, with trumpets and horns: F sharp-E. This motif is responded to in two ways: first by the woodwinds and first violins with the ascending second E-F sharp, to which the flutes add the hectic motif A-G-D sharp; then by three of the six horns, which first play a fast alternating note F sharp-E-F sharp, which after a certain time again changes to E, and from there leads chromatically to a modulated repetition, this time with the core motif D-C. The fall F sharp-E sharp, which is separated in time from the alternate note (i.e. the combination of a falling major second and a falling minor second) will prove to be central. As early as bar 11, i.e. after the transposed repetition of the original material, the first violins begin to establish the descending three-tone motif consisting of a major and a minor second, which is usually followed by a leap or a larger interval. Thus the whole cosmos has already been introduced.

The repetition of the first five bars, albeit in modulated form, affirms their significance. Since literal repetitions are more than uncharacteristic of Eliasson, they are all the more significant. The listener is meant to understand what happens in these bars, not least because they do not occur in this way again throughout the work, but they do form the basis for everything that follows. We are familiar with this kind of double presentation of a new idea from Debussy’s, who was aware of the modernity of his ideas and therefore presented them twice so that listeners could understand them properly.

Listening to the symphony, one is struck by the fact that the core motif of a falling large second appears again and again. It thus establishes itself as a constant that runs through the entire work. Consequently, this is the material from the responses, which undergoes constant metamorphosis and defines the musical development. Needless to say, the core motif is also varied in the course of the symphony, which is achieved solely by the first response by reversing its direction, but retaining its resounding energy almost every time it appears. In the first five bars, Eliasson is already establishing the foundations of a whole world order in (one might say: classical) duality.

III c Motivic development

The second response to the core motif, i.e. the alternating F sharp-E sharp and the final descending of F sharp to E and D sharp, is particularly charged with potential for further development. The fast alternating tone movement legitimises trills and longer pendulum movements as a recurring motivic element, and can also be used as a basis for various motifs. For example, Eliasson combines it with a descending fourth, A-G-A-E (m. 27), which in itself forms the basis for various metamorphoses for some time: thus it is answered directly using A flat-G-A flat-F and subsequently A flat-F-A flat-G, a few bars later metamorphosing into F-sharp-E-F-sharp D-sharp only to return with original interval relations B-A-B-F-sharp (m. 34). In bar 60, it gains the upper hand in an extended form in its original notes, only to fall silent less than ten bars later, making way for new combinations.

Now, how does the core motive fare? After the opening, it is taken up directly in bar 15 by the bass, and in reverse form (i.e. as in the first response) of a rapidly ascending major second, it is transformed into a rough “hiccup” with repeated second notes (A-B-B). After this, the downward-facing core motif appears at irregular intervals, first in the flutes (m. 31) and then in the brass (m. 42), in the latter with the addition of the upwardly directed form. From measure 77 onwards it temporarily dominates the action and is presented in rapid alternation by the low strings and the woodwinds, answered by a modified form with a small second with no accent on the first note. I am undecided whether the woodwind accents in bar 90 with the isolated notes C and G originate from the core motif: acoustically, it certainly does, visually, it doesn’t. The form of bar 15, in the basses, returns in bar 130, the first three times with the third note held, then countless times with a short third note, with the entries at constantly new bar times. Three more times the core motif comes into its own, once before the slowing down of the tempo towards the Adagio of the middle section, and twice in the third section at a newly found fast tempo: first, the motif builds up fugato-like through the individual horns (measure 592), before it appears in full splendour in several horns at once; and finally, shortly before the end (measure 645), it increases in frenzied alternations to an enormous intensity, a rebellion though merely reaching mezzo-forte. It seems almost like bantering wjhen Eliasson has the core motif reappear in the very last bar, but almost inaudibly hidden in the second violins, over which the flugelhorn sings. Briefly, the motif of the first answer to the core motif deserves to be illuminated: A-G-D sharp. In its intervallic as well as rhythmic presence, it returns several times before the Adagio, either unchanged (m. 120, 201, 203, 205, 206, 208, 297, 310, 311, 319, 329, 330, 331, 342, 344, 345, 347, 354) or modified, but still identifiable (m. 126, 320, 321). Thus the thesis advanced previously that the core motive remains the same while the answers undergo metamorphoses proves to be not quite correct. Finally, the core motive also changes, while remaining identifiable, whereas a part of the first response also remains unchanged, but falls silent from the Adagio onwards. Thus, at this point, if not before, the core motif prevails.

Eliasson was acutely aware that the fanfare-like first response had exhausted all possibilities of mere transpositions after no fewer than twenty appearances, and consequently refrained from using in the other two sections of the grand symphonic form. The same is true of the extension of the second response, A-G-A-E, which soon outlives its usefulness. The universally applicable core motif, which always sets the anchor point – albeit with the inexhaustible force of a descending large second – is allowed to survive and continues to prove its worth throughout. True, it retreats somewhat in the Adagio, but only to return to the surface in the third section with daringly imaginative superimpositions and ultimately utmost intensity.

In retrospect, the Adagio sounds like the calm before the storm that breaks in the third section and hits the listener with extreme rhythm and force. The choice of a flugelhorn as solo instrument may be seen as an affectionate homage to the trumpet, which of course used to be the first instrument Eliasson learnt to play, as well as a reference to his origins in jazz music. In marching bands, the flugelhorn, which originates from hunting, supports the horns, and thus in Eliasson’s Fourth Symphony it also takes over the motif of the horn which, after an ascending fifth B-F sharp, descends in the shape of the second response to the core motif: F-sharp-E-E-flat, that is, a whole tone step and a semitone. However, the flugelhorn reverses the half step, i.e. after the fifths interval upwards it first goes the whole tone step downwards, but now going the half tone step upwards once again.

III d Insight into Harmonics

In terms of harmony too, Eliasson moves close to some typical jazz chords, without ever getting into the sphere of jazzy echoes. Again and again seventh chords make themselves heard, but mostly with an altered third (suspended) and with a raised altered seventh, as well as diminished triads and tetrachords. Eliasson uses particularly the third for distortions leaving it out or adding the major and minor thirds to the chord. Most of the chords can be attributed to Eliasson’s two modes: the opening chord D-F-G comes directly from the transposed second of the composer’s chords that were initially examined; originally C-D-A-B, this chord is transposed to F-G-D-Es. A few bars later the chord E-C-sharp-F sharp is heard, which refers to Eliasson’s same chord: C-D-A-B becomes E-F-sharp-C-sharp-D. Relatively early in the Adagio (bar 426) even C-E flat-G flat-D flat is heard, that is, Eliasson’s first fully transposed chord: B-D-F-C. For a brief moment we can even derive the entire sound material from one of Eliasson’s modes, for example, the first four bars of the Adagio (except for the E used as a passing note) resemble the sound material from the first of the two modes, except transposed to F. After these four bars, Eliasson reaches an F sharp minor chord, transposing the entire mode up by a half step to F sharp, which also applies only for one and a half bars before the music progresses further. To study this in detail would go beyond the scope of this basic research, but it may well provide a starting point for future studies. The decisive key question would be how the individual harmonies interact in a correlating context becoming a compellingly progressing flow, how the individual voices and lines derive, and share, their tonal material from the modes, and what happens by modulation between the short-lived gravitational points.

Eliasson’s music remains a mystery in respect of which one can hardly make any more general statements. Conclusions can only be drawn from observations of short fragments, which, however, must be qualified after only a few bars. The impenetrability of his music results from the ever-open potentialities of the music. How then are we to spell out, or even squeeze into sealed sets of rules, something that has been intuitively arrived at, through subtly listening to organically evolving music, something thus perceived, recorded, and brought into the world of sounds?

Oliver Fraenzke, January 2020


[ii] Bach‘s D Major Prelude BWV 850 from the Well-Tempered Clavier 1, for example, “flows downwards“ incessantly following natural gravity steadily, and without resistance, until it reaches a new centre (here the subdominant as the harmonically lowest point) and from there is catapulted upwards to a climax which, contrary to expectations, occurs in monophonic harmony. The description could also be applied to the energetic form of almost any composition by Eliasson. The intricate fugues in A minor and B minor from the selfsame Bach-work are closer to the harmonic world of Eliasson, and here obvious parallels can be drawn.





[vii] Tony Lundman, Eliasson’s music strikes hard. Interview article in: Highlights No. 20, Autumn 2006, 6-7.

[viii] cf. a) Habakuk Traber, Die Symphonie und ihre Verwandtschaft: Anders Eliassons Vierte Symphonie, in: Programme note (“Introduktion“) Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin 8. Mai 2015 p 8., b)