Some personal notes on Anders Eliasson’s symphonies

By Johannes Gustavsson

John-Edward Kelly wrote on the score Sinfonia concertante, which Anders then changed again to Symphony No. 3. I remember Anders and I talking about his symphonies. We were trying to find the fragment of the 2nd Symphony – I don’t know whether you found it after he’d died? [asking Tony Lundman; TL: Yes, it’s in the library … there are some fragments.] There was that small corridor to the toilet, and there was a cupboard. Because of the smell of smoke and because the flat had not been cleaned for some time it smelt a bit unpleasant, so Anders said, I can’t stand it, it’s disgusting, let’s have some coffee instead! Thus we never found the manuscript. The only thing I remember is that he said there was a splendid melody for Cor anglais.

Anders often said that his 1st Symphony was the first piece where he had actually discovered his harmonic universe. In a way this symphony, even though it’s much more complex to listen to, is from a harmonic perspective a lot simpler. The first movement is based on that “round chord” he always talked about, i. e. two open fifths; and the 2nd movement is based on the “rectangular chord”, while the 3rd movement is sort of a combination of the preceding movements (see sketch).

As far as I perceived it that was his starting point for going into this direction with this harmonic system. Even though he had had it all along, in a sense the 3rd Symphony then became his first really big piece in his own language.

Just briefly about his 4th Symphony. Because he was in such a hurry, this is the only score where we don’t have a proper autograph. You know, his handwriting was always perfect and meticulous in every aspect, he even planned how many bars there were to be on every page. He always complained it was so hard to try and foresee how many things he needed to put on paper. But a full score does exist – I have it at home.

The 4th Symphony is in the library though in many ways it is not “complete”. It was quite a journey. We spoke on the phone, he kept sending me the music as far as he had written it, and I would then proofread the computerized score. It was an interesting insight into how he composed, because all along he didn’t know how the piece was going to end.

I had the privilege both with the 4th Symphony and with Quo vadis to be peeping into the process. It was quite fascinating – the way he did not want to be a part of things, did not want to “interfere with the music”. He was just sort of trying to go with the flow, not to meddle with the music. The music also surprised him quite often because sometimes he didn´t know where the symphony, or the piece, was going.

I remember when we did Quo vadis he was in a real hurry. I think it had been programmed three times and then cancelled. Then it was back. I was in Berwaldhallen and we said, okey, as long as we get the set-up and the orchestration we can postpone the deadline until very late. That’s what we did, and everything was all right.

Then he called me late one evening and said, yeah … “harpjävel”, we do need this bloody harp! So, the harp part in Quo vadis … you should have a look at the score, I mean it fits on a postcard! [Laughs.] First, there’s actually 45 minutes’ silence, then there’s one arpeggio and then one chord before the task is done. But the funny thing is when you hear it you realize it has to be there. He was really ashamed of not being in control of the situation. This also says something about his music: Anders was so much into the music, particularly in Quo vadis he even forgot to compose an important line from one of the poems. I couldn’t understand why he had left out that line. There was silence on the phone, then some cursing, and … I’ll call you back! He had to dovetail the line into the music, it’s not much, just a couple of bars.

Mats [Larsson Gothe], as far as I remember, had to transcribe it and put it into a computer program. But when you hear the piece, you will not notice it was composed afterwards – it’s just a couple of bars. He moved some lines so the poetry could fit in. It was quite impressive to me that he was in such control of his own language that he could do such a thing without the structure falling into pieces.

The only plan when I came here was to actually talk about boringly pragmatic aspects and maybe also about some problems when playing and conducting his music.

One of the bigger obstacles is his almost over-confidence in musicians, their capabilities in a group, how much they should be able to perceive from the paper and how much they should initially hear from a musical phrase. You all know that his music is very dense, very tight. There´s a lot of things going on. A little slur / legato here, and a little diminuendo there would make a world of difference, things you would normally do. But he was reluctant to put anything like that on paper. Even when I told him I would do it like that, he would say, hm, yes, fine …

There’s a parallel here between him and what Sibelius did. People asked the old Sibelius about how to play stuff, and he would say, I’m not telling you, because I might affect your opinion. Of course, Anders knew exactly how he wanted a particular sound, but he was always open to musical suggestions. For example, in the Saxophone concerto, which has only four staves or five, when the cellos and contrabasses are not playing in octaves. There are simple rhythms, long note values, otherwise the parts look quite blank – this is what you see. What you need to remember is that nowadays it’s even very hard for musicians to play Bach properly if, first, you don’t have an opinion of your own, second, if you don’t have an overview of the whole piece, and third, if you don’t have a consensus regarding style of how to play a certain piece. In a big group this is somewhat problematic. You need to find a way to articulate a phrase.

Quite often in Anders’s music you have a string part of two pages with long, slow notes and then you have mezzo forte [laughs]. What’s this? There’s a lot of music going on – but he would always expect something to happen. At the same time this is a drawback because if you play it like it’s written, it suddenly tends to become a bit brown and very, very broad. I know he was aware of that, but maybe it was an ethic or aesthetic principle of his. It was somehow an idea of his that he couldn’t and shouldn’t touch the music – it was his way of composing and writing. But the thing is, with a piece the like the 4th Symphony, the moment where musicians get on top of it with their ears, and especially the moment there’s a sense of harmonic direction you start relaxing. And this, for me, is the closest parallel between Anders [Eliasson] and [Allan] Pettersson. The two are always compared, I think mostly for non-musical reasons. But the fact is that if you attack a Pettersson symphony with a lot of muscles and a lot of aggression, that’s what you get, that’s how the symphonies will respond. And it’s a bit the same with Anders’s music I’d say, especially with the 4th Symphony. If you hit it, it’ll hit you back, and it will not be as diverse and colorful as it should be.

As a musician, the moment you detach yourself a bit and play on top of things, the music comes alive. And I am really looking forward to hearing tonight’s performance. It’s the second one in two days – and the orchestra tends to let go when they’ve been in this kind of music for a while. There are so many ways in Anders’s music for you to uncover different layers, but you would never see them. For example, in contrast to a Mahler score … [Eliasson] for instance doesn’t even mark if something is a solo, or whether something needs to be a bit louder … you must find out for yourself. You can only do so by playing the music.

As Tony [Lundman] said before, if you are interested in the music you’ll listen to it more thoroughly and then suddenly these things will appear. You all knew Anders – he would rather use a harsh metaphor than a beautiful one, partly because it was his sense of humour, partly because he found it was clearer that way. He would always identify with something that was not mainstream. When he was in New York, I remember him telling me, he walked all the way through Manhattan because he refused to drink coffee from a paper mug. Although he hated walking, he kept on until he found a place where they had some decent porcelain. That in a way says quite a lot about him – and his music [laughs]. He did not want to sacrifice things that he found important.

In a way he was trying to repeatedly compose the same piece of music. An artist friend of mine always said, yeah, I’m trying to paint this painting, and tomorrow I’ll try painting it again. Keep on failing – failing is not the proper word, but not succeeding exactly in what you wanted to achieve … Anders’s way of thinking about music is similar … his Dante anarca that was last played here at Stockholm Konserthus [in 2017] with this sort of parallel concept, or idea, of how the world, or a musical thought, ought to be. There are quite a few composers in 20th-century Sweden that I would link – though not musically – to Anders’s ways of thinking: Bo Linde (1933–1970) maybe, definitely Lille Bror Söderlundh (1912–1957), to some extent maybe even Nils Ferlin (1898–1961), even though he was not a composer but a poet. It doesn’t necessarily have to be people from an outsider-of-a city-background but just less chic, less fashionable people. This may sound a bit strange, but I hope you see what I mean. Things that were close to Anders he always cherished and took care of, which brings me back to his 4th Symphony. The ending is actually the only place in the whole piece where you can breathe properly – it’s very simple, it’s very clean – and so utterly beautiful … because he cherishes this space, or this oasis, this calmness.

On a personal note: I had for a long time been mourning Anders and his music – and I did not touch it for many years. For a while I didn’t do anything. The first thing I performed after Anders had died was his 3rd Symphony. It was so strange going through a score I had known so well, and one of the few pieces I had not conduct when he had been still alive. I used to have him as my guide – I could always call him and talk about stuff, when there was something wrong, misprints and things like that … after a while I learnt how to think and make sure I had the proper chord in mind and see how to adjust. It was a genuine feeling of loneliness not being able to do that with the 3rd Symphony, and there are still some different versions of the slow movement. It’s wrong in the score, you cannot play it the way he wrote it, and you cannot play it the way he changed it either, because he made those changes in a hurry.

Just as an aside: he had this clef dyslexia, you know. I’m quite convinced that’s why he wrote things in C after a while. Quite often when he wrote things in unison and in octaves there would always be a slip. If there’s something wrong in the viola part, most probably he would have put it in octaves with the second violins. And that also happens when you’re sitting with the score, you become sort of tone-blind after a while.

Back to the 3rd Symphony – for me it was a nice process, but it was also very lonely, both personally and musically, even though he would never say more than maybe ”thank you” after a performance. The 3rd Symphony was such a success when it was premièred. Then John-Edward Kelly and Leif Segerstam recorded it at least twice, but Anders refused to have the recordings released. The one you can now find on YouTube – he would’ve killed you… It was something about the appearance of the music, not the way they played it. I think it had to do with the idea of treating it as a sort of solo concerto rather than an integrated obligato part. At least the recording I’m familiar with is mixed in a way – you only hear the saxophone with the orchestra far behind it. Kelly and Anders were fighting over that, and with Segerstam too!

So the symphony disappeared for a while, it was not performed, I think. [It was performed November 7, 2003, in Munich, musica viva, Herkulessaal of Münchner Residenz; John-Edward Kelly, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Udo Zimmermann, cond.] So it was in danger of disappearing partly because of his [Eliasson’s] ”politics”.

Just to sum up my scattered thoughts, I think the best way to approach Anders’s music is to play it, and that means also to listen to it of course. When I told him I was supposed to conduct somewhere, he would say, no you are not conducting, you are playing, or he would ask me, what did you play last week? The experience of music, as you all know, of “tough” music, music that means something, does not necessarily reach you immediately. I can only speak for myself, it took me, for example, a long time before I discovered what a great composer Brahms was. It was not at first hearing, and not at first playing, either. You have to immerse yourself in the music, as Anders did, and the fantastic thing is that intuition will take you to the right places, and that´s also the beauty of playing Brahms.

[Anders Paulsson’s commenting]: Anders Eliasson had a background in Jazz. In Jazz you do not notate as precisely as you are supposed to in classical music, you are supposed to figure it out for yourself. And for some reason, just working out his [Anders’s] music – it’s almost like an obsession, I can wake up in the middle of the night and hear his music with crystal clarity, it’s like he has transformed by brain in a way I had not expected [laughs].

[Johannes Gustavsson]: When we did Quo vadis, it was the only time in my life that I’ve played the piano in a choir rehearsal … I don’t know how to play the piano [laughs] … but the very friendly pianist kept on adding new harmonies for the choir to learn those intervals. He was adding major seventh chords all the time, and he was almost destroying … though it was not my rehearsal. You cannot do it, stop playing. I implored him … Then of course the radio choir was a bit upset. I learnt later that the last time they had seen Anders in the same studio, Studio 2, he was lying on the floor banging his head and screaming that they didn’t know anything about what they were singing. I think you can hear in the recording that the choir knows the harmony. It’s open! Once they cracked the code, they landed in the system, the melody, the harmonies, in Anders’s space. I still would’ve loved to have a better sense of the of the system myself. In nine times out of ten you can solve it by listening to it and now we’re back to intuition, which speaks for the emotional quality of the music, you can actually hear when it’s wrong, even though it’s quite complex. Thank you.

Transcribed by Peter Kislinger; authorised by Johannes Gustavsson