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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 15: Kurt Magnus Atterberg

Take 30 seconds right now, and try to name five Swedish composers. I’ll wait…. If you drew a complete and total blank, I forgive you. Orchestra programs, almost without exception, follow certain “formulas”: overture, concerto, symphony; and, lately, some combination of one contemporary work, followed by two or more pieces of standard repertoire (i.e. Austro-German, Italian, French, or Russian). There’s a pretty simply reason for that—it sells. But, if you’ve been reading any of my posts, you know there’s an embarrassingly large amount of excellent repertoire by excellent composers that has simply been lost to time. Kurt Magnus Atterberg was one of those composers.


A prolific and revered contemporary of Mahler and Strauss, Atterberg composed numerous chamber works, six operas, six ballets, seven concertos, nine orchestral suites, and nine symphonies! I’ve been drawn to his music for a few years now, and was happy to conduct his Sixth Symphony (the so-called “Dollar” Symphony, a nickname that he hated) with the Indiana University Symphony Orchestra in 2016.


You can find that recording here: https://youtu.be/sMUdEtAz97s?t=145


Like any musician, once I find a composer I like, I have to go down the rabbit hole of his/her music; and, as a conductor, I naturally gravitate toward Atterberg’s orchestral works. Now that I’ve done the Sixth Symphony, the Second is next on my “must-do” list. Of course, I’d love to eventually perform them all!


Atterberg wrote his Second Symphony between 1911 and 1912, originally as a two-movement work. The second movement (my favorite) served as a hybrid adagio-scherzo-finale sort of thing, but it didn’t really work, structurally. The symphony is in F major, but the second movement actually ends in the dominant C major. So, in 1913, Atterberg added a third movement, a finale proper, which follows the more traditional and satisfying trajectory of F minor to F major. It’s a perfectly acceptable and tremendously exciting finale…but that second movement is just so epic that I’d forgive you for feeling that the rest of the symphony is a little anti-climactic.


Atterberg’s music has been recorded very sporadically over the years. The symphonies were most recently—and, I believe, most successfully—recorded by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and Ari Rasilainen.


Here is their performance of the Second Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTh233TWXTQ


I really hope these two performances will inspire you to explore more of Atterberg’s music. It’s seriously great stuff. Enjoy! :)

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