About this Recording
8.223405 - ATTERBERG: Piano Quintet / Suite No. 1 / Horn Sonata (New Budapest Quartet)

Kurt Atterberg (1887–1974)
Piano Quintet • Suite No. 1 • Horn Sonata


The Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg, whose works include 59 with opus numbers and several without, in many cases large scale operas and orchestral compositions, was also instrumental in the formation of the Swedish Society of Composers and of a copyright organisation, STIM, of both of which he served, at times, as chairman. At the same time he held the position of Principal Clerk at the National Patent Office, in addition to his activities as a cellist and conductor and as a music critic.

Early in 1927 Atterberg set to work on a composition probably intended for orchestra, sketching some thirty bars of a light-hearted character, the beginning of what was to be his Sixth Symphony, later arranged as the Piano Quintet in C major, Opus 31b. In the same year the record company Columbia announced an international competition to mark the death of Schubert, first of all asking for the completion of the so-called “Unfinished Symphony”. This initial idea proved generally unacceptable, and it was agreed that instead the competition would involve the composition of a work using a theme from a Schubert symphony. Towards the end of November Atterberg learned of this competition, with its original deadline of 31st December, extended first to the end of March 1928 and then to the end of April, with preliminary rounds in various regions, the Scandinavian jury consisting of Carl Nielsen, Ture Rangström, Hakon Børresen and Rolf Vass.

During this period Atterberg was busy with international conferences, as a member of the world-wide copyright organisation CISAC, and also as a conductor. It is possible to follow from his letters his activities as a composer. By 6th February he had completed all but the coda of the first movement and also half of the second movement and the whole finale of the symphony. The slow movement was finished one month later and on 12th March the first movement. On 8th April the symphony was submitted to the jury.

In early May Atterberg was invited, as chairman of the Society of Swedish Composers, to attend a formal dinner at the Nimb Restaurant in Copenhagen, when the verdict of the Scandinavian competition jury would be announced. Rather than listen to applause for someone else, Atterberg refused to go, only to read in the newspapers the next morning that he himself had won the first prize of $750 from among 35 competitors. In the end he also won the final international first prize, after the jury had considered the Third Symphony of Franz Schmidt and a symphony by the Polish composer Czeslaw Marek, among a total of five hundred entries from 26 countries. A cheque for $10,000 arrived, and the symphony was soon given its nickname, the Dollar Symphony. The composer was able, with the prize-money, to buy a new Ford and for the first time in his life sat behind the wheel of a car.

The symphony had its first performance on 15th October 1928 at a general rehearsal in the old Gothic Gürzenich Hall in Cologne when Atterberg’s work became a topic of the greatest interest, with his symphony dissected and subjected to accusations of theft from a number of works that he had never heard, including Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Already, before the first performance, Sir Thomas Beecham had, on 12th August, made a secret recording, and he also played it in public the same year. The symphony was also conducted by Georg Högberg in Copenhagen, by Hamilton Harty in Manchester, by Mengelberg in New York, by Kajanus in Helsinki and by Schalk in Vienna. Toscanini soon followed suit. The fame of the work also persuaded Atterberg to arrange the symphony in 1942 as a piano quintet, the version now recorded for the first time.

In 1913 Atterberg had been commissioned to provide music for Ernst Didring’s play Jefta, for its staging at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. He had recently received praise from the opera singer John Forsell and when the director of the theatre, seeking a composer who was both competent and young, and therefore cheap, asked for the advice of the director of the Royal Academy of Music, he was given the name of Atterberg, at 26 the most promising talent of the day.

Atterberg borrowed from Rabbi Raphael some volumes of the Jewish Encyclopedia, from which he derived an idea of general atmosphere and some useful Jewish melodic material. The project, however, brought unexpected problems, since the theatre orchestra consisted only of four incompetent old troupers, who found the music so difficult and so modern that they could not imagine how it was intended to sound, even less how to play it. Atterberg later explained how he was asked to come in to impose some order on the proceedings and to save the first night, but this was in the days of the silent movies, when any musician who could play even tolerably was employed at the cinemas, the rest at the Dramatic Theatre. The only consolation was proved by the girls of the ballet, an interesting distraction. The first performance on 14th March was no success and after a few performances the play was withdrawn. Atterberg’s angry reaction came two weeks after the first performance, when he sat down at the piano and embarked, in fury, on the long-awaited finale of his second symphony, and then, in another mood, on a romance with a ballet girl. The three-movement orchestral suite from this incidental music was arranged during the 1940s for piano quartet and first performed in that version in 1948.

Atterberg’s Horn Concerto in A major, written in 1926, is often played. His Horn Sonata, however, belongs in this form to a later period. In 1925 he had written a Sonata for a single string instrument, cello, viola or violin, but the version for French horn and piano did not appear until 1955, at the request of Domenico Ceccarossi. The broad romantic first movement, the folk-style second and the virtuoso finale are clearly well suited to the instrument.

Stig Jacobsson

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