Allan Pettersson (1911–80) was one of Sweden’s greatest composers of symphonies. Towards the end of his life he received great critical success, and during the 1970s he was described in the press as ‘the leading symphonist of our country, a world figure’, as well as ‘one of Scandinavia’s greatest symphonists’. He began his musical career as a viola player, and during the 1940s was a member of the Stockholm Concert Society’s orchestra (now the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) after studies in Stockholm and in Paris. It was during this time that he started composing in earnest, taking lessons with Karl-Birger Blomdahl, among others. His début as a composer came with a 1950 radio broadcast of his Fugue in E for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, and in the autumn of that year Pettersson took leave of absence in order to compose. The following year, he went to Paris once again, this time to complete his studies in composition. He received tuition from Arthur Honegger, Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud but the most important of his teachers was René Leibowitz. Conductor as well as composer, Leibowitz was probably the leading advocate of Arnold Schoenberg and of twelve-tone music in France. Leibowitz’s teaching was based on twelve-tone technique but included composition, musical analysis and orchestration. After a period of intense study, Pettersson returned to Sweden in 1952 and thereafter devoted himself exclusively to composition.
The first symphony that Pettersson completed was Symphony No. 2 (1952–53), which was premièred in 1954. He had earlier started on a symphony, but never completed it. The symphony became his natural mode of expression, and his 15 works in the genre hold a central role in the Swedish symphonic repertoire. The last of them, Symphony No. 16, was completed in 1979, the year before Pettersson’s death.