In 1990, Gunnar Bucht reached what since 1824 has been concidered a climactic moment in the orchestral composer’s career, the premiere of his Ninth Symphony. Ironically, it also coincided with what is considered the grand climacteric in a man’s life, his 63rd birthday. There is little sign that Bucht intends to rest on his laurels; 1990 also witnessed first performances of two more, dramatically different orchestral works, a second Cello Concerto and the remarkable “novel for orchestra“, On Spring I Went out into the World.
If Bucht is a traditionalist, as the critical convention has it, he is a traditionalist of a rather special sort. While it is true that he has not turned to the more extreme language of the continental avant-garde and that he maintains an outwardly regressive loyalty to the symphonic form in something like its 19th-century outline, he is nonetheless one of the more daring comosers of the older generation in contemporary Sweden. He recieved a firm grounding at the hands of Karl-Birger Blomdahl, leader of the famous Monday Group which dominated Swedish Music, and has some of the knobblier edges knocked off by Goffredo Petrassi (a man with his own special stance on modern and classical tradition) and Max Deutsch.
A veteran of the folk high school and Citizens School system, Bucht acted as Sweden’s cultural attaché to what was then West Germany in the early 1970s, before returning to teach at the State College of Music in Stockholm. By that point, he was an established symphonist. His Seventh, written before his return, is ironically his most transcendently “Swedish“, a big rhapsodic work, generously developed, bursting with big symphonic ideas, barely contained by its structure, but closer in overall effect to Nielsen than to Sibelius.
Since then, the music has become more obviously pictorial, but not programmatic. The lovely Fresques mobiles has a dream-like quality that echoes the “space“ effects of Bucht’s creation-fantasy The Big Bang – and After, but with discontinuous elements, collage effects, something akin to narrative suspense – that was to become the essence of his innovative “novel for orchestra“. It is one of the most striking orchestral works performed anywhere in the last 10 years.
Bucht’s music is absolute in that it obeys the organic imperatives of the form rather than any strict programme. Nonetheless, it is opened out to external reference of a particular, non-naturalistic sort. One might almost say that it contains history without attempting to describe it. That is one of the sterling qualities of Edith Södergran’s verse, of which Bucht has made some striking settings.
As if to underline his confrontational attitude to tradition, his Lutheran Mass remains unperformed; the composer believes it may be “too dangerous“ to be acceptable to the Swedish establishment. Generally, though, he does not seek to alienate his audience with modernist gestures – the putative objections to the mass is a liturgical one – and continues to produce music which is both accessible and deeply challenging, national and universal, “contemporary“ and absolutely timeless.