On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Schubert’s death the Columbia Gramophone Company invited composers in 1928 to write a work which the Unfinished Symphony would inspire them to compose. The 10,000-dollar first prize went to Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg for his 6th Symphony, which has borne the sobriquet “The Dollar Symphony” ever since. Many factors contributed to its success, including its transparent orchestration, euphony, engaging melodies, rousing dance-like music in the outer movements, the poetic mood of the central Adagio (with its rewarding clarinet solo), and a hint of Swedish folk music.
From the preface of the Repertoire Explorer Miniature Score:
By the mid-1920s, the Swedish-born Kurt Atterberg was already recognised in continental Europe as a successful composer of symphonies. His most recent work had been the passionate Fifth Symphony, the Sinfonia funebre, completed between 1919-22 and premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic under the composer’s baton on 6th January 1923 in Berlin. But it was with his Sixth Symphony that he unexpectedly hit the headlines around the world, having emerged as the winner in the “Schubert Centennial Contest” held by the Columbia Phonograph Company, New York. (Most of the general information and reports about the circumstances of the competition that follow here are taken from “Havergal Brian and his Symphony ‘The Gothic’”, a thesis submitted in 1970 for a Master of Music at the University of Michigan by Paul Rapoport.) On 26th June 1927 Columbia and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna had announced a competition, which was advertised worldwide, and whose objective was a completion of Schubert‘s “Unfinished”. This appeal generated outrageous protests from experts, culminating in the reproach that the Schubert centennial would be exploited commercially by the recording industry through an act of “vandalism” (Olin Downes). Subsequently, the conditions of participation were revised several times between July 1927 and February 1928, with the competition being split into two parts in October 1927: 1) as before, a completion of the “Unfinished” in a Schubert-like orchestration, and 2) “an original work in two movements, composed in the romantic spirit that animates Schubert‘s music, and especially [with regard to] his Unfinished Symphony” (New York Times, 23 October 1927). The conditions were then generalized further, requiring “symphonic works in one or more movements, presented as an apotheosis of the lyrical genius of Schubert and dedicated to his memory on the occasion of the centennial” (New York Times, 30 October 1927), whereby actual attempts to complete the “Unfinished” were still allowed. On 28th December 1927, The Times (London) reported: “The compositions, apart from faultless formal structure, must be marked by the predominance of a vigorous melodic content, and the number of instruments employed must not substantially exceed the measure established by the classical orchestras of Schubert‘s time.” On 6th January, the same newspaper reported: “Any composition submitted may use the Schubert sketches for the third movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony. There is only one restriction – all works must be for orchestra.” The world was divided into ten zones of participation, in which separate juries, each consisting of five representative personalities.
On 23rd June 1928 the jury in Vienna announced the following decision: the First Prize of the Columbia Phonograph Company, including prize money of £ 2000 (10.000 $), was awarded to Kurt Atterberg for his Sixth Symphony. The presentation of the prize took place on 17th August that year. The Second Prize was given to Franz Schmidt for his Third Symphony in A Major, and the Third Prize to the Polish composer Czeslaw Marek for his “Sinfonia brevis”. The Musikblätter des Anbruch (Vienna, No. 7, 1928) could proudly announce: “The Columbia Company together with the authors has given these three important works to the Universal Edition for publishing them, and they will appear in print soon. The publishers have given the first performance of Atterberg’s symphony to Hermann Abendroth for the Gürzenich concerts; they have given Schmidt’s symphony to Franz Schalk for the Vienna Philharmonic; and they have handed over Marek’s Sinfonia to Volkmar Andreae in Zurich. At the same time these symphonies will be released on record by Columbia. The recordings will be made with renowned orchestras and outstanding conductors. During the next season the works will be performed in many cities in Europe, America and Australia.” Atterberg had only heard about the competition on 27th November 1927, at a time when the deadline had still been set for the end of 1927. But then the submission date was shifted to the end of March, and finally to the end of April. Atterberg finished his symphony by 12th March, and on 8th April he posted it off.
On 15th October 1928 Hermann Abendroth conducted the Gürzenich Orchestra in the premiere of Atterberg’s Opus 31 in Cologne. Earlier, on 12th August that year, Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had made the first recording for Columbia in London’s Scala Theatre, selling more than 100,000 copies within a very short time (probably 25,000 albums of four records). That same year Atterberg himself conducted a recording of his work. Fifteen years later, in 1943, Arturo Toscanini recorded the symphony; the world then had to wait until 1992 when the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Jun’chi Hirokami recorded it for BIS. Also, in 1999, the Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Ari Rasilainen committed the work to disc as a part of their complete recording of Atterberg’s symphonies. The prize money gave rise to a nickname for the work: the “Dollar Symphony”. Atterberg bought a Ford. In the words of the composer, “I immediately began taking driving lessons, and I sat at the wheel for the first time on 24th August.” The British premiere of the 6th Symphony took place on 8th November in Manchester, the Hallé Orchestra playing under Sir Hamilton Harty. After the London premiere conducted by Beecham five days later, Ernest Newman wrote in the Sunday Times of 18th November: “Atterberg may have looked down the list of judges, and slyly made up his mind that he would put in a bit of something that would appeal to each of them in turn – a bit of “Sheherazade” for the Russian, Glazunov, a bit of “Cockaigne” for Mr. Tovey, a bit of the “New World Symphony” for Mr. Damrosch, a bit of “Petrouchka” for the modernist Alfano, a bit of Granados for Salazar… But I wonder if there may not be another explanation… Atterberg is not merely a composer. He is a musical critic… Suppose he looked round with the cynical smile that, as all the world knows, all critics wear, and decided to pull the world’s leg? The tribute paid to certain other works in this symphony is so obvious that it would indeed be a strange thing if the composer himself (who, I repeat, is also a critic) should be the one man in the world of music to be unaware of them… And if my theory is correct, the laugh is Atterberg’s today.” On 2nd December Franz Schalk conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the Austrian premiere of Atterberg’s symphony, given with the world premiere of Franz Schmidt’s Third Symphony, which won Second Prize in the competion. On 1st February 1929, having been asked by Columbia to make a statement on Newman’s speculations, Atterberg confessed in the Musical Digest (Chicago) in an article entitled “How I fooled the musical world”, that the finale of his symphony was: “a satire on those persons who, in connection with the Schubert centennary, posed as great lovers and connoisseurs of Schubert without love or knowledge of his works.” He also set the record straight that the first two movements, which according to a letter to Carl Nielsen are “written with the greatest seriousness and are very strict in form”, had not been influenced by the tenor of the competition at all. He was amused that so many supposedly unintentional reminiscences had been discovered, but not the quotation of a well-known Schubert motive that had been reworked in polytonality and which served as the second theme in the Finale. Thus, having fed ironic headlines such as “£ 2000 Symphony Hoax” or “Joke of Swedish Composer”, the indignation of Columbia’s representatives was great, culminating in the request to the composer to return the prize money. This never came to pass. Atterberg composed three more symphonies, all of them unprinted (except for the “Sinfonia per archi”, op. 53 of 1953, published by Eulenburg). Apart from the Sixth Symphony, Universal Edition has published only one more Atterberg work: the Värmlandsrapsodi, op. 36, composed five years later. According to Nicolas Slonimsky (in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th Edition, 1984) there can be no doubt that “Atterberg was a master technician of his craft, and that his music had a powerful appeal. That it never gained a wider audience can be ascribed only to an unfathomable accident of world culture.”
Translation: Ernst Lumpe, Graham Lack
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