Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Symphonies of Anton Bruckner

Another post concerning Bruckner is here.

On Saturday, 23 February, a friend and I attended a concert at Bard College featuring Bruckner's 8th symphony in its original 1887 version, one I'd never heard before. The music was played by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein in a stunning performance that I'm pretty sure was not fully appreciated by most of the audience. After all, how many even of the most seasoned concert audiences know much if anything about Bruckner?

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), the Austrian composer, is noted primarily for his symphonies and his church music. Johannes Brahms, who did not seemingly like Bruckner personally, or at least not his work, referred to Bruckner's “great snakes of symphonies” for they are all long and snake about both thematically and harmonically, all within a certain greatly elongated sonata allegro form. Bruckner wrote eleven symphonies between 1863 and the time of his death in 1896. His works begin with the Study Symphony in F minor. He then wrote the uniquely named symphony No. 0 in d minor in 1869, henceforth the Zero. Thereafter he wrote nine more. his last titled Symphony No. 9 (although it's really his eleventh) left unfinished at his death, it's final movement incomplete. Knowing he might not live long enough to complete this last symphony, Bruckner suggested that his Te Deum be played as the final movement.

For much of this music, you will perhaps want to get into a nice comfortable chair and put on a good set of headphones that can really take the dynamic ranges, kick your feet up and relax. This is the kind of music to accompany some great motion picture one might create in one's mind. Of course another aspect we shall be encountering is the music that again was being written by residents of Vienna, leading up to the so called Second Vienna School (Zweite Wiener Schule, Neue Wiener Schule), this music was to bridge the gap between the Romantic era and the atonalism of the 20th century. The chief musical vehicle was the symphony, as it had been for what some may call the First Vienna School that had formed around Joseph Haydn, who wrote more symphonies than anyone else.

Study Symphony in f minor (1863)
[1] Allegro molto vivace
(There are a few cuts in this performance, but this is the only version of this movement on You Tube that comes to a conclusion.)
[2] Andante molto 7:03 
[3] Scherzo - Schnell 5:25
[4] Allegro 6:46 

Unattributed but possibly the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Glasgow) conducted by Georg Tintner. 

At its writing, the composer was 39 years old. We hear various obvious steals throughout, from sources as far back as Mozart and Beethoven, through Mendelssohn and Schumann. But some of what will become the more pronounced Bruckner style are already present. This is most definitely an under rated symphony which should be performed more often as a good opener in a programme paired perhaps with a 20th century masterpiece or two for the second half of a concert. The work lasts about three quarters of an hour and will fully exercise all capabilities of a large symphony orchestra. 
1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Scherzo: Presto — Trio: Langsamer und ruhiger
4. Finale: Moderato — Allegro vivace

Sir George Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Zero lasts almost 40 minutes and might actually be Bruckner's third in order of composition. The next one, the official 1st symphony, was written three years earlier and this one could have been at least begun the same year. In any case Bruckner is 45 at its completion. From the standpoint of the previous Study Symphony, it would seem that Bruckner fashioned two symphonies, one he rejected, the Zero, whilst the other became the official beginning of his legacy. Amazing that many, perhaps most just neglect these works as useless. The only problem with discarding them is that these first two symphonies each contain a lot of musical material, some of extraordinary value considering who might have been looking, or listening. But no one really was. Is it then a coincidence that certain weird little orchestral textures found in these works turn up in works by later composers? We'll probably never know. Suffice it to say that certain ideas seem to have currency and draw their own admirers during their own particular times. This symphony is also quite full of steals. But one must after all learn from someone. The cult of overt individualism is certainly overrated. As it is, much in these early symphonies already peculiar to Bruckner's style, will definitely influence Mahler and of course the unfortunate Hans Rott, as well as others. It has been often said that musically, Bruckner owes the most to Wagner, but how differently did each employ similar orchestral ideas? Both composers wrote music that is large and expresses many aspects of raw natural power, as well as suggesting natural elements, creatures in a forest, but perhaps only accidentally. Else we are liable to accept that Bruckner, who had studied counterpoint extensively for many years, was using his symphonies to plumb the mysteries of orchestral music as an exercise in sheer intellectual study; one of the elements in the Quadrivium is Music. Everything we know of the studied and studious nature of Bruckner suggests that this might even have been exactly his intentions. 

Symphony No.1 in C minor (1868) "das kecke Beserl"  
1. Allegro (C minor)
2. Adagio (A-flat major)
3. Scherzo: Lebhaft (G minor) – Trio: Langsam (G major)
4. Finale: Bewegt und feurig (C minor)

Sir Geg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Though complete after a fashion in 1868, he revised it until 1891, dedicated it to the University of Vienna, in the main completed before he completed the Zero, this work provides ample evidence that very much of what Bruckner would accomplish was already fully alive in this work. The amazing and revealing steals also continue, from various sources, a few known, like Beethoven and Wagner, while other steals are more obscure. But from the opening bars of the first movement, we are aware of the similarity with the opening of Mahler's 6th, so in music as everywhere else, stealing occurs frequently. But of course we are of a mind not to be terribly concerned with various ways composers plagiarize ideas from each other because we recognize that they were in their way in this way, not so much stealing as paying the purloined from composer a sincere compliment. Bruckner's symphonies are replete with references to certain elements in Wagner's style while not deliberately quoting passages from specific works. It is well known that Bruckner paid deliberate tribute to Wagner, and that's putting it mildly.

Symphony No. 2 in c minor (1872)  
1. Moderato, (C minor)  
2. Feierlich, etwas bewegt, (A-flat major)
3. Scherzo: Mäßig schnell, (C minor) - Trio: Gleiches Tempo, (C major)
4. Finale: Ziemlich schnell, (C minor)

Riccardo Muti conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker at a live concert in the Musikverein, Vienna, 13 April, 2008. (1877 version where the 2nd and 3rd movements are reversed from the original versions)

Revised and reworked until it was published in 1892, this is a fleet work in some respects compared with its predecessor, with again plenty in it that will be picked over by Mahler for ideas that in his hands would sound quite different. Bruckner, as is customarily conceived, was concerned with evoking nature as a tribute to nature's creator, since Bruckner was never far from his apparently quite fervent religious devotion. What may be Bruckner's case, as well or even instead, is that he was primarily a composer operating in the ways mathematicians are devoted to mathematics in that his works are themselves immense “studies” intended to do exactly what they accomplished in the case of Mahler and others, who would apparently learn much from Bruckner's efforts.

Symphony No.3 in d minor, “Wagner” (original 1873 version)
1. Gemäßigt, mehr bewegt, misterioso (also Sehr langsam, misterioso)—d minor
2. Adagio. Bewegt, quasi Andante—E-flat major
3. Scherzo. Ziemlich schnell (also Sehr schnell)—d minor
4. Finale. Allegro (also Ziemlich schnell)—d minor

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden at a concert in the Semperoper, Dresden, Germany on 22 September, 2008.

The first movement is dominated by an enigmatic figure that dramatically pops up amid otherwise passages suggesting natural surroundings. Much else goes on as well. This work was dedicated to Richard Wagner. In the dedication, Bruckner wrote of Wagner as "the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music." Flattery got one best wishes from the cantankerous old composer. Money of course got them Wagner's blessings and later perhaps a personal stab in the back. The imperturbably innocent Bruckner hadn't either vanity or money, so probably Wagner's best wishes were a gentle “what possible harm could he do?” kind of brush off. In any case Bruckner might have been warned that Wagner was usually a dangerous friend.

The music itself is almost the perfect bridge between Beethoven (and even Haydn) and Mahler, through the lens of Wagner. The second movement is where classical Vienna meets the unanswerable questions from Tristan und Isolde. Of course that work dates from before 1860 and now 13 years later, the nearly 50 year old Bruckner writes this music. The difference between Wagner and Bruckner is in the ground of their mysticism. Bruckner's is sacred, whilst Wagner's is profane. Wagner believed in nobody but himself, while Bruckner believed he was merely another of God's creatures, a comparative nobody. The difference in their music and how it relates to the Messianic and redemptive strains in Mahler are all found here. Played competently, and yes, with all the real references directly back to Haydn, this movement become the musical apotheosis of the Viennese (and late German Romantic) culture of that period, when matters of honour and heroism were familiar to all.

This Scherzo is going to be a kind of model for other dance music in the symphonies that would follow. Bruckner is pairing brutal and brusque musical figures with candid fleet footedness and again the sense that one could take the tone centre of the music anywhere at all at any moment. If you like Mahler, hear this trio and you will have no doubt of the inspiration. But this is Bruckner, so there is ease and unmarred happiness instead of strain and pain.

The finale is in d minor, titanic and flexed. Played as it is here, it really shows off the full capabilities of a great orchestra. Where did Bruckner get some of this? Oh, from Schubert, from other prosaic composers of schmaltzy dance music of the period, out of his counterpoint books. The part writing and how it all stands out as distinct and weaves itself together flawlessly are demonstrated as casually as having a walk (or ride) through the country. There is even a place where the music seems to pause and take a little rest, then resumes. Bruckner doesn't let you linger too long ; he just keeps the walk (ride) going where it naturally would if it were ... out of that particular place in space and time that was the late 19th century in Vienna, thirty years and another lifetime ahead of the Great War. The huge clouds of noise he gets up in this symphony never sound as if they are quite the premonition of a great war, but rather of some dramatic weather or natural event or some possible beneficent act of the Almighty. Nevertheless, to Anton Bruckner, these may have in fact been nothing more than great music lessons writ large. Did he mock himself even near the end of this last movement? It's certainly possible.

Symphony No.4 in E flat major, "Die Romantische" (1874-1888)
1. Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (E-flat major) 
2. Andante, quasi allegretto (C minor)
3. Scherzo. Bewegt - Trio: Nicht zu schnell (B-flat major)
4. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (E-flat major)

Daniel Barenboim conducting Wiener Philharmonier,
Royal Albert Hall, London, 3 9 / 2007

The Romantic symphony is one of Bruckner's best known, premiered in 1881 by Hans Richter in Vienna with great success. Bruckner used the name Romantic for this work to depict heroic tales rather than love stories. Wagner gave this work his personal approval, which I'm sure helped secure the work both publicity and performances.

Symphony No 5 in B flat Major (1875-1876) 
1. Introduction (Adagio) — Allegro. B-flat major.
2. Adagio. Sehr langsam. D minor.
3. Scherzo. Molto vivace D minor.
4. Finale (Adagio) — Allegro moderato. B-flat major.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Wiener Philharmoniker
Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 28 8 / 2005

First performed in completed form in 1887 (published in 1897), a performance capable of lasting an hour and a half! this work is yet of a more straightforward and simpler design than those which follow it, and many of the devices used are hence perhaps more memorable. There is a lot of string plucking; pizzicato, throughout this work. Bruckner uses the slow walking theme of the academic sounding introduction to the first movement for material to add to the development section. The effect might seem heroic and pastoral by turns. Here again, as we have and will see, vast orchestral walls succeed one another with really masterful applications of Wagnerian orchestration as if the orchestra is played as a vast organ, that being Bruckner's principle instrument.

The second movement features possibly more bucolic passages, but these would likely be vistas framed by huge glaciated fastnesses, not your usual placid hills and valleys back home. He tries birhymicality over a few measures and repeats it later in the form's rebound so you know he's serious. Here and there an odd phrase will remind you of Elgar.

Bruckner essays many more daring things in the Scherzo, which especially in the Trio sounds like Mahler, who always claimed Bruckner as inspiration. Nobody writes in a vacuum.

The Finale begins as did the first movement, the same stately academic walk, but then successive themes from the first movement are tried until a new theme is taken up in a fugue. This one certainly gets inspiration from Beethoven's Große Fuge. But then Bruckner breaks free of it into more of his usual symphonic strands, more string plucking giving that “urban” quality to many of the passages. But then there are the brass choirs signifying something more like attending high mass, which in Catholic Austria was almost a token of patriotism to the Hapsburg regime and the realm it signified. As with much in Bruckner, it's not over til it's over and you will feel a few false ends before it all comes to the usual colossal finish. What do you expect from someone that uses a fugue as the substitute for the first subject in a sonata allegro form?

Symphony No 6 in A Major (1879-1881)
1. Majestoso 
2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich
3. Scherzo. Nicht schnell — Trio. Langsam
4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in the Musikverein, Vienna, in a live performance, 10 December, 2008. 

He's in his mid fifties as he writes this, perhaps the least well known of Bruckner's symphonies, and for that reason it will probably over time become better known. It lasts the regulation hour in length, and contains many exquisite touches and stunning orchestral effects. The first movement, Majestoso, presents us with thematic material and contexts which cannot set for us any definite key, the second movement is actually in sonata form, the third movement predates the scherzo in his 8th symphony, the finale almost a symphony in itself. 

Symphony No 7 in E Major (1881-1882)
1. Allegro moderato (E major) 
2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam (C-sharp minor)
3. Scherzo. Sehr schnell (A minor)
4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht schnell (E major)

Bernard Haitink conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden in the Royal Albert Hall, London in a live performance, 9 March, 2004. This is one for headphones as some of the playing is really gorgeous.

This symphony, which runs a little more than an hour, won Bruckner his greatest public success during his lifetime, and why not? It's one of the tighter of his conceptions for one thing, and his orchestration is at its best. Bruckner is as some suppose imitating nature. But it could as well be that he is writing pure music as much of it has geometric progression, structure and substance, of course drawn from Wagner, but put to far different uses. Much of it also sounds like early Mahler, who would be deeply influenced by this music. Other trademarks of Bruckner's style are his occasional references to phrase painting from the First Vienna School, because after all he is in Vienna and has inherited their craft. This piece was being written in that fateful year, 1881, that would see the première of Brahms' second piano concerto and the birth of Béla Bartók. It was first performed in 1884 and revised in 1885.

Symphony No. 8 in c minor (original version, 1887) 
1. Allegro moderato
2. Scherzo. Allegro moderato; Trio. Langsam
3. Adagio. Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend
4. Finale. Feierlich, nicht schnell

Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Most have heard this in later versions that Bruckner should never have allowed to be edited. This is the way he originally heard and wrote it. Much of it comes across as more original and better integrated and some of the music, notably in the Third movement, is totally different.

Symphony No. 9 in d minor (incomplete in 1896)
1. Feierlich, misterioso
2. Scherzo. Bewegt, lebhaft - Trio. Schnell
3. Adagio. Langsam, feierlich

Bernard Haitink conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a live concert at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 14 November, 2009. 

The culmination of all Bruckner's symphonic output was this enigmatic music that somehow crystallized his unique style. Most will never hear more than these three movements and for most they will always be more than enough. But This symphony had sketches for the usual fourth movement and a story goes that Bruckner, realizing that he would not complete this work before his death, suggested that his Te Deum be played as its finale. The English composer, Robert Simpson, among many disputed this, but we are including the Te Deum here anyway as in fact a very fitting way to complete this last of Bruckner's symphonies. 

Te Deum in C major (1884) 
1. "Te Deum laudamus" - Allegro, Feierlich, mit Kraft, common time, C major
2. "Te ergo quaesumus" - Moderato, common time, F minor
3. "Aeterna fac" - Allegro, Feierlich, mit Kraft, common time, D minor
4. "Salvum fac populum tuum" - Moderato, common time, F minor
5. "In Te, Domine speravi" - Mäßig bewegt, common time, C major

Soprano: Krassimira Stoyanova
Mezzo-soprano: Yvonne Naef
Tenor: Christoph Strehl
Bass: Günther Groissböck

Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Chorus Master: Simon Halsey

Bernard Haitink conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in a live concert in the Herkulessaal, München, 12 November, 2010.

This final set of works, the 9th symphony and Te Deum are works both dedicated to God, Bruckner's very Roman Catholic God. This is in a way a redux of Beethoven's 9th and Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123, itself a monumental and quite dramatic setting of the Catholic mass. Bruckner's music harkens back to those times in an earlier Vienna.

The parts that remained in Bruckner's music from that earlier period also reflected the continuity of culture, society and governance that would be broken apart within twenty years of Bruckner's death. But what we have of Bruckner's music today is a tribute to the vastness and uniqueness of his conceptions within the dynamic framework of personalities as diverse as Wagner and Bach; such are the complexities of his musical steals.

Someone who would learn from Bruckner, or at least his pupils, would be the young American composer, Charles Ives, whose first two symphonies are full of clever steals. During the same period we have many American symphonists, known these days as the New England School (academics are so very fond of attributing some artistic and stylistic genres to the term “school”), whose methods were essentially the same as Bruckner's. But though these composers had a small staunch following among certain classes of Bostonians, their popularity and influence was short lived as the Great War and the Jazz Age would change all of that forever.

Thank-you so very much for spending a little time investigating the fascinating though often neglected musical world of Anton Bruckner.


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