About this Recording
8.554006 - BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 2, WAB 102 (Ireland National Symphony, Tintner)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (original 1872 version)

A mediaeval artisan might easily have kept a daily record of how many different prayers he prayed and how often he repeated them. For a composer of the nineteenth century, with its belief in unstoppable progress and human supremacy, to behave in this fashion is certainly unique. But Anton Bruckner, though accepting the harmonic and orchestral achievements of the Romantic period, did just that; he did not really belong to his time. Even less did he fit in with the Viennese environment into which he was transplanted for the last 27 years of his life. The elegant and rather superficial society he encountered there must have thought the naïve, badly dressed fellow with the 'wrong' accent a rather pathetic oddity.

Bruckner had indeed come from a very different background. The little village in Upper Austria, Ansfelden, where his father was a schoolmaster, was not far away from the great and beautiful monastery of St. Florian. The young Bruckner followed in the footsteps of his father for a short time; but St. Florian possessed one of Europe's finest organs, and young Anton, whose talent for music was discovered early, became an organist. The experience of hearing and playing this magnificent instrument became central to his whole life. He spent many hours there, practising and improvising, and eventually his playing was so exceptional that he made successful tours of France and England as an organ virtuoso. He had lessons in theory and composition, and started composing fairly early in life, but he felt the need for more instruction in counterpoint and became for several years a most diligent pupil of the famous Simon Sechter, visiting him every fortnight in Vienna. Many years earlier and shortly before his death, Schubert had also wanted to study counterpoint with Sechter, but of course he was wrong; most of his life work was already done, and works such as his early Mass in A flat showed him in no need of such lessons.

Sechter forbade Bruckner to compose a single note in order to concentrate entirely on his innumerable exercises, and here Bruckner, who had in the meantime advanced to the post of organist at Linz Cathedral, showed one unfortunate trait of his character, perhaps acquired as an altar-boy: utter submission to those he considered his superiors. He obeyed. But when he had finished his instruction with Sechter and took lessons with the conductor of the local opera, Otto Kitzler, who introduced him to the magic world of Wagner, music poured out of him. Now forty, Bruckner composed his first masterpiece, the wonderful Mass in D Minor, followed by two other great Masses, and Symphony No. 1. His reputation reached Vienna and he was appointed to succeed Sechter as Professor of Music Theory.

Bruckner had ample reason to regret his move from Linz to Vienna. He, the fanatical admirer of Wagner, was innocently dragged into the rather silly conflict between the followers of Brahms and those of his beloved Wagner. So he made many enemies, most cruel of whom was the critic Eduard Hanslick, whom Wagner caricatured as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. But though adversaries did him harm, his friends and admirers hurt his works much more. All his young students were gifted Wagnerians and they thought Bruckner's music needed to sound more like Wagner, and that it needed other "ministrations" such as large cuts as well. They considered their beloved Master to be a "genius without talent."

Many of those misguided admirers, such as Artur Nikisch and Franz Schalk, became famous conductors and they set about making these enormous scores acceptable to the public – and it must be said that the master, who was desperately anxious to be performed, often agreed and sometimes even became an accomplice to their mutilations, but he also left his original scores to the National Library with the comment 'for later times.' His own insecurity made him constantly revise his works, especially Symphonies Nos. 1-4. As a result, we are confronted in many cases by several versions of the same work. Sometimes the later versions are a definite improvement, as with the Fourth Symphony; and sometimes, in my opinion, the first version is superior, as with the Second and Third Symphonies.

One who deals with eternal things is in no hurry, and therefore performers and listeners must also allow plenty of time. Whereas Mahler, who died three years before World War I began, was the prophet of insecurity. "Angst" and the horrors we live in, the deeply religious Bruckner sings of consolation and spiritual ecstasy (Verzückung) – but not exclusively. In some of the Eighth and most of the Ninth Symphonies, he expresses agony, perhaps doubt.

Bruckner's music touches the innermost recesses of the human soul. In this way he reminds me of Dostoyevsky. This quality is probably the only thing the compulsive gambler and epileptic sinner (according to his own testimony he raped a thirteen­-year-old girl) has in common with the celibate "country bumpkin."

When Bruckner submitted his Second and Third Symphonies to his adored Master of all Masters, Wagner was immediately impressed by the heroic trumpet tune of the Third and he graciously allowed Bruckner to dedicate this work to him. It seems even possible that Wagner's perfectly reasonable preference for the Third Symphony is responsible for the comparative neglect of the Second. Yet this so-called Pausensinfonie (symphony of rests) is a very beautiful work.

Bruckner's mania for revision sometimes bore positive fruits, as, for instance, in the Fourth Symphony, but with other works such as the Second and the Third his first versions seem to me the best. We must be grateful to Dr William Carragan for publishing for the first time in 1991 the original (1872) version of the Second Symphony.

The symphony opens with a soft cello melody. The even notes become dotted in a crescendo, then celli and double basses repeat the first idea. Now unexpectedly the first trumpet plays the same note, C, five times in the following rhythm:

The juxtaposition of two and three notes is a favourite device of Bruckner's. This enigmatic trumpet-call assumes great importance in the first and last movements. The second main tune is also lyrical and is again entrusted to the celli. A soft march-like melody follows. The trumpet tune re­appears, this time played in octaves by both trumpets. A third lyrical melody with a Wagnerian mordent, played by the oboe and then by the bassoon and flute, provides a moment of repose. The development deals largely with the main tune until the march-like motif and the second melody, this time in the French horn and oboe, is heard. We are gradually led to the recapitulation. The coda brings the third and fourth bars of the main theme as an ostinato in the celli and double basses, while woodwind and French horns play the first and second bar of the same theme against it. The trumpet signal gains ever greater importance, interrupted by a slower reminiscence of the first melody.

It was only in this 1872 edition of his Second Symphony that Bruckner wisely placed the Scherzo second, because this robust music makes a perfect contrast to the largely lyrical first movement. It is not clear what made him change his mind, but perhaps he was frightened (and he was easily frightened) that critics would accuse him of copying the order of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A forceful two-bar theme is the basis for this already typically Brucknerian Scherzo. It is in two parts and Bruckner repeated both sections, only in this version, to its advantage. The charming Trio, with both parts again repeated, offers a complete contrast. The violas present a 'tipsy' tune, with a big leap upwards at the end of the first two phrases. There are some attractive fast modulations. As is usual, the Scherzo is played again, this time, of course, without repeats. A powerful coda ends the movement. In his later works Bruckner abandoned the practice of ending his Scherzi with codas.

In the solemn Andante the first violins leap down a whole octave, to rise again in steps. The rhythm of this second bar becomes very important:

Plucked strings introduce and accompany the second melody, for French horn, a slight increase and decrease in speed occurring several times. The French horn melody is heard four times, the last two in an embroidered form. A rather awkward bassoon solo leads to the recapitulation. In the 1872 edition the horn tune appears again four times and after the 'usual' accelerando and ritenuto phrase the strings playa reminiscence of Qui venit from the Benedictus of Bruckner's Mass in F minor, but with an odd accelerando. The first theme re-appears, embellished, and leads to an impressive climax. After the music grows softer, the strings quote Qui venit, this time more precisely, and without the earlier accelerando. The wonderful coda includes a duet for flute and solo violin, followed by an extremely difficult passage for the first horn, a passage so difficult that Bruckner in later editions of the symphony gave this to the clarinet.

The enormous Finale starts with a quaver movement in the second violins, containing the first four notes of the beginning of the symphony. The first violins play descending scales, while the violas move upward. A crescendo leads to a rather military fortissimo unison passage with triplet quavers on each first beat, not one of Bruckner's greatest inspirations. The soft beginning returns. After a silence the endearing Schubertian second theme proper, based largely on the interval of the sixth, wanders, in strings and woodwind, through many keys. The military theme returns, this time in the major. After a climax where the brass play the rhythm of the trumpet motto in the first movement, there is silence. Then the strings quote this time from the Kyrie of the Mass in F minor. In the development, after a quiet start, the flutes chase the clarinets in a paraphrased version of the first tune. Now the second violins start the main theme in contrary motion. The woodwind quote the first two bars of the main theme of the first movement. There is a great deal of difficult syncopation until the bassoon leads to a lovely second melody. The oboe plays this in contrary motion. After a crescendo the military motif re-appears and after another silence the recapitulation begins. Again we are reminded of the beautiful Kyrie. The coda is interrupted by memories of the first movement and of the Schubertian melody. At the final sehr schnell (very fast) the triplet motif is played only by the celli and double basses against the might of the rest of the orchestra playing the rhythm of the enigmatic trumpet tune. Bruckner realised he had made an error of balance and subsequently engaged a fourth trombone-player just to reinforce these fifteen bars of the bass line. That seems to me a very odd remedy. I took the liberty here of making only the celli and double basses play triple forte, with all the others at mezzo forte, and after these fifteen bars the whole orchestra delivers its triumphant final seven bars at triple forte.

1997 Georg Tintner

Note: In the recordings in this series the second violins are placed on the right of the conductor, for the antiphonal effect between first and second violins that Bruckner expected to hear.

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