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8.554269 - BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 7, WAB 107 (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Tintner)
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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7

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 naive, 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 No. 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 (Verzückuug) – 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 has in common with the celibate 'country bumpkin'.

Symphony No.7

Bruckner was sixty years old when the first two performances of his Seventh Symphony took place: under his pupil Nikisch in Leipzig, and shortly afterwards under the celebrated first conductor of Parsifal, Hermann Levi. The enthusiastic reception of those two performances laid the foundation for the international fame of the composer. How precarious his position was in Vienna, however, is shown in a letter he wrote to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which planned to programme this new work. Bruckner implored them not to perform it because he was afraid that the hostile music critics there would condemn it and thereby endanger his prospects elsewhere.

Symphony No. 7 (actually his ninth symphony) is perhaps his most beautiful work and with his Fourth Symphony certainly his most popular. After a gentle tremolo in the violins the first horn and the cellos (the most euphonious orchestral instruments) sing a rising very wide E major arpeggio; in its continuation the violas quietly take over from the horn; this peaceful melody (repeated by the full orchestra) gently leads to the dominant key, where a very different second tune begins. It has a restless character, modulating incessantly starting in steps with a Wagnerian turn (as in Bruckner's Second Symphony and in Wagner's Rienzi). Also unexpectedly a third melody, very different from either the first or the second, appears like an austere rhythmic dance. With these three building-blocks, the composer gives us one of the loveliest first movements in all music. I would like to mention that Robert Haas is right in ignoring the many tempo modifications added (or at least suggested) by lesser men. They disturb the flow of the music.

Bruckner's adoration of Wagner (who was eleven years his senior) is well known. He had the premonition that his beloved "master of all masters" might soon die. This fear inspired the main tune of the second movement. The composer employed for the first time four "Wagner tubas" which Wagner had specially invented for the Ring cycle. Their sound is across between horns and trombones. They intone a funereal melody answered by the strings. One great melody is followed by the next without ever turning back to the main tune, until the low notes in the brass lead to the slightly faster, much happier second tune (one of Bruckner's greatest inspirations). Here may I point to the similarity in form between this movement and the slow movement in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Also there the slow 4/4 tune is twice followed by a slightly faster 3/4 after which the substantial part of the movement does not mention the second melody again. The first melody reappears with developmental episodes, then the lovely second section is played atone higher with wonderful counterpoints. The main tune appears (highly embroidered) a third time, leading to Bruckner's most successful Steigerung (increase) to a shattering climax. It needs to be mentioned that Nikisch persuaded our very insecure master to add a cymbal, triangle and timpani (none of which are in the original score) to this tremendous moment. I think they should be discarded, especially as Bruckner afterwards wrote over these added parts gilt nicht (not valid), though it must be said that some people question that this is Bruckner's handwriting. (Unfortunately the six rather grotesque cymbal strokes in the 1887 Eighth Symphony cannot be eliminated because Bruckner did write them in the score, which only shows how lasting and often pernicious the influence of the so-called "experts" could be.) A heart-rending coda leads to the first theme in the major. Bruckner wrote double note values here; it is unfortunately impossible to obey this literally, because no brass-player could sustain such an incredibly slow pace.

Though the Scherzo is in the minor it makes a very joyful impression. A stamping rhythm pervades the whole piece and accompanies the main tune played by the trumpet. It is said that the crowing of a cockerel inspired this splendid, somewhat cheeky melody. The elegant Trio (a little slower) offers a complete contrast. Its second pan is based on Bruckner's beloved contrary motion (which is also used profusely in the first movement).

The Finale starts with the same two-note tremolo as the first movement, except an octave higher and only in the second violins. The main theme in the first violins starts with the same five notes that the horn and cellos played at the beginning, only the rhythm is utterly different and very sprightly. It is repeated by the cellos and brass in the dominant key. Soon the second, constantly modulating, chorale theme accompanied by Schubertian pizzicati follows. Quite unexpectedly the first cheerful tune is played by the whole orchestra in a rather incongruously heroic vein. Soon in a kind of development the first tune in contrary motion is played in two-part writing and in minor. (To me it has a slightly ironic expression here.) The heroic version of the first tune reappears, this time further developed; after a climax and a break the chorale returns. The second section of the first melody gradually leads to the triumphant Coda. In Bruckner's Fifth and Eighth Symphonies the Finale is the crowning glory of the whole work. This is not the case in No. 7. Its main weight rests in the first and second movements. The lovely Finale is in relation to the rest of the symphony more like the Finale in a Haydn symphony.

Georg Tintner


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