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8.553452 - BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 5 (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Tintner)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)


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 A-flat Mass 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 "tor 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 (Verzuckung) -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."

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.


Symphony No.5 in B flat major


Things looked promising when the 44-year-old provincial organist settled in

Vienna. He had a job teaching harmony, counterpoint and organ at the Conservatorium. He also taught at the Teachers' Training College for women (at that time the sexes were separated in education). His Mass in F minor was performed successfully, and he represented Austria at an organists' meeting in

France and two years later in London; his organ playing was a triumph. On his return to Vienna a catastrophe waited for him: he had to defend himself against the accusation that he had spoken "rudely" to two girls at the College. Though he was exonerated, the management transferred him to an all-male class, which was later abolished; so Bruckner not only suffered profound humiliation but also a severe decrease in his already rather meagre income. His letters of that period are full of gloom and hopelessness. He regretted having moved to

Vienna and longed for his former job as organist at Linz Cathedral. Even so, every year he poured out yet another remarkably original symphony.


In the gigantic and heroic Symphony No.5 in B flat one looks in vain for the slightest bit of self-pity. His great predecessor Beethoven also suffered, with even more reason, from much self-pity, and sometimes also exaggerated the gravity of his finances; but his music is also totally free of it, as though these masters put their works through a purifying filter. How different from some other important composers like Mahler and Tchaikowsky, whose self-pity may well have been one of the mainsprings of their inspiration and musical expression.


The Fifth Symphony, the most intellectual of all Bruckner's works, is furthest removed from the seductive world of Wagner's harmony and orchestration.

Just why this work and the Sixth Symphony, which exist in just one version each, escaped his obsessive reworkings we will probably never know. The Fifth was not performed until the end of Bruckner's life, when it was given a performance in Graz -but in a now-discredited, reorchestrated and cut version by his pupil Franz Schalk; the composer was too ill to attend.


In the first movement, soft halting steps in the strings gradually die away.

Then the whole orchestra, without the timpani, bursts forth in an upward rhythmical statement of the G flat major triad. (Here we may perhaps point out that G flat plays a profound role in three of the four movements.) The brass answers with a chorale-like fanfare, and then the rhythmical figure reappears, this time in the main key (and with the timpani). The tempo quickens leading to the main tune in the violas and cellos. Accompanied by pizzicato strings a lyrical tune is introduced by the first violins. A new theme is played by the woodwinds, accompanied by syncopated strings. A powerful new section gradually dies away.


In the development the Allegro is twice interrupted by Adagio quotations from the introduction. Then the fanfare appears again. Did Bruckner mean that it should be played in the current Allegro tempo, or should it revert to the original Adagio; he does not say? A similar case occurs in the Finale of

Brahms' First Symphony where a gentle slow chorale is repeated in the much faster tempo of the Allegro. Most conductors slow down in both cases. I think the composers meant what they wrote and I play them Allegro.


The sombre second movement starts with a "confrontation" of six pizzicato notes in the strings against four in the plaintive oboe tune. When this tune returns later on, embroidered by semiquaver sextuplets in the violins, Bruckner writes, "Melody nearly in the same rhythm (i.e. tempo) as the Alia breve bars, but slower." This is clear proof that the "very slowly" at the beginning of the movement refers to two and not six beats in the bar.


Bruckner must have been very keen to bring in the lovely string second tune at first in C major, because he accepted a slight distortion of the melody as the violins could not play the low F sharp. At its return a tone higher the violins of course play the "proper" tune. Near the end Bruckner employs a terrifying sequence of chords. They sound very forbidding and "progressive." The austere Coda ends unexpectedly in the major, without dispelling the gloomy mood.


In the Scherzo, the first 24 notes in the strings are exactly the same as the first 24 notes of the beginning of the second movement, only played much faster. Above them the woodwind playa rather nervous tune. Now the strings introduce a delightful peasant dance in a slower speed. The whole orchestra answers loudly (one can almost see the stamping of the dancers). The music gradually speeds up and leads back to the first tempo and mood. The Trio, with its horn calls, is amiable throughout.


Was the great Furtwangler right when he described this Finale as surpassing all others in the symphonic literature? Superlatives are always dangerous, but it is certainly one of the greatest.


The Finale of Mozart's Symphony No.41 may well have shown Bruckner the way to combine fugue and sonata. It starts like the first movement until the clarinet interrupts rather rudely. Then, as in the Finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Bruckner quotes from earlier movements. The strings now start a fugue on the clarinet tune. The second violins introduce a charming melody that slows down a little, anticipating an equally glorious portion of the second movement of his Sixth Symphony. A heroic section follows; I think it should be in the same tempo (or nearly so) and not considerably faster!


Now the brass chants a brand new Chorale. Another gigantic fugue on all the themes starts in the violas. Then the amiable second tune is this time played by the first violins. An enormous increase in intensity follows, leading to the Chorale in full orchestral glory.


@ 1997 Georg Tintner


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