About this Recording
8.554128 - BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 4, "Romantic" (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Tintner)
English 

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 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 lofty, 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".

Symphony No. 4: “The Romantic”

Not even Bruckner's Eighth Symphony underwent such radical changes as No. 4. Written in 1874, the composer revised it substantially in 1877-78. While the thematic substance of the first two movements remained identical there are great differences in their details. Bruckner totally discarded the Scherzo and Trio and replaced the third movement with the celebrated "Hunting" Scherzo and its adorable Trio; the Finale, now called the Volksfest, was substantially rewritten. In 1880 he composed yet another Finale, and this is the version that is usually played (as in this performance). It is considered by some to be too sombre for the rest of the work, but I do not share this view and think it is the crowning glory of this wonderful symphony. There is definitely a place, however, for the much lighter Volksfest. At the same time there is also the first printed score (the Loewe edition) of 1889. This contains savage cuts, destroying the formal balance, and a complete reorchestration of nearly every bar.

These distortions were perpetrated by some of Bruckner's well-meaning but misguided pupils in order to make this enormous work more acceptable to contemporary audiences. It must be recorded that the insecure composer, in his desire to be performed, not only sanctioned these 'improvements' but, alas, became an accomplice, taking part in these cruel distortions. A gentle string tremolo at the beginning of the work awakens in the sympathetic listener a 'cosmic feeling' even before the magical horn calls.

These are taken up by the woodwind and soon the orchestra intones Bruckner's favourite rhythmical pattern: two duplets followed by three triplets. The full orchestra resumes this rhythm in great strength, then stops after repeating one remote major chord several times. Another remote key introduces the charming dance-like second theme. The first two quavers (eighth-notes) have staccato dots over them, while the second pair has not, although most conductors play the second pair also staccato. Therefore we use the following unusual bowing:

The exposition ends mysteriously, very softly; we play this passage, and also the beginning of the development section without vibrato. Now the horn tune is magnificently embroidered by the wind instruments. A proud chorale in the brass is followed by a soft section which leads to the recapitulation, decorated by the flute and cellos. The ensuing coda, like the coda in the last movement, is among Bruckner's greatest. The second movement is a gentle funeral march. The cellos introduce a noble melody, developed by the rest of the orchestra. The second theme is an enormous song for the violas; it is accompanied by the plucked notes of the other strings. This viola melody, which, later in the movement, is repeated a tone higher, is of great dynamic and rhythmical complexity. After a great crescendo in the whole orchestra the music comes to rest in the very remote key of C flat major. Without much ado Bruckner moves up a semitone to the main key of the movement, this time in the major. A sad, rather austere Trio for clarinet, horn and violas concludes this movement, with a long note in the violas. Bruckner wrote over this note a trill sign in parentheses. Did he mean the trill was optional?

The "Hunting" Scherzo is a virtuosic study of Bruckner's favourite rhythmical pattern, starting a softly as possible. It is interesting that the composer begins the crescendo earlier when the beginning is repeated later in the movement. Also noteworthy in this harmonically brilliant movement is a cello passage accompanied by three trombones. Bruckner is supposed to have said that the quite wonderful Trio represents the hunters unpacking and eating their cheese.

The lovely tune at the beginning of the Trio was originally played by oboe and clarinet in unison (which is how we play it) but was later changed (by others?) to the far less characterful unison of flute and clarinet. After a throbbing crotchet (quarter-note) rhythm in the lower strings, horn and clarinet play in long notes a big step (an octave) down, followed by a smaller one (a third), again downwards. This leads to the slow main tune in the full orchestra. Its development finishes in the main key of the symphony with a quotation of the horn call of the first movement. The tempo slows down for a most beautiful passage in the strings in the relative minor key. A charming 'innocent' melody in the major follows, answered by yet another happy melody. After these lyrical passages we are confronted by most powerful sections developing the various themes. At the end of the coda Bruckner in the earlier versions let the horns play their first-movement call again, but later discarded the idea; however it was put back (by others?), as in the Nowak edition. I think the composer rightly thought that the tune had already been heard often enough.

1998 Georg Tintner


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