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8.555928-29 - BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 3, WAB 103 (1877 and 1889 Versions)
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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Symphony No. 3 ‘Wagner Symphony’ (1877 and 1889 versions)


The first version of the Wagner Symphony was completed in a short time span. Bruckner worked on the score between February and December 1873. The preparation of the dedication copy and its despatch to Wagner dragged on until summer 1874. In a letter of 24th June Cosima Wagner thanked Bruckner in her husband’s name and reported that Wagner had gone through the score with Hans Richter, then Kapellmeister in Pest, and that a performance was under consideration for 1876. Independently Bruckner sent the Vienna Philharmonic the Third; a reading under Otto Dessoff took place in summer 1874, but on 12th January 1875 Bruckner complained in a letter to Moritz von Mayfeld that Dessoff had broken his word concerning a performance. On 11th August 1875 Bruckner made a further attempt with the Philharmonic and even explained, in light of its length, that he would be prepared to have the work performed in two parts at two separate concerts – without success:  it was again rejected. Meanwhile Bruckner had tenaciously but successfully managed to establish himself both professionally and socially in Vienna following his move there in 1868. In May 1869, billed as the ‘finest organ virtuoso of his country’, he had garnered successes in Nancy and Paris, and a year later in London; on 9th May 1868 he conducted the première of his First Symphony and later his E minor Mass, three performances of the F minor Mass and the first performances of the Second Symphony. In autumn 1868 he was appointed professor for harmony, counterpoint and organ at the Vienna Conservatorium and organist-in-waiting for the post of organist at the Court Chapel. In addition to this he established a circle of students, accepted teaching commissions and further activities. In autumn 1875 he was appointed lecturer in music theory at the university, and finally in 1878 established member of the Court Chapel. In less than ten years Bruckner had come very far indeed.


Understandably, with increasing experience Bruckner’s insight into his own compositional processes as well as into the performing practice appropriate to his works increased; he gained considerable practical experience as the conductor of several premières of his works. He now proceeded, before finally completing his masterwork, the Fifth, to rework the previous four symphonies, primarily with the intention of making them more readily comprehensible, but at the same time more ‘valid’ in music-theoretical terms. He may have reacted to the claims of incomprehensibility often expressed by critics, but may also have wished to see the academic side of his compositional practice more strongly underpinned. The process often involved cuts, sometimes also expansions and numerous corrections of detail. In addition, Bruckner refined his notation of performance directives and articulation. Finally Bruckner improved his awareness of voice-leading and instrumentation; he followed the contrapuntal mutation processes of his themes and motifs throughout the symphony more rigorously, in the sense of an evolutionary development, in the process throwing superfluous ballast overboard. The instrumentation was increasingly placed in  the service of the structure; aside from this, Bruckner concerned himself with achieving a greater resonance of sound.


The Third Symphony was reworked several times. In all, the first movement was shortened by 94 bars, the second by 27 and the fourth by 126 bars; only the Scherzo was expanded by eight bars;  an intermediate version of the second movement has survived which has been published separately in the Complete Edition as ‘Adagio 1876’. In May 1877 the score was sufficiently advanced that Bruckner again had it recopied into orchestral parts and again offered for performance to the Vienna Philharmonic. Again it rejected the work after a reading, but the conductor Johann Herbeck called a special meeting of the orchestra’s administration and succeeded in obtaining an agreement that he would perform the work on 16th December 1877. Herbeck died unexpectedly on 28th October, however, and Bruckner was asked to take the performance himself. When he finally conducted it in December 1877, contemporary critics had no idea what to make of it. Eduard Hanslick wrote:”We must humbly confess that we did not understand his gigantic symphony. Neither his poetic intention – perhaps a vision in which Beethoven’s Ninth made friends with Wagner’s Walküre and wound up trampled under the hooves of their horses – nor the purely musical structure was clear to us”. The public did not receive the work well either. It was reported that the audience left the hall after every movement until by the end only a few were left.


Bruckner was initially inconsolable, but after the concert, to his astonishment, the publisher Theodor Rättig offered to publish the symphony. Thus, immediately following the première, Bruckner took up the work afresh to prepare it for printing - and to make even more changes. Among these were the coda to the Scherzo which today appears in the Complete Edition score, but which was not heard at the première; Bruckner composed it subsequently on 30th January 1878, but then decided against its inclusion in the score, which appeared in November 1879. Many scholars and music lovers, but also many conductors, have found the second version more balanced and conclusive than the first. There is, however, a problematic cut in the second movement, which destroys its original five-part structure. Many conductors have thus meanwhile come to use as a variant reading the longer version of the Adagio from 1876. In the Finale one notes in particular, in comparison with the first version, the excision of the introductory polka measures in the Gesangsperiode (song period) and the reminiscence of the themes of the preceding movements, recalling Beethoven’s Ninth. Many particularly unrestrained passages, which lent their eruptive power to the first version, are missing from the second. Otherwise, the symphony did indeed become more comprehensible and clearer; the quotation of the opening theme of the first movement in the final bars of the Finale, missing in the first version, here provides meaningful closure.


The ‘final version mentality’ and the belief in the myth of progress on which it was founded assisted the establishment in the concert repertoire of the third version of the symphony, which emerged in 1888/89 in collaboration with Franz Schalk. On the other hand, doubts have often been expressed, precisely because of this collaboration. Thomas Röder’s Critical Report on the Third (1997) concerned itself in the greatest detail with the final version and its motivation, for which Röder demonstrates a whole number of causes; ultimately, the published, third version was intended to be valid, particularly since many of the criticised cuts can be traced back to the première of 1877 and are documented in the manuscript. In the first three movements of the last version, the alterations from the text of the 1877 version are less significant, although stylistically many passages have shifted quite substantially from the original sound world of the Third: a revised passage in the first movement (bars 373–392) and in the Finale (bars 393–426) perhaps recall sketches for the Ninth, and in the Adagio, at the climax, a melody appears in the trumpets recalling the Non confundar of the Te Deum, which also plays a rôle in the Ninth. On the other hand, undeniable stylistic influences of Schalk have survived in the Finale, for instance the for Bruckner quite atypical notation of trumpets and horns, as well as the especially ‘effective’ deployment of the timpani. In the final version of the Third, Bruckner configured many processes more economically, on occasion very effectively increasing the density of passages which in the earlier version in retrospect sound rather empty. Many may regret the cuts of in all 143 bars from the Finale, but through them the movement takes on a kind of ‘send-off character’ as in the Finales of the Sixth, Seventh and First Symphonies, that may not necessarily detract from the listener’s experience, particularly in concert.


Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs

Translation: John A. Phillips

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