Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E Major

Joseph Anton Bruckner was born in Ansfelden, Upper Austria, on September 4, 1824, and died in Vienna on October 11, 1896. He began work on his Symphony No. 7 on September 23, 1881, and completed it on September 5, 1883. Bruckner undertook a few revisions after the premiere, which Arthur Nikisch conducted with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on December 30, 1884. Theodore Thomas introduced the work in this country at a concert with his orchestra in Chicago on July 29, 1886. The San Francisco Symphony first performed Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 with Pierre Monteux conducting in May 1947. The most recent SFS performances were given under Michael Tilson Thomas’s direction in January 2003. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, four Wagner tubas, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba (alternating with contrabass tuba), timpani, triangle, cymbals, and strings. The edition is that of Robert Haas. The dedication, which Bruckner decided upon after the first performance of the work in Munich, is to King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Performance time: about sixty-five minutes.

The Seventh Symphony, uniquely, enjoyed immediate and warm success in Bruckner's lifetime. With performances in Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Vienna, Graz, Hamburg, Cologne, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Chicago, New York, Boston, Berlin, London, and Budapest, all within three years of the Leipzig premiere, it was the most widely circulated of his compositions. Speaking to today's audiences with singular directness, it remains the most loved of his nine symphonies.

The success of the Seventh came as a happy and restorative surprise to the composer. Though he had been involved in music from an early age—as a choirboy, a rough and ready violinist, a magnificent organist, even as a composer—Bruckner had been slow in deciding to make music his vocation, preferring for safety's sake to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps as an elementary school teacher. When he did decide upon a career in music, he found it impossible to give up student status, and he needed the constant reassurance of examinations successfully passed, of diplomas and certificates.

Bruckner was forty when he wrote his first mature large‑scale work, the Mass in D minor, and forty‑two when he wrote the first of his symphonies that he was willing to admit into the canon. Once he began his real life as a composer, he found he was offering the world music it did not know what to do with. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, addressing the German Bruckner Society in 1939, put it aptly and characteristically: "Bruckner did not work for the present,” he said. “In his art he thought only of eternity and he created for eternity. In this way he became the most misunderstood of the great musicians. . . .  Bruckner is one of those geniuses who have appeared but seldom in the course of European history, whose destiny it was to render the transcendent real and to attract, even to compel, the element of the divine into our human world.”

Bruckner himself, a country man transplanted uneasily to the big city in his mid‑forties, seemed as out of place as his music. He had traveled as an organist, and with stupendous and consistent success. But with his peasant speech, his social clumsiness, those trousers that looked as though a carpenter had built them, his disastrous inclination to fall in love with girls of sixteen, his distracting compulsions, his piety, a Neanderthal male chauvinism that even his contemporaries found remarkable, his unawareness of intellectual or political currents of his or any other day—with all this, Bruckner was not a likely candidate for success in the compost heap of gossip and intrigue that was Vienna, nor anywhere in a world where a composer's success depends on so much more than inventing music.

Of success Bruckner had known little. He was a respected teacher, he continued to make a sensation wherever he appeared as an organist, and he had even received an Imperial decoration, the Order of Franz Joseph, as well as a grant from the privy purse. The Symphony No. 2, in a Vienna Philharmonic performance arranged by stubborn supporters over more or less everyone's dead bodies, had made a powerful impact in 1873. But against these things one must set a history of rejection by the public, savage attacks in the press, and humiliations by orchestras. His Fifth and Sixth symphonies had not been played at all; indeed, he was never to hear the Fifth in the form in which he had written it, and only two movements of the Sixth were played in his lifetime, also in distorted texts.

Bruckner must have felt that the reception of the Seventh Symphony, especially in Leipzig and again in Munich under Hermann Levi, was a turning point in his fortunes, yet nothing describes his state of mind more poignantly than the story of how, when the Vienna Philharmonic wanted to get on the bandwagon and play No. 7, Bruckner begged them not to, lest the expected bad review by the feared critic Eduard Hanslick "obstruct the course of my dawning fame in Germany." The Philharmonic ignored his plea, the public success of the performance under Hans Richter was great, and Bruckner had to take four or five bows after each movement. Even though Hanslick's review was as anticipated, it had no effect on Bruckner's reputation.

Yet, though he could be wounded, bewildered, and momentarily distracted from his path, Bruckner had at the deepest level an unshakable sense of what he needed to do and confidence in the ultimate rightness of his choices. Like many nineteenth‑century composers, he became a specialist. With just one significant exception, the String Quintet of 1879, his life's work, once he attained his maturity as a composer, consisted of symphonies and choral music, almost all of it on sacred texts.

His musical horizons had expanded slowly. The focusing of his vision of the symphony was a slow process, too, as was the acquisition of the requisite technique. He had been a brilliantly apt pupil of the contrapuntal wizard Simon Sechter, but that training was useful only up to a point. Studying Tannhäuser with his next teacher, Otto Kitzler, Bruckner discovered that there were sources of nourishment simply not dreamt of in Sechter's philosophy. Bit by bit, he learned from Beethoven about scale, preparation and suspense, mystery, and the ethical content of music; from Schubert, something about a specifically Austrian tone and much about harmony; from Wagner, everything about a sense of slow tempo, a breadth of unfolding hitherto unknown in instrumental music. With this knowledge, he made music like no other, naive and complex together, homely and sublime.

Six of Bruckner's symphonies begin with a hum from which thematic fragments detach themselves or against which he projects a spacious melody. In the Seventh, as Robert Simpson so aptly puts it in his beautiful study The Essence of Bruckner, "the entrance . . . leads to a very lofty and light interior," a vastly arching melody in which the cellos are subtly supported, now by a horn, now by the violas, now by a clarinet. To the extent that Bruckner here conveys the feeling of an immense arch, he is giving us in microcosm the sense of the entire movement with its grand pull away from the opening E major into the regions of B minor and B major, and then its sovereign reconquest of the original tonality. This is the first of three vividly contrasted themes.

The development, beginning in hesitant mystery, is varied, with a range from densely active paragraphs to wonderful moments in contemplative stasis. The coda, as almost always in Bruckner, is extraordinary. Its fifty‑three measures are set over an unchanging E in the bass. For almost half of them, bass and superstructure are quietly at odds; then suddenly the orchestra gets the point, and the last thirty‑one measures expand the bass‑note upward into the great E major affirmation we have been waiting for.

The solemn slow movement introduces a new sound, that of a quartet of Wagner tubas, an instrument Richard Wagner designed for his opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen and intended to combine the mellowness of the French horn with something of the weight of the tuba. Here there is, however, a deeper association with Wagner. In January 1883 Bruckner wrote to the conductor Felix Mottl: "One day I came home and felt very sad. The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master would die, and then the C‑sharp minor theme of the Adagio came to me." Wagner did in fact die in Venice on February 13, and the quiet closing music that begins with the quartet of Wagner tubas plus contrabass tuba became Bruckner’s memorial to the man he worshipped above all living musicians.

Bruckner builds the movement on two contrasting ideas—one that is solemn, in the solemn minor mode, and another more pastoral, in the brighter major mode; the second of these is abandoned after two statements, and both are scored with striking richness and loveliness. What the strings play immediately after the movement begins, a firm sequence of upward steps, is an allusion to Bruckner’s own Te Deum, his final large‑scale choral work, in progress at the same time as the Seventh Symphony and completed in March 1884. Bruckner uses the momentum of those upward steps to build a great climax in the first variation, and later as stupendous a one as we can find in any symphony. From that summit the music descends into the grief‑stricken, then profoundly peaceful threnody for Wagner.

There follows a scherzo dominated by a restlessly repeated figure in the strings and a cheerily trumpeting cock‑crow. As is Bruckner's custom, the central section is somewhat slower, lightly scored, and pastoral in character.

The finale, to quote Robert Simpson again, “blends solemnity and humor in festive grandeur." It presents highly diversified ideas that run the gamut from the capricious and even the magnificently grotesque to the sublimely simple. At the end, all is gathered into a blaze of E major as we hear intimations of the symphony's beginning and the heavens open.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle (Dal Segno)  |  Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Riccardo Chailly conducting and the Berlin Radio Symphony (Decca—out of print but available as a CD reissue from  |  Günter Wand conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA) 

Reading: The Essence of Bruckner: An Essay Towards the Understanding of His Music, by Robert Simpson (Gollancz)  |  Bruckner, by Derek Watson (Oxford University Press, Master Musicians series)  |  Bruckner Symphonies (BBC Music Guides), by Philip Barford (Gloucester)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner, edited by John Williamson (Cambridge University Press)  |  Bruckner Remembered, by Stephen Johnson (Faber and Faber)