Program Notes

Joseph Anton Bruckner

BORN: September 4, 1824. Ansfelden, Upper Austria

DIED: October 11, 1896. Vienna

COMPOSED/PREMIERE: Written primarily between January 2 and November 22, 1874. Bruckner, however, was much given to revision and, accordingly, returned to rework his score between January 18, 1878, and June 5, 1880. It is in this version, the so-called version of 1880 (or sometimes “of 1878/80”), that the piece was first performed, when Hans Richter led it with the Vienna Philharmonic on February 20, 1881. The conductor Anton Seidl asked Bruckner to make further changes, which the composer did in 1886, and Seidl unveiled that version with the New York Philharmonic on March 16, 1888, in New York. By that time the 1874 version of the Symphony had already been heard in New York, in a performance by the New York Symphony Society with Walter Damrosch conducting on December 5, 1885; that was apparently the first performance in America of any Bruckner piece. The various texts of this work, not to mention ensuing editions derived from them, present considerable challenges for performers today. Manfred Honeck has chosen to employ Leopold Nowak’s edition of the “1878/80” version.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1951. Bruno Walter conducted. MOST RECENT—April 2014. Herbert Blomstedt conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 65 mins

THE BACKSTORY Music lovers are fascinated by precocity. We are amazed when a violinist of grade-school age tosses off a “grown-up” concerto with élan, and marvel all the more when we hear the polished scores that Mozart and Mendelssohn put onto paper when they were hardly older than that. But precocity is not a prerequisite for exalted achievement in music, as the case of Anton Bruckner makes clear. Not until 1864, when he was forty years old, did Bruckner compose a work that he seems to have considered a fully mature product—his D minor Mass—and the first of his nine canonical symphonies followed in 1865 to 1866. To put this in comparison with some of Bruckner’s predecessors in the world of the symphony, listeners may recall that by the age of forty Haydn had nearly fifty symphonies behind him; Mozart and Schubert (both of whom died short of forty) had produced forty and nine, respectively; Beethoven had completed six of his eventual nine; Mendelssohn (who also died before reaching forty) had left a legacy of five full-blown symphonies, plus another dozen “youthful symphonies” he penned as a teenager.

If Bruckner was a late bloomer, it’s not because he had been a slacker in his first four decades. The son of a schoolmaster in the village of Ansfelden, and the eldest of eleven siblings (only five of whom survived to adulthood), he grew up surrounded by music, since in Upper Austria at that time schoolmasters were also expected to double as parish organists. Bruckner received a good music education and participated enthusiastically in performances around his small town. When his father fell ill in the autumn of 1836, the young Bruckner filled in as organist in the local church.

But his Ansfelden days ended abruptly when his father died the following June. That very day, Bruckner’s mother swept him off to the nearby abbey of Saint Florian, where he continued his studies. His entry into the Baroque halls of the monastery represented the turning point of his life, and he would never really break away from Saint Florian. Following his student years there, he served for a decade on the school’s music faculty. Even after he left to seek his fortune in nearby Linz, in 1856, and eventually Vienna, where he moved in 1868, Bruckner returned regularly to Saint Florian to spend time there. Today visitors will find his tomb in the monastery’s crypt, surrounded by the skulls of departed monks, directly beneath the organ loft in which he spent countless hours from his thirteenth year on.

By the time he reached the period of his Fourth Symphony, Bruckner had staked a firm place in Austrian musical life. He had distinguished himself especially as an organist and by all reports was an almost peerless improviser on that instrument. In 1855 he had sought out the best harmony and counterpoint teacher he could find, Simon Sechter, to help him remedy what he perceived as his deficiencies in those areas, and after six years of what was largely a correspondence course (Sechter was in Vienna, Bruckner still in Linz), he moved on to similar study in orchestration and musical form from another esteemed pedagogue, Otto Kitzler. Bruckner grew increasingly infatuated with the music of Wagner, and in 1865 he traveled to Munich (at Wagner’s invitation) to attend the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, the first of several Wagner premieres he would witness. On a personal level, he was growing all the while into a unique personality, a mixture of naïveté and political awareness, an obviously gifted figure who alternated between absolute conviction and self-doubt, who was generally successful in his undertakings but who entered into unknown professional waters with the greatest reluctance.

The following year, he finally moved to the musical capital of Vienna. There he succeeded his teacher Sechter as professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory, where he also took on organ pupils. The University of Vienna welcomed him to its faculty, too, though the powerful music critic Eduard Hanslick, already on the university’s staff, did everything he could to prevent it. Hanslick would become a thorn in the composer’s side, gleefully condemning practically every note Bruckner wrote—presumably the better to promote the music of Johannes Brahms, the perceived Bruckner rival whom Hanslick adored. Despite the lack of critical support, it was during his first few years in Vienna that Bruckner finally flowered into a dedicated composer of symphonies. He had, in fact, completed a “Study Symphony” in B-flat major and his Symphony No. 1 in C minor while still living in Linz. The artistic stimulation of Vienna appears to have helped release the flow of ensuing works, and between 1869 and 1876 he composed the Second through the Fifth of his symphonies, in addition to a D minor Symphony that he later withdrew (and which is occasionally revived, under the peculiar rubric “Symphony No. 0”).

THE MUSIC Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony is the only one of his nine to which he gave a subtitle. Although he was not essentially a Romantic composer—not, at least, in the sense that such figures as Weber, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner embodied the ideals of the aesthetic movement called Romanticism—Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony does evoke Teutonic Romanticism in its allusions to the hunt and, by extension, in its brilliant spotlighting of the instruments most associated with that pursuit, the horns. In this performance, we encounter this symphony in a version that includes the so-called Hunt Scherzo, replacing the scherzo Bruckner originally composed for this work, and even apart from that movement the horns are so often prominent as to practically define the sonic world of this piece.

Although at heart Bruckner was more closely drawn to improvisation and formal fantasy than to classical structuralism, he did cast this symphony’s first movement (Moving, not too fast) in a sort of extended sonata form. Nonetheless, the movement is far removed from the tight logic of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven; it is, in fact, quite unorthodox in its development of motifs and its harmonic layout. Bruckner never seems to be in a great hurry, and the opening subject of the Fourth Symphony is a case in point, unrolling over the grand course of seventy-four measures. The solo horn is given pride of place right at the outset, introducing (above nearly silent string tremolos) a haunting melody that seems to hover between the major and the minor modes. Other wind instruments join in, strongly suggesting the awakening of nature, and then the melody is elevated to a grand peroration for full orchestration. The second theme group arrives with a lighter texture and an insouciant, dance-like tune, reminding us that Bruckner shared with his predecessor Franz Schubert some instinctive connection to the Austrian countryside, in addition to a penchant for unexpected harmonic modulations that sound logical in retrospect.

Quite a few years after he composed his Fourth Symphony, Bruckner penned a scenario for this symphony. Although it seems more likely to be an afterthought crafted to justify the subtitle rather than a “plot” that inspired him during composition, it remains interesting all the same, coming as it does from a bastion of “absolute music” at a time when “program music” was in full flower. Here’s how he described the first movement:

Medieval city—dawn—morning calls sound from the towers—the gates open—on proud steeds the knights ride into the open—woodland magic embraces them—forest murmurs—bird songs—and thus the Romantic picture unfolds.

The specter of Schubert also flits at the edges of the second movement (Andante quasi allegretto); we glimpse it in the inexorable “walking rhythm” that also infuses so many of Schubert’s introspective songs and in the general mood of nostalgic wistfulness. Though some interpreters view this movement more as a study in out-and-out tragedy, it might be worth at least acknowledging that, in his scenario, Bruckner called this a “rustic love-scene” in which “a peasant boy woos his sweetheart, but she scorns him” (familiar territory to Bruckner personally). The opening measures, with the cellos enunciating their theme above a muted accompaniment from other strings, recalls the flavor of the corresponding movement of Schubert’s E-flat major Piano Trio, which that composer had based on a Swedish song. Several beautiful themes follow this first one—a grave chorale, a gracious line for the violas (which sounds more like a contrapuntal adornment to something else than a full-fledged melody in its own right), horn calls that continue an aura of mystery—before the movement concludes in a majestic transformation of the opening theme and then a return to utter quiet.

The Scherzo we enjoy here is a replacement for the rather boisterous but thoroughly enjoyable piece Bruckner originally composed (in 1874) as the third movement of this symphony. This replacement, a product of his overhauling the symphony in 1878–80, is tighter and generally more tautly dramatic. Its opening mirrors the beginning of the first movement, with horns (here a whole section of them) proclaiming what Bruckner actually calls in the score a Jagdthema (Hunting Theme)—quietly, as if from a distance—against a hushed accompaniment of string tremolos. Other brass instruments join in the hunt, and after considerable working out and quite a lot of thrilling dissonance brought about by piling up sonorities above pedal points, we arrive at the relaxing contrast of the Trio section. Again, we hear shades of Schubert in the charming Ländler that occupies this stretch, with oboe and clarinet—later first violins—piping out its innocent, bucolic melody before an abbreviated repetition of the Scherzo section. “The Hunting of the Hare” is what Bruckner called his Scherzo, with the Trio being a “Dance Melody During the Huntsmen’s Meal.”

An insistent low B-flat reigns over—or rather, under—a full forty-two measures at the beginning of the Finale (or “Folk Festival,” as Bruckner identified it in his program, without further elaboration); one imagines Bruckner seated at the organ in Saint Florian or Linz with one foot planted firmly on the pedal-board while his hands build all manner of tension on the manuals above it. The resolution into the tonic E-flat arrives at the statement of a heroic theme which not only displays the Brucknerian “fingerprint” rhythm but also echoes the ambivalence of the first movement’s opening. The pastoral quality of the third movement’s Trio informs the Finale’s second subject group, but despite its occasional recurrence the predominant mood of this concluding movement is dark and troubled. The symphony concludes in a breathtaking coda: Soaring across a seemingly limitless harmonic landscape, the music builds into a blazing climax in which power, dignity, excitement, and affirmation each lend a shoulder to the task of ending this massive masterwork.—James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Manfred Honeck with the Pittsburgh Symphony (Reference Recordings) | Herbert Blomstedt leading the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)

Portions of this note appeared previously in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and are reprinted with permission.

Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony evokes Teutonic Romanticism in its allusions to the hunt and, by extension, in its brilliant spotlighting of the instruments most associated with that pursuit, the horns.

The symphony concludes in a breathtaking coda: Soaring across a seemingly limitless harmonic landscape, the music builds into a blazing climax in which power, dignity, excitement, and affirmation each lend a shoulder to the task.

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