Bruckner : Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major

Joseph Anton Bruckner

BORN: September 4, 1824. Ansfelden, Upper Austria

DIED: October 11, 1896. Vienna

COMPOSED: Begun on February 14, 1875, and completed on May 16, 1876. That summer Bruckner began revising the work, a project that occupied him until January 4, 1878

WORLD PREMIERE: April 8, 1894, in Graz under the direction of Franz Schalk. It was in Schalk’s much cut and completely reorchestrated edition that the Fifth was first published in 1896, Bruckner’s original score not being performed until 1935 nor published until 1936. At our concerts, the Robert Haas edition of the score is used (the Haas being virtually identical, in the case of the Fifth Symphony, to the edition by Leopold Nowak)

US PREMIERE: November 28, 1901. Wilhelm Gericke conducted the Boston Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1969, under the direction of Josef Krips. MOST RECENT—February 2012. 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 80 mins

THE BACKSTORY Bruckner was fifty when he made his first notations for the Fifth Symphony. He had moved to Vienna six-and-a-half years earlier, having left the pleasures of life in Upper Austria, where he felt at home and where his dialect mingled with that of his neighbors. He had given up the security of his post as cathedral organist at Linz and with it the promise of a pension. Friends, however, had urged him to move to the capital to teach organ, counterpoint, and figured bass at the Conservatory—for less money than he had earned at the cathedral.

Success was initially elusive, and it was not until the summer of 1875 that the university created a lectureship in harmony and counterpoint for him, unpaid to begin with, but properly compensated from 1877 on. Sixteen years later, the university would confer an honorary doctorate on him, the first musician to be so recognized there. This came despite certain liabilities that hampered Bruckner: 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 much younger than he, his distracting compulsions, his piety, his powerful intelligence that functioned only when channeled into musical composition or teaching, a Neanderthal male chauvinism that even his contemporaries found remarkable, his unawareness of intellectual or political currents of his or any other day. In sum, Bruckner was not a likely candidate for success in that compost heap of gossip and intrigue that was Vienna, nor indeed anywhere in a world where a composer’s success depends on so much other than skill at inventing music.

He was born in a village where his father was schoolmaster, like his father before him. Anton sang in the choir, was allowed to play the organ, and learned the rudiments of music from a cousin. In 1837, the year his father died, he was taken as a choirboy into the Augustinian monastery of Saint Florian, whose buildings, Austrian Baroque at its most splendid, dominate the countryside southeast of Linz. There the musician and the man gradually emerged. In 1848 he was appointed organist at Saint Florian. All his life he would never feel so sure anywhere as on an organ bench and as organist he enjoyed the success withheld from him as a composer.

In 1855 he began to travel regularly to Vienna for lessons with Simon Sechter, the tsar of Austria’s music-theory world. (Twenty-seven years earlier, just two weeks before his death, Schubert had taken the same step.) In person and by correspondence, Bruckner worked with Sechter for six years, during which time he was forbidden to do any free composition. He emerged with a certificate of mastery like those issued by the old craft guilds. He also had gained a sovereign command of contrapuntal craft, along with a nervous breakdown. But his hunger for learning was not yet stilled, and he went on to study with Otto Kitzler, principal cellist in the theater orchestra at Linz. While Sechter was oriented to the past, Kitzler taught from modern scores by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and even Wagner, whose Tannhäuser he was determined to perform at Linz and which he analyzed with his eager student.

At the end of his time with Kitzler, Bruckner was forty and ready at last to heed his calling as a composer. He began work on a symphony he would later call die Nullte—No. 0—and followed that in the next decade with three masses and the first version of his symphonies 1 through 4. With just one significant exception, the beautiful String Quintet of 1879, the rest of his life’s work would consist of choral music, almost all of it on sacred texts, and of symphonies.

Buoyed by occasional successes, wounded and bewildered by more frequent failures, pushed this way and that by a group of disciples who showed more devotion than understanding in their relationship to their master, Bruckner found himself firm in his vocation as a symphonist. From Beethoven he had learned 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, along with a few mannerisms, everything about a sense of slow tempo and a breadth of unfolding hitherto unknown in instrumental music. The vision was his own. So was the simple magnificence of sound, achieved with masterful and astonishing economy. Here in the Fifth, except for a third trumpet, the orchestra is no larger than Brahms’s—and he does without Brahms’s contrabassoon.

THE MUSIC The Fifth is alone among Bruckner’s symphonies in beginning with a slow introduction. Plucked cellos and basses, pianissimo, stalk up and down a scale segment, while above, violas and violins spread a tissue of softly dissonant suspensions, disturbed three times by sighing accents. The full orchestra, kettledrums excepted, makes a peremptory, sharply rhythmic announcement in stark octaves. Another silence, and brasses powerfully intone a hymn. Silence again. The octaves come back, and so does the hymn fragment. Then a new and quicker tempo leads with great urgency to a fuller statement of the hymn. A sudden hush and, with yet another idea, the Allegro proper is on its way.

“No symphony ever opened like this,” writes Robert Simpson in his exciting study The Essence of Bruckner. The opening of what Bruckner liked sometimes to call his “Fantastic” Symphony is so special, so strange—fantastic indeed—so disjunct, all those qualities being underlined by the way each new event flings us in a different harmonic direction. By the time the Allegro is underway, we have already been offered an immense variety of musical characters. Bruckner’s task now is to establish the unity of all these musics, and the first movement unfolds as a great and dramatic struggle to bring everything safely and justly into port in its home key of B-flat major.

The Adagio opens with the same sound as the first movement, pianissimo plucked strings, but with different notes. It is both adumbration of and then accompaniment in cross-rhythm to a melancholy oboe solo. This oboe melody was the first idea that Bruckner got onto paper in February 1875. The contrasting theme, for strings alone, at once sumptuous and noble, he asks to be played markig, meaning powerfully, vigorous, pithy, and in fact derived from Mark, marrow. The Adagio rises to a high level of tension. At its close, it collapses into fragments and in pathos.

The Scherzo now begins with the same notes as the Adagio, still pianissimo and again in strings, but four or five times as fast as before, and bowed rather than plucked. This, too, turns out to be an accompaniment to a woodwind melody, cousin in shape though not in mood to what the oboe sang so poignantly in the slow movement. The central section proceeds with a sense of caprice that occurs nowhere else in Bruckner—and, by the way, the first notes the cellos and basses play outline the same shape as those scale segments with which they began the symphony.

Each movement, then, begins like some other either in sonority or in the actual choice of notes. The finale begins exactly as the first movement did, except that a clarinet twice very softly drops a falling octave into the texture. When the strings come to the end of their opening music, more compressed here now than in the first movement, they turn to the clarinet to ask, “What was that you said?” The clarinet tells them, and in surprisingly impertinent tones. Bits of the first Allegro and of the Adagio pass by, but the clarinet, getting his number-two player to help, insists. “All right,” say the strings, offering to turn the idea into a ferocious fugue.

By now we have some idea of Bruckner’s sense of movement and space. This fugued music and what quickly follows it, up to a glorious brass chorale (with soft string echoes), is all preparatory. Looking back, we perceive that even the first three movements have been preparatory. After the chorale, the music subsides into hesitations, silence, suspense. The violas begin a fugue on the chorale tune. They begin it quietly, but before long the current is irresistible and fierce. Beethoven has provided Bruckner with two models in the same key, the finale of the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Great Fugue for string quartet, and you do have to reach as far back as those to find a parallel for what Bruckner unpacks here. At the last, a final, stunning appearance of the chorale resolves the friction-laden dialectic.—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: Jaap van Zweden leading the Netherlands Radio Philahrmonic (Exton) | Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Querstand)  |  Bernard Haitink conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BR-Klassik)  |  Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) 

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)