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ClassicsOnline Home » BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 5, WAB 105 (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Tintner)
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 A-flat Mass 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 forty, 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 "tor 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 (Verzuckung) -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."
Note: In the recordings in this series the Second
Violins are placed on the right of the conductor, for the antiphonal effect
between first and second violins that Bruckner expected to hear.
Symphony No.5 in B flat major
Things looked promising when the 44-year-old provincial
organist settled in
Vienna. He had a job teaching harmony, counterpoint and organ
at the Conservatorium. He also taught at the Teachers' Training College for
women (at that time the sexes were separated in education). His Mass in F
minor was performed successfully, and he represented Austria at an
organists' meeting in
France and two years later in London; his organ playing
was a triumph. On his return to Vienna a catastrophe waited for him: he had to
defend himself against the accusation that he had spoken "rudely" to
two girls at the College. Though he was exonerated, the management transferred
him to an all-male class, which was later abolished; so Bruckner not only
suffered profound humiliation but also a severe decrease in his already rather meagre
income. His letters of that period are full of gloom and hopelessness. He
regretted having moved to
Vienna and longed for his former job as organist at Linz
Cathedral. Even so, every year he poured out yet another remarkably original
In the gigantic and heroic Symphony No.5 in B flat
one looks in vain for the slightest bit of self-pity. His great predecessor
Beethoven also suffered, with even more reason, from much self-pity, and
sometimes also exaggerated the gravity of his finances; but his music is also
totally free of it, as though these masters put their works through a purifying
filter. How different from some other important composers like Mahler and Tchaikowsky,
whose self-pity may well have been one of the mainsprings of their inspiration
and musical expression.
The Fifth Symphony, the most intellectual of all
Bruckner's works, is furthest removed from the seductive world of Wagner's
harmony and orchestration.
Just why this work and the Sixth Symphony, which
exist in just one version each, escaped his obsessive reworkings we will
probably never know. The Fifth was not performed until the end of
Bruckner's life, when it was given a performance in Graz -but in a now-discredited,
reorchestrated and cut version by his pupil Franz Schalk; the composer was too
ill to attend.
In the first movement, soft halting steps in the strings
gradually die away.
Then the whole orchestra, without the timpani, bursts
forth in an upward rhythmical statement of the G flat major triad. (Here we may
perhaps point out that G flat plays a profound role in three of the four
movements.) The brass answers with a chorale-like fanfare, and then the
rhythmical figure reappears, this time in the main key (and with the timpani).
The tempo quickens leading to the main tune in the violas and cellos.
Accompanied by pizzicato strings a lyrical tune is introduced by the first
violins. A new theme is played by the woodwinds, accompanied by syncopated
strings. A powerful new section gradually dies away.
In the development the Allegro is twice
interrupted by Adagio quotations from the introduction. Then the fanfare
appears again. Did Bruckner mean that it should be played in the current Allegro
tempo, or should it revert to the original Adagio; he does not say? A
similar case occurs in the Finale of
Brahms' First Symphony where a gentle slow chorale
is repeated in the much faster tempo of the Allegro. Most conductors
slow down in both cases. I think the composers meant what they wrote and I play
The sombre second movement starts with a
"confrontation" of six pizzicato notes in the strings against four in
the plaintive oboe tune. When this tune returns later on, embroidered by
semiquaver sextuplets in the violins, Bruckner writes, "Melody nearly in
the same rhythm (i.e. tempo) as the Alia breve bars, but slower."
This is clear proof that the "very slowly" at the beginning of the movement
refers to two and not six beats in the bar.
Bruckner must have been very keen to bring in the lovely
string second tune at first in C major, because he accepted a slight distortion
of the melody as the violins could not play the low F sharp. At its return a
tone higher the violins of course play the "proper" tune. Near the
end Bruckner employs a terrifying sequence of chords. They sound very
forbidding and "progressive." The austere Coda ends unexpectedly in
the major, without dispelling the gloomy mood.
In the Scherzo, the first 24 notes in the strings
are exactly the same as the first 24 notes of the beginning of the second
movement, only played much faster. Above them the woodwind playa rather nervous
tune. Now the strings introduce a delightful peasant dance in a slower speed.
The whole orchestra answers loudly (one can almost see the stamping of the
dancers). The music gradually speeds up and leads back to the first tempo and
mood. The Trio, with its horn calls, is amiable throughout.
Was the great Furtwangler right when he described this
Finale as surpassing all others in the symphonic literature? Superlatives are
always dangerous, but it is certainly one of the greatest.
The Finale of Mozart's Symphony No.41 may well
have shown Bruckner the way to combine fugue and sonata. It starts like the
first movement until the clarinet interrupts rather rudely. Then, as in the Finale
of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Bruckner quotes from earlier movements.
The strings now start a fugue on the clarinet tune. The second violins
introduce a charming melody that slows down a little, anticipating an equally
glorious portion of the second movement of his Sixth Symphony. A heroic
section follows; I think it should be in the same tempo (or nearly so) and not
Now the brass chants a brand new Chorale. Another
gigantic fugue on all the themes starts in the violas. Then the amiable second
tune is this time played by the first violins. An enormous increase in
intensity follows, leading to the Chorale in full orchestral glory.
@ 1997 Georg Tintner
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