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ClassicsOnline Home » BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8, WAB 108 / Symphony No. 0, 'Nullte', WAB 100
Penguin Guide Key Recording
Symphony No. 8 and 0
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 Mass in A flat 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 Mall 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
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 'for later times'. His own insecurity made
him constantly revise his works, especially Symphonies No. 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 (Verzückuug) – 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 has in common with the celibate
Symphony No. 8 in C
Beethoven's Leonore has the same relationship to Fidelio as
the almost unknown 1887 first version of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 has
to that of 1890. In both cases well-meaning friends pressed for changes and
cuts and inspired both composers to some great new ideas, such as the end of
the first Finale in Fidelio, or the Trio in the Bruckner –
but there was also a loss in both cases. Beethoven omitted some wonderful
pieces, and the much more pliable Bruckner not only agreed but actually
participated in unreasonable excisions (the 1890 version is some 164 bars
shorter than the 1887). Robert Haas, the brilliant first editor of Bruckner's
original scores, claimed to know which changes were imposed on Bruckner in this
symphony and which of those he himself felt the need for; his version presents
the 'best of both worlds'. He restores sections that were excised from the 1887
version which he rightly considered essential. However his method may be
objected to from the 'scientific' point of view, his is the best of the three
versions. But the 1887 symphony, written without interference from anyone and
inspired by his first great success with Symphony No. 7, shows an almost
It is (in hindsight) not at all surprising that when he sent the score
(with the humble inscription "may it find mercy") to Hermann Levi,
who had just led No. 7 to an enormous success, the great conductor (who had
given the first performance of Parsifal) simply could not understand the
very different tragic world of this enormous new work. His rejection of it
drove the insecure master almost to suicide. Though he lost all confidence, he
immediately set to work to 'improve' his masterpiece, not always to its
advantage. For instance, when the magnificent first theme reappears loudly in
bar 24 of the first movement the orchestration of the brass is more simple and
in my opinion more effective in the 1887 version.
The beginning is the only one in Bruckner's eleven symphonies that
leaves us guessing for quite a while in which key we actually are. Very soon
Bruckner's favourite rhythmical patterns (two notes followed by triplets)
appears, and it is also the basis of the second theme, this time in the major.
A third melody accompanied by pizzicato strings leads to a loud clash
between long slow trumpet notes and faster unisono descending five-note
scales. The development begins quietly with a more lyrical version of the main
tune. Another favourite device follows the second melody in contrary motion.
Three desperate repeats of the first tune in the bass line pitched against the
others (again, duplet and triplet) introduce the recapitulation. The fortissimo
ending of this movement comes as a complete surprise to all who are used to
the 1890 version where the movement ends pianissimo. It seems, at first,
an unnecessary 'addition', yet it was his first conception.
Bruckner felt the need (as he did in his Second Symphony, and of
course as Beethoven did in his Ninth) for putting the Scherzo after
this terrifying first movement. It seems to have the stubbornness of the Upper
Austrian character. Here in a few places listeners will discover slight
differences in the harmony (and here the later version is definitely an
improvement). The second part of the Scherzo has the string figure going
up instead of down. The Trio is almost completely different from its
1890 replacement; it is marked Allegro moderato (Langsam (slowly)
in 1890), and we may miss the harps of the later version.
The Adagio is in my opinion, with that of Beethoven's Ninth
Symphony, the greatest symphonic slow movement ever written. Over a
triplet-duplet accompaniment (related to Tristan's love duet) the first violins
sing the unique melody based largely on one sustained note that finally steps
up only one semitone, and then is repeated but stepping down one semitone. Two
heart-rending modulatory phrases lead back to the first tune; an increase leads
to a climax in a key (the first inversion of A major) very remote from the main
key of D flat major. A new tune introduces mysterious chords where we hear the
harps for the first time. All this is repeated; whereupon the cellos intone one
of Bruckner's greatest melodies. After a solemn brass episode we are gradually
led to fourteen bars in 3/4 time (the rest of this enormous movement is in 4/4)
leading back to the beginning. After a development of a theme near the start
the tempo quickens leading to the chords with harp. The glorious cello tune
(this time reinforced by the violas) returns a semitone lower. Once more
the tempo quickens. The first part reappears embroidered by the violas.
Increases in tempo and intensity lead to a tremendous climax (in a different
key from 1890) accompanied by six rather grotesque cymbal strokes.
Here we see the influence of others once more. The conductor Nikisch had
practically black-mailed the master for a cymbal stroke in No. 7. It is easy,
and very necessary, to omit that cymbal stroke in No. 7, if one wants to
conduct Bruckner and not Nikisch, but what can the poor conductor do with these
six strokes? He has to do them, because they are in Bruckner's original
The coda of the Adagio is, with that of its equivalent in the Adagio
of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, one of the greatest inspirations in
The gigantic Finale starts with a 'riding' rhythm in the strings
and the proclamations in the brass leave us guessing once more in which key we
actually are. A slower lyrical tune follows in strings and first horn. Next we
hear a march-like melody. After a short break, strings, flute and clarinet
accompanied by trombones playa solemn melody. The march returns. After an
extensive development the greatly varied recapitulation starts. The coda builds
up very gradually and in the end Bruckner fills the C major chord with most
themes of all the movements. This finale was particularly truncated in the 1890
version and it is important to hear the way the master originally designed it.
Symphony No. 0 in D
minor ('Die Nullte')
How an off-hand remark, when directed at a person lacking any
self-confidence, can have such catastrophic consequences! Bruckner, who all his
life thought that able musicians (especially those in authority) knew better
than he did, was devastated when Otto Dessoff (then the conductor of the Vienna
Philharmonic Orchestra) asked him about the first movement: "But where is
the main theme?" This silly question was most likely the reason that
Bruckner withdrew the symphony, which was originally No. 2 (Paul Hawkshaw has
recently shown conclusively that it was entirely written after No. 1, in 1869).
And yet this same first movement is in my opinion a masterpiece – perfect in
form and content.
Its rather sinister march tune is constantly accompanied by an insistent
eighth-note rhythm which pervades the whole movement, as is the lovely, gently
syncopated second theme. The interplay between first and second violins shows
how important it is in this music to have the violins separated, so as not to
lose the antiphonal effect.
The open fifths in the woodwind and elements of the coda may have been
influenced by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Nevertheless, this concise
movement is full of originality and beauty. Except for the lovely trio and the
introduction to the last movement, the rest of the work does not reach the same
The Andante starts with a very diatonic statement in the strings,
answered by a more ambiguous modulating phrase in the woodwind. This
juxtaposition is repeated. The beautiful second group with its gentle
syncopation reminds us slightly of the second tune in the first movement. The
next passage in the woodwind is not as original as what has gone before. And
here I always think of an ominous statement Bruckner made in a letter to a
well-wishing friend, probably referring to this middle section: "You will
be surprised to find how closely I have followed you in the Andante. The
whole of the middle section is new". The great composer unfortunately
often followed the bad advice of others.
The powerful Scherzo has two contrasting themes, one very loud
with an unusual rhythm spanning more than two octaves, and a gentle, almost
Mendelssohnian one. The first part of the lovely Trio is repeated (while
the Scherzo has no repeats). After many gentle and beautiful modulations
the return to the beginning of the Trio with its embroidery in the flute
is particularly attractive.
The Finale begins most promisingly: clarinets and bassoons playa
steady twelve notes in each bar, with mysterious chords in the trombones and a
descending melody in the violins. The tempo quickens and now we are confronted
with a powerful unisono tune which leaps down an octave and then up a
tenth; a few quick steps down and another (diminished) tenth down. This
ferocious theme is developed with all contrapuntal devices. Here Bruckner seems
to be showing us the fruits of years of the most rigorous study in counterpoint
with the famous Simon Sechter.
The second tune has the twelve quavers of the introduction accompanying
a lyrical rising melody. Though other conductors slow down at this point,
Bruckner does not indicate a change from the prevailing Allegro vivace and
in my opinion the tempo should not alter. The wild tune (this time in the
major) reappears. Thereafter we hear the initial Moderato again.
In a further appearance of the fierce tune we are treated to new devices
such as the tune sounding upside down. The lyrical melody is now played by the
cellos and finally elements of both tunes are heard simultaneously.
Only six years later Bruckner created his contrapuntal masterpiece, the Finale
of the Fifth Symphony. While there everything is truly inspired,
here some of it sounds a bit like a brilliant exercise for Mr Sechter.
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
violin, that Bruckner expected to hear.
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