Anton Bruckner as Symphonist

Mag. Dr. Klaus Petermayr

Dennis Russell Davies and the Bruckner Orchester Linz at the Abbey of St. Florian ©Reinhard Winkler | BOL
Dennis Russell Davies and the Bruckner Orchester Linz at the Abbey of St. Florian ©Reinhard Winkler | BOL

Bruckner composed a total of eleven symphonies: the so-called „Study Symphony“ in F minor (WAB 99), the annulled symphony in D minor (WAB 100) and the works known today as numbers I to IX (WAB 101 to 109). Except for the final one in D minor (WAB 109) all the symphonies are complete, indeed preserved in several versions. If we disregard the study composed in 1863, these works were produced in the second half of the composer‘s life (from 1865/66 to 1894), dominating it above all other genres and fully occupying Bruckner‘s creative genius. The public received them with both wild enthusiasm and great skepticism. It is with good reason that Bruckner is considered, alongside Gustav Mahler, the last of the great symphonists.

Symphony No. 2 in C minor (WAB 102), first version of 1872

Bruckner began work on his Second Symphony as early as 1871, but finished most of the composition in summer 1872. In the early, first version of the symphony the Scherzo comes immediately after the first movement. But even before the first performance, which took place on October 26th, 1873 in Vienna as part of the concluding ceremonies for the World Exhibition, Bruckner made some cuts and changes to the work, which ultimately affected the order of the movements. Further changes were made for the second performance before he subjected it to a complete revision in 1877.

With his Second, Bruckner finally found his so-called „Vienna style“. It is of great lyric beauty and is often characterized as „majestic in a way that is never ponderous“. The first movement (ziemlich schnell, Allegro) begins with a theme, answered by trumpets in an irregular rhythm, which seems to anticipate the whole work thematically and returns in the Finale. Into the Coda of the first movement, Bruckner weaves an impressive double crescendo, a relatively common artistic device during that period. The Andante of the Symphony was originally conceived by Bruckner in four parts (A-B-A-B), but was expanded to a fifth part (A‘) already during his work on the Finale. Particularly noteworthy in the final movement (Mehr schnell) is the development, which flows into a powerful crescendo that introduces the reprise. Public reaction to the first performance of the Second Symphony was thoroughly favorable.

Symphony No. 3 in D minor (WAB 103), first version of 1873

The genesis of the first version of his Third Symphony is to a large extent obscure or based only on anecdotal accounts. It is fairly certain that Bruckner already had ideas for the second movement in autumn 1872. His working method was complex and, from the perspective of today, difficult to comprehend. The composition was in a fully developed state on December 31, 1873. On May 9th of the following year, he dedicated the work to his great role model Richard Wagner. After being rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic under Otto Dessoff several times, Bruckner began making significant revisions (1876). In this second version with major cuts, the symphony made it to the Wiener Musikverein concert hall on December 16th, 1877 for a premiere performance directed by the composer. This performance was destined to be a fiasco…

The first movement (Gemäßigt, misterioso) begins with a thematic idea – an eight-measure, self-contained trumpet fanfare – which along with a second theme accompanies the listener throughout the movement. In the second movement (Adagio. Feierlich) the three thematic groups alternate freely, while in the Scherzo (third movement, Ziemlich schnell) an ostinato figuration line is connected to two themes. The movement lacks the conventional cadences and stands out for, among other things, its bold harmonic sequences. Similarly to his Second Symphony, Bruckner brings back the fanfare motif from the first movement in the Finale (Allegro). Because of the combination of a sort of „polka“ in the strings and a „chorale“ in the winds, the finale is among the best-known creations of the master from Ansfelden.

Symphony No. 7 in E major (WAB 107)

Shortly after finishing his Sixth Symphony (WAB 106), Bruckner began composing a new work (September 23, 1881). With minor interruptions, the process went relatively quickly and the work was in finished condition on September 5th, 1883. The first performance took place on December 30th, 1884 in Leipzig‘s Neues Theater under Arthur Nikitsch and became a triumphal success for the composer. This circumstance is probably also the reason why the Seventh Symphony remains one of Bruckner‘s most popular works. It is generally considered the most „balanced“ of all his symphonies. In contrast to so many other works from his pen, the composer made no serious changes to it.

In the conception of the first movement (Allegro moderato), he already proceeds in a manner unusual for him by appearing to draw out the main theme endlessly so as to dominate the structure and melodiousness of the whole movement. However, it is the Adagio – the second movement – that has become most famous. Right at the beginning (theme 1) Bruckner uses the so-called „Wagner tubas“ for the first time in his work and in the second theme of the movement he makes use of motifs from the Te Deum (WAB 45), which was composed more or less at the same time as the symphony. The final part of the Adagio was written in remembrance of Richard Wagner, who died around that time. The finale of the Seventh is structured just as impressively as all the other movements.

It essentially sums up the entire symphony and once again testifies to the great genius of its creator.

Further reading: 
Anton Bruckner. Ein Handbuch. Hg. Uwe Harten. Salzburg 1996.
Die Sinfonien Bruckners. Entstehung, Deutung, Wirkung. Hg. Renate Ulm. München 1998.
Brucknerhandbuch. Hg. Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen. Stuttgart 2010.
Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen: Bruckners Sinfonie. Ein musikalischer Werkführer. München 2016.

Mag. Dr. Klaus Petermayr is the scientific director of Anton Bruckner Institut Linz (→ ABIL)