Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bruckner - Symphony No. 7

Anton Bruckner labored long and hard before he got much recognition as a composer. He studied compulsively for many years until he was forty years old. He composed many choral pieces for the church in the beginning of his career, and finally settled on being a composer of symphonies.  His first efforts in symphonic writing evidently didn't please Bruckner, for he didn't even number two of them. They are known as Symphony 00 and Symphony 0. 

He struggled to find an audience for his compositions, but the case was different with his organ playing. He was one of the most skilled organists of his time and was a master improviser on the instrument. That Bruckner created no great works for solo organ while being a recognized virtuoso is but one of the paradoxes of the man. But if  his style of composition and orchestration for the orchestra is examined, he uses the orchestra itself like a huge organ,  using combinations and mixtures like an organist uses the ranks of pipes to express what he hears in his head.

He finally received some recognition with his 4th Symphony written in 1874. But the man could get immersed in refinement of a work (or taking too much advice on how to make the work more pleasing to the public) for he revised most of his symphonies numerous times, including the 4th. This has lead to mass confusion of which version by which editor to use in performance.  But even that has not stopped his music from becoming more and more popular and played more often in the concert hall.

Many biographers have commented on Bruckner's 'provincial' personality, his social awkwardness, and how nothing of the man is revealed in his music and nothing of his music is revealed in the man. He was trained to be a school teacher as his ancestors, and he was most of his life, but music eventually took over even this vocation as he became a professor at the Vienna Conservatory of Music.

That he had his own personal music aesthetics probably accounts for his lack of an audience early on. He remained original on the one hand, though out of step with his contemporaries, even the ones that he admired and followed. His hero was Wagner, but Bruckner wrote no operas, didn't even know what the stories of Wagner's operas were, but he knew Wagner's music intimately.  Bruckner and Brahms were caught up in a musical-political fiasco not of their doing, as the sides were drawn for the 'keepers of the purity of musical tradition' on one side and the 'composers of the new music' on the other. The ridiculous notion that hearers needed to pledge their allegiance to one side while condemning the music of the other was kept going by music reviewers and others, some who cared little about art and everything about drama and intrigue.  Bruckner had no head for this type of thing, and the members of the 'new music' group used him to his own detriment.

Through it all, Bruckner went on composing and finally had his largest success with his 7th Symphony written in 1881-1883.  The premiere was in 1884, given by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Nikisch.  The work has been linked to Wagner for two reasons. Bruckner uses Wagner Tubas in movements two and four, and the second movement which has been called a tribute to Wagner.

The symphony opens with the Brucknerian device of string tremolos. The second movement is one of Bruckner's finest Adagio movements, something he was known for.  Bruckner had known of Wagner's illness with heart disease and with the feeling that Wagner would soon be gone he was inspired to write this movement. The addition of the cymbal clash and triangle in the climax of this movement is thought by some musicologists to have not been original with Bruckner, but that the conductor of the premiere Nikisch persuaded Bruckner to add them for effect.  The third movement is a scherzo that is typical Bruckner; driving rhythms and a gentle trio section that is in marked contrast to the rest of the movement. The finale rounds out the work, complete with Bruckner's stylistic habit of stopping a theme without a bridge to the next, a few lesser climaxes before he unleashes the orchestra in a grand ending.

To my mind, Bruckner was not necessarily the naive man that some biographers have made him out to be. He was a complex personality to be sure. Perhaps in this age where we know more about people who are socially awkward and afflicted with extreme humility and subservience mixed in with a great talent (or genius) in one area, Bruckner may have been diagnosed with some sort of syndrome or another. Be all of that speculation as it may, for me there is no doubt of the genius of Bruckner. He wrote music that was never heard before, used the traditional form of the symphony in ways not seen before. With an artist so far ahead of his time, is it any wonder that it took so long for him to be acknowledged as a master?

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