Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bruckner - Symphony No. 5

The time in Bruckner's life when the 5th symphony was composed was a troubled one. He had just suffered the humiliation of the first performance of his 3rd Symphony in D Minor. He had to conduct the symphony himself at the last minute because of the untimely death of the conductor Johann von Herbeck. A combination of factors contributed to the failure of the 3rd symphony. Evidently Bruckner was not the best of conductors, and the fact that Bruckner had dedicated the 3rd symphony to Richard Wagner made Bruckner a part of the Brahms/Wagner controversy. By the time the 3rd Symphony had been played on that night, most of the Viennese audience had left and the orchestra members scurried off the stage leaving Bruckner alone on the podium.

It wasn't the first or last time Bruckner experienced negativity towards his music.  Even after the success of his 7th Symphony in E Major his next symphony, the 8th Symphony in C Minor was rejected as unintelligible by one of his most ardent champions, the conductor Herman Levi.  While these happenings affected Bruckner, they did not affect him to the point of being unable to compose. His ability to keep composing amid so much rejection speaks volumes about his determination and genius. It has been said that genius is mostly the ability to work hard no matter the circumstances. That definition surely fits Bruckner, for he worked into his forties taking instruction in harmony and counterpoint and worked so hard that even his task-master teacher told him to not work so hard.

But Bruckner brought more to his compositions than hard work. He had a rare mix of love of tradition along with the ability to work within that tradition to develop his own style, and a rare ability of having a sense of mystery and awe in his work that isn't evident on the written page. He brought no innovations to the orchestra forces he used, outside of Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies. His orchestrations are fairly straight-forward and at least note-wise are not exceedingly difficult for a good orchestra. So outside of his being affiliated with the 'enemy' Wagner camp, why was Bruckner's music met with so much hostility from orchestra members in particular?  I think it was what at the core of Bruckner's music. A restless drive rhythmically, an ever-changing palette of key changes and stretching of tonality that was a natural progression from the works of Schubert, and a mastery of counterpoint. In short,  Bruckner's music is an art unto itself. To judge it against Beethoven's symphonies does neither composer justice.  No matter how much analysis is done of Bruckner's form, harmony and melody, his music will always have a certain amount of mystery and surprise to it.  And that, at least for me, creates a never ending interest in his music. Every time I hear one of his symphonies, I seem to notice something I didn't before.

The 5th Symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Adagio - Allegro - This symphony is the only one Bruckner wrote that opens adagio.  With pizzicato strings, this adagio beginning has been called an introduction. Considering that pizzicato strings open all four movements of the symphony, it can also be considered a theme that helps create cohesion for the symphony.   Bruckner makes a great deal of contrast between themes in this first movement.

II. Adagio. Sehr langsam - Pizzicato strings begin this movement, in a slightly faster tempo than the first movement. The strings play in triplets, essentially in 6/4 time while the winds introduce new material. This is but one example of cross rhythms Bruckner uses that creates different moods within the music. Soon the orchestra begins to sing and the movement moves steadily to an inevitable thrilling Bruckner climax.  The music decreases in volume and slowly builds to a series of minor climaxes until it ends quietly.

 III. Scherzo. Molto vivace - The scherzo begins with pizzicato strings but a driving melody is soon heard. This melody is short, and a contrasting theme is heard immediately after. Bruckner uses varying length of phrases to create a certain restlessness, even in the German dance like contrasting theme. The calm, short trio is in direct contrast with the rest of the scherzo, which returns and ends with the orchestra chugging away to the closing chord

IV. Adagio - Allegro moderato - For the final time, the pizzicato strings begin the movement but are interrupted by a tune played by the clarinet. Other themes from the first movement appear, only to be likewise interrupted by the clarinet tune. The clarinet tune is played by the low strings, and it is then we find out that the tune is a theme for a fugue for the orchestra. Then the secondary theme shows itself and is lyrical and decorative, a contrast to the fugue heard before it.  After this theme works itself through, another theme appears which is like a chorale. This chorale contains within it the theme of another fugue. The second fugue plays itself through, whereupon the theme from the first movement is joined with the theme of the first fugue to create a double fugue. After a thorough working out, the first fugue is played again (without any other melody) and the brass play the theme of the second fugue together with the first fugue.  As if all that isn't enough to boggle the ear of the mere mortal listener, Bruckner has four horns play the theme of the first movement along with the rest.

The final movement of this symphony shows the talent and genius of Bruckner like no other composition he ever wrote. The incredible complexity of writing a fugue alone, let alone a fugue for full orchestra, would be challenge enough. But to write two fugues, then a double fugue, and finally what amounts to three themes playing at the same time  (and have the whole thing intelligible) would be called impossible if Bruckner hadn't shown us it is possible.

For those who really want to get into Bruckner's life and music, I recommend the book Anton Bruckner- Rustic Genius by Werner Wolff.  It is an old book (written in 1942) and there has been much research into the life and music of Bruckner since it was written,  but the author was a musician, conductor and musicologist that had practical experience with conducting Bruckner's symphonies and his analyses of all of them are in depth. It is a book I reference often, and the beauty of it is you can down load it for free at:
Anton Bruckner Rustic Genius  There are options to download the book or read it on line.


  1. thank you for posting this great symphony .... hussein from lebanon

  2. Intelligent words in the notes here about this extraordinary man and his music. The 5th to me is his most complex and technically difficult and should be listened to by the "already converted". Bruckners music was for a future generation than for his own. Hence so many controversies and struggles.

  3. I have just heard the 5 th played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Most at Lucerne.The most extraordinary finale I have ever heard .Spine tingling .Can never be experienced on disc .Thank you for your brilliant analysis of the work.