Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No.6 in A major
A mediaeval artisan might easily have kept a daily recordof how many different prayers he prayed and how often he repeated them. For acomposer of the nineteenth century, with its belief in unstoppable progress andhuman supremacy, to behave in this fashion is certainly unique. But AntonBruckner, though accepting the harmonic and orchestral achievements of theRomantic period, did just that; he did not really belong to his time. Even lessdid he fit in with the Viennese environment into which he was transplanted forthe last 27 years of his life. The elegant and rather superficial society heencountered there must have thought the naive, badly dressed fellow with the"wrong" accent a rather pathetic oddity.
Bruckner had indeed come from a very differentbackground. The little village in
Upper Austria, Ansfelden, where his father was aschoolmaster, 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, whosetalent for music was discovered early, became an organist. The experience ofhearing and playing this magnificent instrument became central to his wholelife. He spent many hours there, practicing and improvising, and eventually hisplaying was so exceptional that he made successful tours of France and Englandas an organ virtuoso. He had lessons in theory and composition, and started composingfairly early in life, but he felt the need for more instruction in counterpointand became for several years a most diligent pupil of the famous Simon Sechter,visiting him every fortnight in Vienna. Many years earlier and shortly beforehis death, Schubert had also wanted to study counterpoint with Sechter, but ofcourse he was wrong; most of his life work was already done, and works such ashis early Mass in A flat showed him in no need of such lessons.
Sechter forbade Bruckner to compose a single note inorder 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 analtar-boy: utter submission to those he considered his superiors. He obeyed.
But when he had finished his instruction with Sechter and took lessons with theconductor of the local opera, Otto Kitzler, who introduced him to the magicworld of Wagner, music poured out of him. Now forty,
Bruckner composed his first masterpiece, the wonderful Massin D Minor, followed by two other great Masses, and Symphony No.1.
His reputation reached Vienna and he was appointed to succeed Sechter asProfessor 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 therather silly conflict between the followers of Brahms and those of his belovedWagner. So he made many enemies, most cruel of whom was the critic EduardHanslick, whom Wagner caricatured as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger.
But though adversaries did him harm, his friends and admirers hurt his worksmuch more. All his young students were gifted Wagnerians and they thoughtBruckner's music needed to sound more like Wagner, and that it needed other"ministrations" such as large cuts as well. They considered theirbeloved Master to be a "genius without talent."
Many of those misguided admirers, such as Artur Nikischand Franz Schalk, became famous conductors and they set about making theseenormous scores acceptable to the public - and it must be said that the master,who was desperately anxious to be performed, often agreed and sometimes evenbecame an accomplice to their mutilations, but he also left his original scoresto the National Library with the comment "for later times." His owninsecurity made him constantly revise his works, especially Symphonies
Nos. 1-4. As a result, we are confronted in many cases by several versions ofthe same work. Sometimes the later versions are a definite improvement, as withthe Fourth Symphony; and sometimes, in my opinion, the first version issuperior, as with the Second and Third Symphonies.
One who deals with eternal things is in no hurry, andtherefore performers and listeners must also allow plenty of time. WhereasMahler, who died three years before World War I began, was the prophet ofinsecurity, "Angst" and the horrors we live in, the deeply religiousBruckner sings of consolation and spiritual ecstasy (Verzuckung) - butnot exclusively. In some of the Eighth and most of the NinthSymphonies, he expresses agony, perhaps doubt.
Bruckner called the Sixth Symphony his boldest. Itcertainly is one of his most beautiful, yet it is not as frequently performedas most of its sisters. Perhaps the reason is that the Finale incontrast to the perfect first three movements is not absolutely satisfactory.
In spite of this, Bruckner who sometimes created as many as three versions of asymphony, wrote only one version of this one. The arrangement by his pupil Hynais,though its changes are less drastic than those perpetrated elsewhere by theSchalk brothers and Ferdinand Lo ewe, is obsolete, despite the fact that themaster may have tolerated it.
Instead of the usual tremolo, the work begins with acomplex rhythmical figure in the violins. Bruckner's predilection for two notesagainst three, either behind each other or on top of one another, isparticularly important in this symphony and in the Adagio of the Fifth Symphony.
Celli and basses sing to this rhythmical figure an (even for Bruckner)outstandingly beautiful tune. It is in the Phrygian mode, the same as in thewonderful second movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. After anenergetic continuation the theme recurs in full splendour. Gradually atransition leads us to the lovely and complex second tune, four notes againstsix, which is played considerably slower and which-in contrast to the maintune-consists almost exclusively of steps. After a rather heroic theme theexposition ends quietly. The development is in the slower tempo of the secondmelody. After a new, beautiful melody we hear a great increase in intensity andspeed and the main tune returns in a remote key but in the original fastertempo. By an extremely simple device reinforced by the timpani we are back inthe main key for the recapitulation. The lovely coda unfolds still in theslower tempo of the second tune, leading to the faster triumphant ending whichslows down considerably at the very end.
The serene first melody of the second movement isaccompanied in slow steps by the lower strings. An unexpected lament in theoboe disturbs the serenity. Gradually we are led to one of Bruckner's greatesttunes, led by the celli and first violins. Eventually the tempo gets evenslower, leading into a kind of funeral march. The recapitulation starts in theoriginal tempo; later the main theme reappears, richly embro