BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7, WAB 107
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Symphony No. 7
A mediaeval artisan might easily have kept a daily record of how manydifferent prayers he prayed and how often he repeated them. For a composer ofthe nineteenth century, with its belief in unstoppable progress and humansupremacy, to behave in this fashion is certainly unique. But Anton Bruckner,though accepting the harmonic and orchestral achievements of the Romanticperiod, did just that; he did not really belong to his time. Even less did hefit in with the Viennese environment into which he was transplanted for thelast 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 different background. The littlevillage in Upper Austria, Ansfelden, where his father was a schoolmaster, wasnot far away from the great and beautiful monastery of St Florian. The youngBruckner followed in the footsteps of his father for a short time; but StFlorian possessed one of Europe's finest organs, and young Anton, whose talentfor music was discovered early, became an organist. The experience of hearingand playing this magnificent instrument became central to his whole life. Hespent many hours there, practising and improvising, and eventually his playingwas so exceptional that he made successful tours of France and England as anorgan 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 in order toconcentrate entirely on his innumerable exercises, and here Bruckner, who hadin the meantime advanced to the post of organist at Linz Cathedral, showed oneunfortunate trait of his character, perhaps acquired as an altar-boy: uttersubmission to those he considered his superiors. He obeyed. But when he hadfinished his instruction with Sechter and took lessons with the conductor ofthe 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 Mass in D minor, followed by two other greatMasses, and Symphony No. 1. His reputation reached Vienna and hewas 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 sillyconflict between the followers of Brahms and those of his beloved Wagner. So hemade many enemies, most cruel of whom was the critic Eduard Hanslick, whomWagner caricatured as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. But thoughadversaries did him harm, his friends and admirers hurt his works much more.
All his young students were gifted Wagnerians and they thought Bruckner's musicneeded to sound more like Wagner, and that it needed other 'ministrations' suchas large cuts as well. They considered their beloved Master to be a 'geniuswithout talent'.
Many of those misguided admirers, such as Artur Nikisch and FranzSchalk, became famous conductors and they set about making these enormousscores acceptable to the public - and it must be said that the master, who wasdesperately anxious to be performed, often agreed and sometimes even became anaccomplice to their mutilations. But he also left his original scores to theNational Library with the comment 'for later times'. His own insecurity madehim constantly revise his works, especially Symphonies No. 1-4. As aresult, we are confronted in many cases by several versions of the same work.
Sometimes the later versions are a definite improvement, as with the FourthSymphony; and sometimes, in my opinion, the first version is superior, aswith the Second and Third Symphonies.
One who deals with eternal things is in no hurry, and thereforeperformers and listeners must also allow plenty of time. Whereas Mahler, whodied three years before World War I began, was the prophet of insecurity,'Angst' and the horrors we live in, the deeply religious Bruckner sings ofconsolation and spiritual ecstasy (Verz??ckuug) - but not exclusively. Insome of the Eighth and most of the Ninth Symphonies, he expressesagony, perhaps doubt.
Bruckner's music touches the innermost recesses of the human soul. Inthis way he reminds me of Dostoyevsky. This quality is probably the only thingthe compulsive gambler and epileptic sinner has in common with the celibate'country bumpkin'.
Bruckner was sixty years old when the first two performances of his SeventhSymphony took place: under his pupil Nikisch in Leipzig, and shortlyafterwards under the celebrated first conductor of Parsifal, HermannLevi. The enthusiastic reception of those two performances laid the foundationfor the international fame of the composer. How precarious his position was inVienna, however, is shown in a letter he wrote to the Vienna PhilharmonicOrchestra, which planned to programme this new work. Bruckner implored them notto perform it because he was afraid that the hostile music critics there wouldcondemn it and thereby endanger his prospects elsewhere.
Symphony No. 7 (actually his ninth symphony) is perhaps his most beautifulwork and with his Fourth Symphony certainly his most popular. After agentle tremolo in the violins the first horn and the cellos (the mosteuphonious orchestral instruments) sing a rising very wide E major arpeggio; inits continuation the violas quietly take over from the horn; this peacefulmelody (repeated by the full orchestra) gently leads to the dominant key, wherea very different second tune begins. It has a restless character, modulatingincessantly starting in steps with a Wagnerian turn (as in Bruckner's SecondSymphony and in Wagner's Rienzi). Also unexpectedly a third melody,very different from either the first or the second, appears like an austere rhythmicdance. With these three building-blocks, the composer gives us one of theloveliest first movements in all music. I would like to mention that RobertHaas is right in ignoring the many tempo modifications added (or at leastsuggested) by lesser men. They disturb the flow of the music.
Bruckner's adoration of Wagner (who was eleven years his senior) is wellknown. He had the premonition that his beloved "master of allmasters" might soon die. This fear inspired the main tune of the secondmovement. The composer employed for the first time four "Wagnertubas" which Wagner had specially invented for the Ring cycle.
Their sound is across between horns and trombones. They intone a funerealmelody answered by the strings. One great melody is followed by the nextwithout ever turning back to the main tune, until the low notes in the brasslead to the slightly faster, much happier second tune (one of Bruckner'sgreatest inspirations). Here may I point to the similarity in form betweenthis movement and the slow movement in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Alsothere the slow 4/4 tune is twice followed b