Anton Bruckner was born in Ansfelden, near Linz, in upper Austria in 1824. The ancestors of Bruckner’s family were farmers and craftsmen, their history having been traced back to the 16th century.
Bruckner’s father died in 1837, when Bruckner was 13 years old. The teacher’s position and house were given to a successor, and Bruckner was sent to the Augustinian monastery in St. Florian to become a choirboy. As a young adult, he became a teacher’s assistant to a school in Windhaag. The living standards and pay were poor, and Bruckner was humiliated by his superior, teacher Franz Fuchs. A belief in his own inferiority was to remain one of Bruckner’s character traits throughout his life.
Bruckner returned to St Florian at the age of 21, where he would work as a teacher and organist for many years before moving to Vienna. However, his body is laid to rest in the crypt directly below the Bruckner organ. There is a strong connection between Bruckner’s music and the vast chapel at St Florian.
St Florian’s magnificent organ, and cathedral-like chapel, provided the devout Catholic composer with both the inspiration and the opportunity to develop his compositions by way of organ improvisation, which Bruckner was rather good at!
Bruckner went on to become a well-respected teacher, organist, and composer. His successes included a virtuoso performance of improvisations on the organ at the Royal Albert Hall, yet he remained a humble man who dressed in shabby country clothes.
The “romantic” symphony is described as being written in 1874, when Bruckner was 50 years old, with a revised version receiving a premiere performance seven years later in 1881. Bruckner then carried on editing the symphony for another 7 years, leaving us with a final version dated 1888.
There is a great deal of complexity surrounding dates and versions of Bruckner symphonies. As Bruckner made many revisions and changes, it is difficult to establish any definitive version. Tonight we play the 1881 version.
This version’s completion actually follows the composition of his 5th and 6th Symphonies, but appears to precede his interest in Wagner Tubas, that were used in his 7th, 8th, and 9th Symphony.
Bruckners Romantic Symphony has always been his most popular. The name Romantic is Bruckner’s own, maybe because the symphony makes extensive use of the French Horn, which in German is called Waldhorn. Wald means forest in German. Thus the Waldhorn became symbolic of the romantic ideal in German-speaking countries.
1: Bewegt, nicht zu schnell.
The symphony starts with solo horn calls over shimmering strings. These horn calls are said to be based on the whistling of an Austrian steam train, something with which Bruckner would have been very familiar. Like Dvorak, he was a railway enthusiast. The woodwind soon echo the horn in a crescendo which leads to a fortissimo passage for full orchestra, playing a two-plus-three rhythm, which is known as the “Bruckner rhythm”, as it is so characteristic of the composer’s music. Suddenly the music quietens and continues in a mellow Schubertian style. Bruckner said the viola melody expressed his own happiness at hearing the sounds of nature. The music continues to a radiant brass chorale. After further developments, the movement ends triumphantly with a variation of the opening horn call being blazed out by the whole horn section.
2: Andante, quasi allegretto.
The second movement starts with a pastoral song for the cellos. It is in the tempo of a funeral march, but the feel is more of a leisurely walk in the Austrian countryside, with occasional pauses to admire the scenery and just the occasional storm cloud threatening. Although moving, the view of the mountains only slowly changes. It makes a wonderful meditation in the middle of the work.
3: Scherzo: Bewegt – Trio: Night zu schnell, keinesfalls schleppend
We are soon moving into the dramatic hunting scherzo, once again led by the horns sounding out the Bruckner rhythm. You can feel the thrill of the chase! There is a gentle Ländler trio interlude played by the oboe and clarinet, which Bruckner said was the dance tune at meal time on the hunt, before the hunting once again resumes.
4: Finale: Bewegt, doch night zu schnell
The finale is the longest movement, at over 20 minutes. Bruckner skillfully recalls and builds on the themes of the previous movements. Several new ideas are also introduced, such as the subject for woodwind and horns near the opening of the movement. After an impressive statement for full orchestra, and a delicate theme for flute and clarinets in octaves over a counter melody for violas, Bruckner concludes his magnificent “cathedral in sound” by building the coda from a whisperingly gentle and slow horn call, up to a magnificent climax that refers back to the opening of the work.