Joseph Anton Bruckner was born at Ansfelden, Upper Austria, the son of the village schoolmaster and organist who early taught the boy the violin and spinet. By the age of ten, the young Bruckner was deputising for his father at the village church. Following his father’s death three years later, he was accepted as a choirboy at the nearby Monastery of St. Florian, a place he was to return to throughout his life and where his tomb can be found beneath the great organ.
With some youthful compositions to his credit he nevertheless followed into his father’s profession. However he continued his formal musical studies for some twenty-one years having abandoned schoolmastering on the way. It was during those years that he composed some twenty-six large and small religious works which have since become to be regarded as very important contributions to the musical literature of that genre.
It was from the age of 38 years until his death that he embarked virtually continuously on his great symphonic crusade; after an early attempt ten were to follow numbers 0-9, the last remaining unfinished.
Having moved to Vienna for his remaining thirty four years this gauche devout little countryman in the ill-fitting black suit became a familiar sight in the capital. Misunderstood and susceptible to criticism from the Brahmsian faction, the anti Wagnerites and critic Edward Hanslick, Bruckner undertook ceaseless revision of his work, with the exception of the 7th symphony which he took to Leipzig where it was successfully performed in the September of 1884 and which has come down to us virtually as written.
Bruckner came to London in 1871, not as a composer but as an organist, particularly skilled in improvisation.
Despite all of Bruckner’s trials, tribulations and frustration, many honours came his way. He held various academic posts, including that of Vienna Court Organist, organist at St. Florian and Linz Cathedral, and a State pension.
Two bars of shimmering violins pave the way for the cellos, with French horns, violas and then clarinets stating the opening motif, a rising arpeggio based on the simple triad, but by bar 11 this thematic material has landed on the note B, the dominant of E, out of which the second element of the opening gambit will complete the movement’s first subject.
Bruckner restates the opening arpeggio one and two octaves higher, and proceeds with the second element in an ever developing orchestration to the movement’s first climax, which subsides into the movement’s second subject marked Ruhig (tranquillo). This is lightly scored and the four note semi-quaver figure is indicative that the ambience of the music is taking a more rhythmic turn until it reaches its own blazing climax but in the space of one beat the music falls into pianissimo and Ruhig, out of which flutes and clarinets introduce the movement’s third subject, the calmness of the moment releasing any engendered tensions.
This new theme is perky and rhythmic from the woodwind and accompanied by a harmonically shifting but repetitive rhythmic figure for the strings, but when it is played in contrary motion it becomes “simplified” with the omission of the semi-quavers and, amended, bar by bar to falling sequences rapidly builds to the movement’s second climax which collapses into a further Ruhig. As the music picks itself up a new short lived motif is given to the flutes. This leads to a lightly scored statement of the second subject motif in inversion, and a reverse order variant of the third subject when after a coesura (gap) of one beat the Development Section blasts forth with an inversion of the Movement’s opening theme, and trumpets answer with the theme “the right way up”!
As the development proceeds Bruckner’s particular methods are succinctly revealed as he subjects his three principal themes to inversions, contra-direction and Canon. The harmonic colouring is brought about by subtle modulation and rich harmonic support, which all build into great “arches” of sound as if the music is emanating from the organ loft to fill the “infinite” spaces of the great church of St. Florian or Linz Cathedral. It may be convenient to note at this point Bruckner’s economic and uncomplicated supporting use of the timpani in achieving his climaxes throughout this symphony.
Out of the almost imperceptible ending of the development, (molto tranquillo), a brief re-statement of the second element of the first theme above a sustained pedal note E from the timpani (heard here for the first time in this movement), the Brass’s re-affirmation of the movement’s opening in E major brings this movement to its powerful, abrupt close.
2nd Movement Adagio
Bruckner was composing this movement when he heard of the death of his idol, Wagner, and this event is said to have inspired the C# minor opening theme, appropriately scored for the four Wagner Tubas which Bruckner employs throughout this Symphony.
The movement is set out in seven sections A,B,A,A1,B1,A2 and Coda.
The sonority of the Wagner Tubas’ opening is enhanced by the violas. The entry of the 1st violins, who are instructed to play “on the G String”, enhances the sonority. Following the inevitable Bruckner climax, the diminuendo leads directly into Section B. Now in F# major and marked ‘moderato’ in ¾ this most ravishing of Brucknerian themes ripples through the orchestra without any extreme climax, resolving into a brief re-hearing of Section A, but now in C major and a tempo of 4/4 . This in turn revolves into Section A1 where we hear an interplay of the theme in the “right” direction and in inversion (a typical Brucknerian ploy), and wherefrom his individual approach to an unfolding panoply of orchestral texture is exploited into the movement’s third climax, which rapidly falls into a moderato ¾. Section B1 is a quiet, contemplative variant of section B, modulating through Ab major into F# minor, a comparatively brief idyllic movement leading into Section A2.
From the restatement of the opening theme, (Section A), the Wagner Tubas weave a variation on the theme against an almost hypnotic accompaniment of sextuplets in the violins, which leads to the movement’s principle climax with the timpani joining in, and for just one beat a cymbal is crashed and a triangle is sounded for just 2 ½ beats, the only time these two instruments are played during the whole symphony.
Once again this Brucknerian climatic summit fades, and fades into the farthest recesses of a Cathedral’s vast and loftiest spaces, its reverberating remains leading into the movement’s Coda, with the Wagner Tubas and French horns’ remembrances of the movement’s opening, before fading away into silence.
3rd Movement Scherzo and Trio Sehr Schnell (Vivace)
The main substance of the scherzo, in A minor and 3/4, is stated in the first twelve bars: it consists of the four bar trumpet tune, (an idéa fixe which will be reheard some thirty times), the four bar “leaping” clarinet response and the dotted string accompanying figure.
As the scherzo progresses, the trumpet tune is distributed among the brass and some woodwind, then the remaining woodwind and strings, and the string figure enjoined by the woodwind. So Bruckner weaves his magic through three or four modulations of key, reaching an inevitable climax and one silent bar. Out of this silence one becomes conscious of a steady beat from the timpani which leads the strings into the second section of the scherzo, where the leaping clarinet motif, heard at the opening, is given pride of place, but with great rapidity the trumpet tune emerges from the flutes but inverted and with the brass in “canon” the whole progresses to the inevitable climax and fall. And so Bruckner works upon his material through a further climax and fall, until the scherzo’s grand finale and abrupt termination.
Following three silent bars, the F major Trio will prove to be less frenetic and more “folksie” in the style of a Ländler, opening with a double dotted pulse from the timpani with the unusual rhythmic pattern of a “duplet” (two notes in the time of three) for the 1st violins. The Trio’s second section opens with its first theme heard in inversion, but then with the return to the theme the “right way up”, and with the full orchestra joining in. The inevitable Brucknerian climax is reached and falls into a mere whisper of a single chord. Following three silent bars the scherzo is repeated.
4th Movement Finale Bewegt Doch Nicht Scnell (Allegro ma non Troppo)
At the E major opening of the movement the 1st violins and violas are entrusted with a rising arpeggio theme, and are instructed by the Composer to play “at the point of the bow”. With a shimmering accompaniment from the 2nd violins this opening is akin to the symphony’s beginning. Modulating briefly, the oboes and flutes step in with an inversion of this early gambit, with the cellos and basses “at the point” stating the theme, all of which rides to the movement’s first climax.
Out of this climax and inevitable fall arises a “chorale” like second subject heard in the strings and then the Wagner Tubas, under carpeted, as it were, by a soft cello and bass pizzicato, and all proceeds serenely until on a second beat of four the full orchestra (less timpani) bursts forth in A minor virtually in unison, out of which and through a lengthy peroration the first subject is heard in inversion, variation, and Canon until, heralded by string trills, this episode is finally deflated.
A contemplative passage now follows, which leads through violins and violas for sixteen bars and which can best be described as “arpeggio, inversion and canon for chamber orchestra” ending in “mid-air”; but on the second beat of the following bar full orchestra less timpani restart the movement’s first subject, then two silent bars, restarting a semi-tone higher.
Bruckner is now in grand mood, but calms for a re-hearing of the “chorale theme”, then with unabated joy strides forth, until one calming moment at the commencement of the Coda, the first subject of the second movement is stated, lighter and a little faster, by clarinet and 1st violins and, then, with ever increasing majestic power, the Symphony’s opening theme is twice thundered forth by the brass bringing the symphony to an abrupt end on the chord of E major.