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Bruckner: Symphony No. 1

Bruckner: Symphony No. 1


1090 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2017 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, WAB 101
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Composed 1865-1866. First performance: 9 May 1868, Redoutensaal, Linz, Austria. Anton Bruckner, conductor.

I. Allegro
II. Adagio
III. Scherzo: Lebhaft — Trio: Langsam
IV. Finale: Bewegt und feurig

Born to a village schoolteacher, Anton Bruckner’s provincial dress, thick peasant dialect, and unpolished manners would stay with him throughout his life. Despite considerable skill as a church organist, he saw himself primarily as a schoolmaster, and he didn’t begin seriously studying composition until he was in his 30s. This devout Catholic’s first compositional performance after these studies came at the age of 37— an Ave Maria performed as an offertory at the Linz Cathedral. A few years later, he began his first symphony.

Upon completing the piece, Bruckner arranged to conduct its premiere in Linz, paying for the performance out of his own pocket. The circumstances were far from ideal. The orchestra consisted of musicians from the local theater, augmented with members of a military band. The audience was small— perhaps because the bridge over the Danube had collapsed the previous day, and the disaster scene was still drawing a crowd. However, this piece by the beloved local organist was received warmly, if not without some puzzlement.

The symphony was set aside as Bruckner moved to Vienna, became a professor, and launched his composition career. He dusted it off and made a few revisions in 1877 and 1884, but the piece remained largely abandoned for two decades until the conductor Hans Richter encountered it while visiting the composer. When he told Bruckner that he wanted to conduct the symphony in Vienna, Bruckner insisted on revising it. Referring to the piece by the nickname he’d given it years before, he told Richter, “The kecke Beserl must be cleaned up before she enters society.”

(“Kecke Beserl” is tricky to translate. Stuffy English-speaking musicologists have long gone with some variation of “saucy maid”, but that’s far too prim. “Kecke” means sassy, and “Beserl” was crude Austrian schoolboy slang for a servant girl who’s up for anything. None of the closest English terms can be printed in family-friendly program notes, so use your imagination.)

Bruckner was famously deferential to feedback, and all of his symphonies exist in multiple versions, reflecting suggestions from friends, colleagues, and critics. The First Symphony was no exception, and it was in the form of this new Vienna Edition (which we’re performing tonight) that the piece received its second performance, twenty-three and a half years after the first.

Many music lovers are understandably intimidated by Bruckner’s symphonies. These monumental works are as idiosyncratic as their creator was. They feature extremes of length, dynamics, tempo, and expression. Bruckner expanded and modified the form in ways that made him unique but which also baffle audiences accustomed to mainstream symphonic tradition.

It's become cliché to joke that Bruckner only wrote one symphony… he just wrote it nine times. Like most snarky jokes, there's an underlying truth to this statement. However, the similarities between Bruckner’s symphonies point not to a lack of creativity, but to the composer’s unique approach to musical expression.

We don’t find much variety in the structure of Bruckner’s symphonies because in his view, symphonic form reached perfection in Beethoven’s Ninth. All of his symphonies are modeled on the same basic plan: a sonata form first movement (generally with three themes, rather than the traditional two) that establishes the conflict, an emotional slow movement offering meditation and reflection, a wild scherzo coupled with a slower trio, and a powerful sonata form finale resolving the initial conflict. You’ll find little structural experimentation; the unique material with which he fills the form is what creates the variety in Bruckner’s symphonies.

Even more than form, it is the way in which Bruckner builds his sound that most often confounds listeners. Most composers focus on the development of themes: motives and tunes appear, interact and influence one another organically. These features are not absent in Bruckner’s music, but he tends to compose more architecturally, presenting distinct blocks of sound in episodic sections. Themes and melodies exist to illuminate the structure of the piece, not as seeds from which the piece will grow. Rather than following the smooth dramatic arc of a narrative, Bruckner gives the impression of inspecting from various perspectives an enormous edifice already in existence. Subsequent appearances of themes present opportunities to view the music from different angles. Frequently, each new statement builds an increasing intensification of emotion and power, cresting into waves of climaxes. Bruckner referred to this effect as Steigerung, or escalation.

Perhaps it was his faith that influenced this approach. Intensely devout and something of a mystic, Bruckner kept a journal tracking his daily prayers, and he was intimately familiar with the Catholic practice of prolonged concentration on repeated prayers to meditate on diverse aspects of God and build to spiritual enlightenment. Rather than embarking on a voyage in search of unknown truth, Bruckner’s faith leads him instead to contemplate from many perspectives the truth he already knows to be in his possession.

The First Symphony opens with an energetic march. It grows to a climax, and the winds bring in a more lyrical theme. An explosion from the trombones, accompanied by swirling strings straight out of Tannhäuser, announces the third theme. These themes are examined in different forms until rumbling timpani announce the march’s return. The opening material is restated, though the trombone theme is notably absent.

The second movement begins brooding and mysterious, chromaticism blurring the key until the music settles into A-flat major. Filled with longing, a melody emerges over somber horns. As the theme grows more desperate, it encounters hope in the form of a glorious melody from the strings. When the initial theme returns, it is clothed in a new, more hopeful accompaniment.

The scherzo announces itself with a violent eruption that leads to a lilting melody evocative of Austrian folk dance. Another eruption gives way to respite in the slower trio section before the scherzo theme returns once more.

Bruckner liked to mock the opening of the finale, teasing, “The kecke Beserl says, bold and straightforward, ‘Here I am!’” After this fortissimo opening, the music, marked “stirring and fiery”, races through episodes featuring themes from the other movements. The opening march becomes a meditative serenade for winds and strings. The music begins to swirl and, growing to a series of climaxes, ends in a triumphant brass chorale.

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