by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Symphony No. 6 in A major
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Composed in 1879-1881.
Premiered in its complete version on February 26, 1899 in Vienna, conducted by Gustav Mahler.
Bruckner composed his Sixth Symphony between 1879 and 1881, during the crucial period of his career that saw him rise from a misunderstood and derided outsider to a universally respected musical visionary. He arrived in the worldly and sophisticated Habsburg capital of Vienna from provincial Linz in 1868 to take over the positions of harmony professor at the Conservatory and court organist at the Hofburg. With his shuffling manner, hillbilly slang and peasant dress, Bruckner was an easy target for ridicule, but his students and a few local musicians quickly came to respect him as a teacher, composer of church music and an almost peerless organist. During his early years in Vienna, Bruckner also fostered ambitions as a symphonist, though he committed the tactical error of proclaiming himself a devoted follower of the Wagnerian camp, thereby assuring the disdain of the adamantine Wagner-hater Eduard Hanslick, the powerful critic of the city’s Neue Freie Presse. Hanslick called Bruckner’s music “unnatural,” “sickly,” “inflated” and “decayed,” and intrigued to stop the performance of his works whenever possible. Bruckner justifiably felt that much of the rejection his symphonies suffered early in his career was attributable to Hanslick’s slashing reviews. (When honor and renown finally came to the composer late in life, the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, asked the old man what he would like more than anything else. Bruckner requested that the Emperor make Hanslick stop saying nasty things about his music.)
Bruckner’s greatest fiasco was the premiere of his Third Symphony in Vienna in December 1877. The concert was a disaster. The audience fled en masse during the finale, so that when the music finished, there were barely two dozen people left in the hall. As he accepted the smattering of applause from those who had stayed, the orchestra sheepishly stole off the stage. Standing on the podium in his baggy hayseed clothes, dazed, tears streaming down his cheeks, Bruckner was numb to the comfort offered by the faithful few who remained. With no prospects for the performance of his already-completed Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in view, he avoided the form for almost two years after his painful experience with the Third Symphony, and it was not until September 1879, after he had tested his muse again with the String Quintet during the summer, that he found courage to return to the genre: “I think: just here, just there, just keep writing; don’t look right, don’t look left. I’ll be long gone by the time he [i.e., Hanslick] understands it. They will call me either a fool or a master. If that which I write is good, it will remain for posterity. If not, then it will perish.” It was in such a mood of courageous determination that the Sixth Symphony was conceived.
Bruckner worked on the Sixth Symphony during the winter of 1879-1880 as much as his duties at the Conservatory and the Hofburg and the thorough revision of his Fourth Symphony allowed, but he had not completed the opening movement by the time that he left for a visit to his boyhood home of St. Florian in June 1880 following a successful performance of his D minor Mass, his first music heard in Vienna since the debacle of the Third Symphony. From St. Florian, he passed through Munich on his way to Switzerland, where his organ performances in Geneva, Freiburg, Bern, Zurich and Lucerne were uniformly praised. On his way back to Vienna, he stopped to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, and there was captivated by one Marie Bartl, a seventeen-year-old girl who played one of the Daughters of Jerusalem. Bruckner, 56, waited for her after the performance, introduced himself, and spent the evening with her at her aunt’s house. They corresponded for a few months, but when Bruckner mooted the possibility of marriage, her letters stopped. This sad infatuation with teenage girls, always handled with rigid propriety and self-effacing shyness, occurred several times during Bruckner’s lonely life, and seems to have been the result not of any pedophiliac impulse but rather of his quest for unsullied purity in his beloved. He never found a wife. Bruckner was further disappointed upon his arrival in Vienna by the news that his application for the post of assistant conductor of a local men’s singing society, the Wiener Männergesangsverein, had been rejected. A bothersome ailment that had recently developed in his feet and legs did nothing to raise his spirits. Still, he composed, completing the first movement of the Sixth Symphony by September 27, 1880 and the Adagio and Scherzo by the beginning of the next year. Shortly thereafter, on February 20, 1881, the Fourth Symphony was given its premiere by Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic in what was probably the first adequate performance of any of the composer’s symphonies, and it proved to be an immense success, the first triumph of Bruckner’s life; he was called to the stage after every movement, and the Scherzo was encored. Bruckner was at long last granted the Viennese recognition that had been denied him since he had arrived nearly a quarter of a century before. Inspired by his new-found notoriety, he completed the draft of the Sixth Symphony in June and finished the orchestration of the work in St. Florian on September 3rd. He began the Symphony No. 7, the composition that was to win him international renown, just three weeks later.
Despite the recent upturn in his fortunes, Bruckner was unable to arrange a performance of the Sixth Symphony until the beginning of 1883, when Wilhelm Jahn, Gustav Mahler’s predecessor as music director of the Vienna Court Opera, led the Philharmonic in a reading of the score. Despite his dedication to Bruckner’s cause, Jahn was wary of exciting Hanslick’s scorn, and he programmed only the second and third movements on his concert of February 11th. The audience, which included no less a musical personality than Johannes Brahms, received the truncated Symphony with great enthusiasm, but Hanslick, according to a student of Bruckner’s named Lamberg, “sat there, frigid and immobile, like a sphinx.” The Symphony was first heard in its complete version (though with large cuts) in a performance conducted by Mahler in Vienna on February 26, 1899, three years after the composer’s death. Bruckner’s original version of the score was finally presented by August Göllerich and the Vienna Konzertverein Orchestra on December 13, 1901.
Though the Sixth has never enjoyed the popularity of most of Bruckner’s other symphonies, it is regarded by many as one of his finest achievements, as Robert Simpson noted in his study of the composer: “Its themes are of exceptional beauty and plasticity, its harmony is both bold and subtle, its instrumentation is the most imaginative he had yet achieved, and it has, moreover, a mastery of Classical form that might have impressed even Brahms.” One reason often cited for the Symphony’s infrequent performances is the difficulty of the first movement’s rhythmic execution, a characteristic that is evident in the pregnant gestures that open the work: a violin figure in quick repeated notes and an ominous bass theme whose broad triplets are superimposed upon rather than coincident with the ostinato in the upper strings. Harmonic tension is created immediately at the outset by the ambiguity of the tonality. The woodwinds contribute a new motive in which dotted rhythms feature prominently before the full orchestra summons a brass-driven climax to mark the end of the first theme group. The second theme, initiated by the violins, is more lyrical in nature, though, like the earlier music, it, too, is impelled by a complex interplay of rhythms. This section is also capped by a stentorian statement from the full orchestra before the intensity subsides for the development, begun with a quietly flowing arpeggiated figure in the flute and violins. The main theme in various transformations, including a thunderous culminating statement, occupies most of the development. A sudden calm overtakes the music and marks the onset of the recapitulation. The events of the exposition are returned in altered versions, and the movement closes with a massive sun-bright burst of sound.
The second movement, unusually for Bruckner’s Adagios, follows sonata form. The principal theme, given by the strings, contains two simultaneous motives: a broadly striding downward scale in the basses and a hymnal melody in the violins; the oboe provides a tender commentary. The subsidiary subject is a lovely rising strain in intertwining lines presented by cellos and violins. The expansive development section is largely woven from the two components of the main theme. The last portion of the movement is less a formal recapitulation than a transfiguration of the earlier themes, which are more richly bedecked with accompanimental figurations and more sonorously scored than on their initial presentations. Of this beautiful Adagio, the esteemed English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey wrote, “Listen to it with reverence; for the composer meant what he said, and he is speaking of sacred things.”
The third movement is slower in tempo and somewhat more veiled in expression than the scherzos of Bruckner’s other symphonies. The duple-meter trio that occupies the middle of the movement, one of the composer’s most original inspirations, is built from a singular collection of thematic fragments: a strange leaping figure in the pizzicato strings, an echo of that motive in a trio of horns, a sustained woodwind strain, and a smooth phrase in the bowed strings. These ideas, given both in alternation and superimposition, create a surprisingly bold contrast with the surrounding scherzo.
The finale is not only the emotional but also the thematic summation of the entire work. The movement follows a broadly arched sonata form which is built from three principal elements: the lyrical descending melody posited by the violins at the beginning; a dainty subsidiary theme whose child-like innocence conceals the sophistication of its carefully worked counterpoint; and an oboe and clarinet motive in dotted rhythms tightly suspended upon three adjacent scale steps. Each of these three elements is worked into a stentorian climax. The development section, surprisingly brief, is mostly concerned with the woodwind figure that closed the exposition. The recapitulation maintains the Symphony’s spacious dimensions (Tovey noted that Bruckner was not “bothered by people who want to catch the last train home”), and creates a triumphant conclusion by gathering together reminiscences of themes from the earlier movements, most notably a heroic proclamation by the trombones of the subject that opened the work.
MORE NOTES ON THIS PROGRAM
RELATED LINKSConcert Page