Symphony Studies Nos. 43 & 44 | Mendelssohn No. 4 and Bruckner No. 6

by Glenn on April 10, 2016

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall has an archived performance of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. When I saw that it was paired with Mendelssohn’s Fourth (Italian) Symphony I realized I could watch the concert and check two symphonies off my list.

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Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, Italian
First Performance: 13 May 1833

1. Allegro vivace
2. Andante con moto
3. Con moto moderato
4. Presto and Finale: Saltarello

The Philharmonic Society, London (now the Royal Philharmonic, I believe) commissioned this work. When Mendelssohn conducted the premiere he was just 24 years old.

Michael Steinberg observes,

“Mendelssohn is the most astonishing of all the composing prodigies. Mozart was to go much further, but as a teenager not even he surpasses or often equals Mendelssohn in assurance and certainly not in individuality.”

The genius of Mendelssohn is that sound he has. He is in the flow of the development of the symphony but in a strange way. He wrote after Beethoven, but the music sounds like it comes from both before and after Beethoven. To me he sounds like I imagine Bach would sound like if he was a romantic-era composer.

This symphony is a paradox. As a listener, it feels perfect, yet Mendelssohn didn’t like it, rewrote it, and had more plans for revisions when he died. He never conducted it again after its premiere and never published it.

In the concert interview (which can be viewed for free), Riccardo Chailly, who as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandaus Orchestra has the vantage point of being Mendelssohn’s successor in that post, mentioned that they had two or three years previous performed the revised version. His opinion is that Mendelssohn’s revisions weakened a great symphony. He called the performance of the revised work “a real disappointment” in comparison to “the truly perfect original masterpiece.”

Mr. Chailly notes two elements that put the Italian into what is otherwise a symphony in the German tradition. The long theme in the second movement has a connection to a religious procession in Naples. The “mysteriously-colored theme” of the oboe, bassoon, and viola he calls “instrumento archaico.”

Another Italian connection is the last movement, a tarantella. Both Steinberg and Chailly tell the story of the tradition that if you were bit by a tarantula, your only means of survival was to dance through the night. So that while this is very upbeat music which feels very alive, it is “a dance of death.” Appropriate, then, that the movement is in minor.

* * *

I’m fascinated by what Mendelssohn does for the rest of a concert. On at least two occasions, now, I have heard a concert that opened with Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. The Italian somehow lightens the load.

On Sunday, 29 March 2009 we were in Southern California on business and managed to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform in the then relatively-new Disney Concert Hall. They played the Italian with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

In this concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, I am wondering to what extent my perception of Bruckner was enhanced by Mendelssohn’s Fourth—a kind of aperitif for what would follow.

* * *

Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A Major (WAB 106)
First performance: Stuttgart, 14 March 1901.

1. Majestoso
2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich
3. Scherzo. Nicht schnell — Trio. Langsam
4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell


“[T]he nearest thing to a performance in Bruckner’s lifetime,” Steinberg tells us, was a “reading rehearsal” with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1833. The concert on 11 February included only the second and third movements.

Gustav Mahler “in a performance disfigured by many cuts,” performed the work with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1899.

Steinberg notes that the performance hierarchy for Bruckner symphonies goes something like this:

Nos. 4 and 7 “are repertory works”
Nos. 8 and 9 are “regularly unveiled for contemplation” but are “‘special occasion’ works”
Nos. 5 (“grand and problematic”), 3, and 2 (“fresh and confident”) “get their outings
No. 6 “tends to be left on the shelf, though audiences enjoy it when given a chance and wonder why they haven’t heard it before or don’t hear it more often.”

This was my experience.

I had been struggling with the Bruckner symphonies. This is the third of six that are on Steinberg’s list. I found it accessible, part of which comes from the length, which I clocked at under an hour.

Steinberg’s observation is that by not going after “the monumental” in this symphony, it is a “departure from the most obvious Bruckner norm,” which may explain “its comparative neglect.”

I think part of my problem with Bruckner is that he seems to take himself too seriously in his symphonies, which feel humorless and not in the tradition of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. There are some charming moments in this symphony. And Bruckner does a lot of rhythmic counterpoint which is interesting to hear.

I am not the only one who struggles with Bruckner.

A few weeks ago I came across a blog post titled, “I Hate Bruckner, Part I.” The writer, Emily Hogstad, is doing a similar learning project—she’s listening her way through Grout’s History of Western Music. I enjoyed the post because she said some of the things I’ve found myself saying. For example,

“[W]hat the heck?”

She described her problem listening to Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony this way:


And that was my feeling about Nos. 4 and 5.

(Ms. Hogstad asked for comments about her post. She got some—in internet-land, that’s no surprise. How refreshingly few of the comments were not ad hominem, though, either about Ms. Hogstad or (the possibly polarizing figure of) Anton Bruckner. She got enough feedback that her next post was called, “I Hate…er, Strongly Dislike…Bruckner, Part II.” There is an evolution here. Part III was titled, “I Hate…er, And Now Sort of Like Bruckner, Part III.”

All of this to say, I’m glad I’m not alone in my struggle to enter the sound world of Bruckner.

And I’m happy to say that Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 was a pleasure to hear. You don’t want to feel like listening to a musical work is just a means to pass the time.

The high point of the Sixth is the adagio. It is eighteen minutes of serenity—an aural solace in a noisy world. Mr. Chailly calls it “the heart” of this symphony. Steinberg says this adagio “is unsurpassed in Bruckner’s symphonies,” which is saying something, considering what I remember of the adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh.

There is an eyebrow-raising visual component to this concert. For the Mendelssohn, there is a modestly-sized string section, two horns and two trumpets, and between the brass and strings, pairs of woodwinds—flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons.

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For the Bruckner, the same pairs of woodwinds now have an enhanced string section in front of them and four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and tuba behind them. (No wonder, then, that some of the woodwind players use ear plugs, if not throughout the performance, at least for the finale.) But you wonder what Bruckner was thinking—how are they going to be heard above the racket?

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It was interesting to hear Mr. Chailly talk about conducting Bruckner. One of the issues he has a conductor is that he sees more in the score than he actually hears in rehearsal and so he has to work to bring out lines. The example he used was the early part of the adagio, where the oboe has an important line which can be buried by sixty strings that have a crescendo.

I get the feeling that the composer of the score for Lawrence of Arabia paid attention to this symphony of Bruckner’s. I also hear Elgar and Mahler. As far as the latter, I wonder if Mahler’s opening from his Sixth has any connection to the opening of the scherzo in this Sixth.

Tom Service at The Guardian has a great article on Bruckner’s Sixth.

* * *

In the interview that goes with the concert, Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist for the Berlin Philharmonic, was the interviewer with Riccardo Chailly. He began with a compliment. He quoted the late Sergiu Celibidache on his return to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic as saying that the orchestra is wonderful but that he “couldn’t find the key.” (Interesting metaphor). Mr. Mayer said that Mr. Chailly had found the key.

Mr. Chailly said he didn’t know about that but he observed that the Mendelssohn is all “lightness and transparency.” It is “difficult to achieve” though it sounds “so simple, so beautiful, … and fun.” He said, and Mr. Mayer agreed, “we shed blood” to make it sound easy.

I thought the Mendelessohn was a remarkable performance. There was a phenomenal moment in the early part of the second movement. The upper strings take over the melody and the flutes down low do a counterpoint that is just magical here. So beautiful.

The only thing I didn’t like (after two listenings) was what I think might have been a patch at the beginning of the fourth movement. Digital sound editing is different from the older style of editing with tape, but something went amiss there for me.

If the performance of the Mendelssohn colored my hearing of Bruckner’s Sixth, so be it. I think I referred to another of Bruckner’s symphonies as a blunt object (making the hearing something like “blunt force trauma”). So far, this is the Bruckner symphony I want to hear again.

Mr. Mayer asked what he called the “provocative” question of how the orchestra’s sound* has changed over the years with almost all new personnel since the days of Herbert von Karajan. Mr. Chailly finds the orchestra to be more flexible with tempo changes but that the dark sound is still there when you need it in Bruckner.

Mr. Mayer seems to enjoy playing for Mr. Chailly. It would be interesting to survey the great orchestras of the world and discover who their favorite conductors are and why. Not to stir up trouble—I think the role of principal conductor for an orchestra, like any role that involves leading people, can be challenging on both sides. It’s hot in the kitchen.

What I would really like to know is if at the level of playing ability in an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic, the conductor can make it easier or harder to play your instrument. As a former (for now) horn player, I find myself with relatively quick judgments about conductors I would and would not want to play for. So much of conducting is beyond the physical motions of conducting—rehearsal technique, soft skills with people, and such—but physical motions are essential and I couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Chailly would make it easy for me to play. He is in charge but doesn’t appear over-controlling. It’s difficult to lead without being in the way. His motions are clear and elegant and I wonder if that makes the orchestra play more clearly and elegantly.

*I’ve heard this question asked by musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic in a way that you can’t tell if its mere curiosity or a kind of evidence-gathering to make an indictment. One example is at the 4:35 mark here in this interview of Zubin Mehta at a memorial concert in tribute to Claudio Abbado, who was Herbert von Karajan’s successor at the Berlin Philharmonic.