Symphony Study No. 31 (of 118) | Bruckner: Sym. No. 4 “Romantic”

by Glenn on February 14, 2016


I decided to listen to Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony before I read Michael Steinberg’s essay about it. I wanted to see what I thought about Bruckner without outside influence after many years of not paying much attention to it.

In college I think I thought I was supposed to like Bruckner. His music was big and brassy and I was a horn player ergo I should find that appealing. I was also, then, an admirer of Eugene Ormandy (still am) and Herbert von Karajan (more complicated thoughts these days), both of whom seemed to be big on Bruckner. But I never got into Bruckner’s symphonies the way I did for, say, Mahler, Elgar (No. 1), and Rachmaninoff (No. 2).

College made me a little jaded on the subject of Bruckner. One of my professors had an intense, unapologetic, and outspoken disdain for Bruckner’s music. In fact, the only thing I ever heard him criticize worse than Bruckner was the “Love Theme from Titanic.”

I remember a short but memorable argument in class with him on the subject of Bruckner’s music. He said something like, “Bruckner’s music sucks.”

I don’t know why I felt I should rush to Bruckner’s defense, but I countered with, “But Bruckner was a devout man.”

His response—and the conclusion of the matter—was, “I don’t care how devout he was, his music still sucks.”

I think it’s interesting that my argument back to the professor had nothing to do with Bruckner’s music. I was attending a Christian college and I guess I thought that the character of the composer, somehow, should correlate to the quality of and my appreciation for their music. You wanted your favorite composers to be the late-20th century evangelicals you were in college. They aren’t.

If I could have been honest, I would have declared that I was conflicted on the subject of Bruckner. I liked the post-Romantic power of his music. But there was something kind of simplistic about the music or, at least, to the orchestrations. Bruckner was an organist and it felt like his music was overly influenced by the organ—big blocky chords without much nuance—just the power of pulled stops and constant modulating through related keys.

Eventually I stopped listening to Bruckner and don’t remember the last time I heard anything by him, although I’m pretty sure it must have been the adagio to his Symphony No. 7, which in my memory is a glorious piece of music.

I wondered what I would think about Bruckner after all these years.Would I feel a sense of regret for neglecting his music or would I see the light and find that my professor was right?

* * *

Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)
Symphony No. 4
First performance: 20 February 1881 | Hans Richter | Vienna Philharmonic

I listened to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

One symphony in (Nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to go) and I find I don’t really get it. I was a little surprised by how indifferent I was to the music. Clearly I’ve heard it enough for it to make a memory. As I listened I thought, “I remember this.” But with the thought came no feeling of nostalgia for the music. I can take it or leave it. (Where I think my college professor would have to break the CD into little bitty pieces.) They say the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. I guess that’s the way I feel about Bruckner.

I still want to like Bruckner’s music, mostly because I’m suggestible and know there are musically sophisticated people who are major fans. On the Mahler Listserv that I am a part, Bruckner’s music comes up every so often and there are recommendations for this or that conductor and orchestra (for an example see here). The acquisitive part of my nature is piqued and I’m tempted (fortunately only tempted) to acquire a great collection of Bruckner recordings. I think we can table that idea.

The first movement opens with two statements. One is quiet and soloistic, featuring the horn at the outset. (Steinberg will refer to the french horn’s “singular evocative powers,” which is a nice way of putting it.) Then a major statement, a theme for brass. A counter theme that follows has a Viennese flavor and ties back into the opening statement.

These three themes—the opening statement, the big descending brass theme, and the counter-tune are played off each other until we eventually get back to the major statement to conclude. There is simple but effective counterpoint throughout and  Bruckner’s trademark cycling around the harmonic system—a lot of sequencing, the same thing in another key.

The second movement is much slower and mellower. There isn’t really a tune that I hang on to. Funny—at the end of the movement there’s a passage where the tympani plays a repeated pattern of bum-bom-bum-bom on the roots of the tonic and dominant chords. It’s a similar effect that Mahler uses in his First Symphony. I wonder if there is a connection.

The third movement offers the simplest of forms, A—B—A: fanfares—Viennese motifs—fanfares.

As a brass player you love the bombast of the fourth movement. Unfortunately it’s not bombast that is held in reserve for effect the way Mahler would. There’s a theme in this movement that makes me think John Williams for some reason. It’s driving me nuts because I can’t remember where I’ve heard it. There’s the love theme from Raider’s of the Lost Ark, but that’s not quite right. It think it might be in Star Wars? More than John Williams, though, you can’t watch The Lord of the Rings without hearing Bruckner’s music, especially the scene with the lighting of the beacons.


What we learn from Michael Steinberg:

1. Bruckner was a late bloomer. Steinberg incudes a quote from Wilhelm Furtwängler:

“Schubert and Mozart had already completed their life’s work when Bruckner was still writing counterpoint exercises.”

2. Bruckner studied counterpoint for six years and was “compulsive” about it. He developed “a sovereign command of contrapuntal technique, and a nervous breakdown.”

3. There was a “musico-political war between the Wagnerians and the Brahmsians” that involved Bruckner somewhat. This is an area where I want to learn more. I know there was some kind of rift between composers (and their audiences) who wrote programmatically and those who wrote “pure music,” and I wonder if Wagner and Brahms, respectively, fit into those same categories.

4. Bruckner was a country boy. Here’s a lengthy passage from Steinberg that includes several statements that are eyebrow-raisers and which could use some explaining:

“… with his peasant speech, his social clumsiness, those trousers of which it was said that they looked as though a carpenter had built them, his disastrous inclination to fall in love with girls of sixteen, his distracting compulsions, his piety (he knelt to pray in the middle of a counterpoint class when he heard the angelus sound from the church next door), his powerful intelligence that functioned only when channeled into musical composition or teaching, a Neanderthal male chauvinism that even his contemporaries found remarkable, his unawareness of intellectual or political currents of his or any other day, Bruckner was not a likely candidate for success in that compost heap of gossip and intrigue that was Vienna, nor indeed anywhere in a world where a composer’s success in the sense of making a living and getting performances and publications depends on so much other than skill at inventing music.” (emphasis added)

5. Steinberg says Bruckner “was offering the world music that it really did not know what to do with.” (I’m thinking my college professor would know.) In the words of Frutwängler,

“Bruckner did not work for the present; in his art he thought only of eternity and he created for eternity . . .  [He is] one of those geniuses . . . whose destiny it was to render the transcendent real and to attract, even to compel, the element of the divine into our human world.”

Which, again, makes me think I really should try to like Bruckner’s music.

6. I’m happy that one of my impressions—that Bruckner’s music can be a little simplistic—is confirmed by Steinberg:

“[Bruckner] made music like no other, naïve and complex together, homely and sublime.”

Steinberg praises (in the context of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony) something I don’t particularly like about his music, which is

“the inspired plainness of Bruckner’s massive orchestral registration in place of the Wagnerian mixed palette, and with the music organized in clearly defined blocks of tempi rather than Nibelungen ebb and flow.”

Personally, I like orchestral detail and ebb and flow.

7. You need a chart to follow the versions of some of Bruckner’s symphonies, including the Fourth:

Original: An original version was completed in 1874 but wasn’t performed until 1979.

1880: A version that Bruckner would call “definitive” was finished in 1880 and performed by Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic on 20 February 1881. Used for the Haas and Nowak (for the 1975 International Bruckner Society) editions.

1886: Bruckner created a (slightly) revised version in 1886 that was performed in New York on 16 March 1888. Used in the 1953 Nowak edition for the International Bruckner Society.

Spurious: A “spurious” version was made in 1886–87 by students of Bruckner, Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe. Many conducting and miniature scores are based on this edition.

*  *  *

I had some extensive computer work to do last night, so for comparison purposes, I listened to a version of Bruckner’s Fourth by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Listening to Ormandy, I liked the piece more. It felt like there was more forward momentum throughout, which turns out wasn’t just a feeling. When you look at the playing times, the opening movement of Salonen’s recording is 20:10 to Ormandy’s 17:28. In fact, Ormandy has a quicker pace in every movement. Overall, Salonen’s recording is 69:42 and Ormandy’s is 63:14. This six and a half minutes feels like a big deal as you listen.

I sensed the Philadelphia Orchestra brought more of an old world quality to their playing, too. The music felt more Viennese, especially in the middle section of the Scherzo.

I also think Ormandy gave an arch to the music that made sense to me.


There’s little that stays with you after listening to Bruckner’s Fourth. There’s that big, brass motif from the first movement. Instead, though, you begin humming a tune from film music and, the next morning, you find yourself remembering the adagio from Elgar’s Symphony No. 1. There must be some interval in Bruckner that triggers memories of something else.

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[…] I have Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony in my recent aural memory. What a contrast Elgar is with so much nuance and color and variety. Bruckner is all about raw […]

by Elgar: Symphony No. 1 | Sinopoli/Philharmonia « on 26 February 2016 at 7:08 am. #