Symphony Study No. 40 | Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

by Glenn on March 17, 2016

Anton Bruckner
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major
First Performance: 8 April 1894

Listening to Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony on the heels of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony illustrates the tension between popularity and quality. I think I am safe in saying that Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is much more popular than Bruckner’s Fifth. I have no data, just a general intuition that recording sales, concert programming and attendance, and a simple survey of the concert-going public (“Are you more likely to attend a concert with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth or Bruckner’s Fifth?”) would indicate that the Tchaikovsky is more popular. But is it better?

Obviously, more popular doesn’t make something better. But it doesn’t necessarily make something worse. Just because something is less popular doesn’t infer greater quality or more artistic integrity.

One of the things Michael Steinberg does not do in The Symphony is spend much time trying to establish a hierarchy for the 118 symphonies he has included in his book. He does identify the better symphonies of an individual composer by, for example, including only Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies, only Mozart’s last six symphonies, Nos. 35–36, and 38–41,* and only the Bruckner symphonies from No. 4 on, but he is rather sparing in his use of superlatives (or I’ve been missing them—I certainly will be looking for them as I continue reading).

Concerning Ludwig van Beethoven, Steinberg will say that the finales of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8 “are the two most wonderful Beethoven invented in his nine symphonies.” That’s a hierarchy of a couple of movements within Beethoven’s symphonic output, but that’s not saying that either one is the best finale of a symphony, let alone a best symphony.

He comes closer when he says, concerning Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, “No disrespect to Mahler or Shostakovich, but this is the most remarkable First Symphony ever written.” That’s still not calling it the best symphony, though.

On William Walton, we come near: “Not many would wish to call Walton one of the great twentieth-century composers, but the claim that his First Symphony is one of the great twentieth-century symphonies is not excessive.” He won’t deny your claim if you call it one of the greats, but he’s not going there.

This reticence to peg symphonies on some sort of ranking is a strength of the book. How would you do it anyway? You’d have to establish some sort of objective methodology for determining the relative quality of symphonies and get wide-spread agreement on and support of that methodology. Then you plug everything into the computer and voilà, there we have the best symphonies.

Except that our varied backgrounds and exposures and temperaments tend to make us more or less responsive to various symphonies and composers. As people we have preferences over time and in the moment, in the same way that we may have a life-long affinity for, say, Italian food, but in a certain moment may desire Thai, French, or Texas Barbeque.

Still, merely establishing preferences for one kind of symphonic music or composer doesn’t really yield much in the way of an answer to what is a great symphony and how we would know.

One thing I am enjoying about Steinberg’s approach in his book is that he is highlighting the best features of each of the symphonies he has included.

When discussing Bruckner’s symphonies in general, Steinberg refers to “the inspired plainness of Bruckner’s massive orchestral registration.” Having listened to Bruckner’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, now, as part of this study, I don’t hear that “plainness” as an asset, at least not yet. And with Tchaikovsky in my ear, it seems like Bruckner doesn’t give enough thought to his orchestrations.

There are some models for what a symphony should be—there is the victory symphony—Beethoven’s Fifth and Mahler’s Fifth are examples, where things begin in the dark and end in the light. There is the traditional symphony where we leave home and come back. There is the programmatic symphony, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and Mahler’s First (though he later removed the program from it) that takes us on a journey.

I’m not sure what Bruckner is doing in the big picture, although I wonder if there is a connection that can be made to Beethoven. Bruckner seems to like motivic melodies—intervalic leaps and rhythmic collisions, which reminds me of the tune in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

I wonder how much of Bruckner is an acquired taste—he is the composer I should like to be a “serious” listener of classical music.

I don’t want to be too dismissive at this point as there are four more of his symphonies awaiting me and I want to be open to possibilities of resonance with them. And the point of this study is to broaden my symphony-listening world beyond the narrow confines of Mahler.

This juxtaposition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Bruckner’s Fifth Symphonies was fascinating for me. The former is so approachable; the latter is a dark and unfamiliar room full of uncertainties and the potential for stumbling. My one deep connection to Bruckner, the last movement of his Symphony No. 7, which if I recall was a tribute to Richard Wagner, I thought was magical, but it’s been years since I’ve heard it. This work is in my near future and I’ll be interested to see how it compares to my memory of it.

* * *

One of the fascinating parts of learning about Bruckner is understanding some of the issues related to versions. Bruckner writes the Fifth Symphony but then Franz Schalk performs it with significant cuts and his own re-orchestration. Bruckner was too ill to attend the premiere and only heard this work in a two-piano version.

If I was going to add a title to Bruckner’s Fifth, I would call it “Juxtapositions.”

The first movement opens with quiet melodies and a delicate accompaniment, including pizzicato basses. The unexpected outburst by the brass feels intrusive and unwarranted. And so it goes in this symphony—loud and soft offsetting each other.

I’ve often wondered about the connection of Gustav Mahler to Bruckner. I’ve read that Mahler was a fan. In the opening of the second movement I heard something that sounds like Mahler. At 2’23” this movement really gets interesting with a mood shift and some very lush vintage Philadelphia Orchestra strings.

The third movement is a scherzo that goes off the rails. There are abrupt shifts in mood and tempo (more juxtapositions)—“music organized in clearly defined blocks of tempi” (Steinberg). And since this overall study will conclude with Mahler, I found myself imagining Mahler concluding, “You didn’t take this far enough.” I’m thinking particularly of the third movement of Mahler’s Fourth, although there are many moments in Mahler where everything shifts suddenly and much more dramatically (although somehow less jarringly) than with Bruckner.

I liked the end of Bruckner’s Fifth. If the goal was to land the plane, we really landed the plane with a quite emphatic cadence. So much of the symphony feels here and there, up and down, you are wondering where any of this is going. The end comes as a kind of relief.


*A footnote in Steinberg’s text: “The work confusingly listed as Mozart’s Symphony No. 37, K. 444, is actually a symphony by Michael Haydn with a slow introduction by Mozart. Before the author of everything after the introduction was identified, this symphony was much admired. It is still an attractive piece.”