Symphony Study No. 46 | Bruckner Symphony No. 7 in E Major

by Glenn on May 8, 2016

Anton Bruckner
Symphony No. 7 in E Major
first performance of final version: 30 December 1884, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Allegro moderato
Adagio: Very solemn and slow—Moderato
Scherzo and Trio: Very fast—A little slower
Finale: Moving, but not fast

I’m not quite ready to worship at the temple of Anton Bruckner, yet, but if I were a secularist I would be tempted by his Seventh Symphony. There is in us both the capacity and need for worship and Bruckner’s Seventh—both the music itself and the extraordinary musicianship required to pull it off—has a transcendent quality about it. This is music that calls for and offers space for reverence. For some listeners it could be, “Be still and know that I am God,” for others it might be simply, “Be still and experience something beyond yourself.”

I haven’t been loving the Bruckner symphonies, but this one feels different for some reason. I’m not sure if each Bruckner symphony that Michael Steinberg includes on his list is simply better than the last one or that I’m learning to appreciate them better. I watched a performance from 31 May 2013 by the Berlin Philharmonic available in their Digital Concert Hall.
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I have a couple of theories: 1. A great orchestra makes the symphonies of Anton Bruckner much more accessible; and/or, 2. Perhaps a way to better appreciate the symphonies of Bruckner is to watch a great orchestra perform them. I think both statements are true as it relates to my experience with Bruckner’s Seventh. The Berlin Philharmonic is incredible and there’s so much to see in the relationship between the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, and the orchestra that contributes positively to the experience with the music.

I think the last time I heard Bruckner’s Seventh was on a CD by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, also conducted by Sir Simon. What caught me in both performances was the power of legato, meaning a powerful legato, especially in the adagio. It’s music without edges or snags.

The one negative of Bruckner’s Seventh: This symphony is out of balance. The first two movements are twice as long as the last two movements, giving a ratio of approximately 2:2:1:1.

Further, the first two movements have an epic quality about them. So much happens in the first two movements that the prospect of third and fourth movements is a little overwhelming—you’re about done for as a listener. I feel like Bruckner would have been done well to make the adagio his final movement. That movement alone is sort of a religious experience with a benedictory quality. The movement was written in honor of Richard Wagner. According to Steinberg, Bruckner’s intention was a “memorial to the man he worshiped above all living musicians,” utilizing Wagnerian tubas to great effect. This is music that carries us on long, and I mean long, paths to high places.

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I have said some disparaging things about Bruckner’s music—too long, too exclusively motivic, too much with the endless key changes through the circle of fifths, too much blunt force. The Seventh Symphony is exceptional, though, and reminds me why I was captured by it at one time—and will return to it again, soon.

Once, in a fit of youthful hubris, I put Bruckner’s Te Deum (paired with Beethoven’s Mass in C) on a program of choral music I conducted. (The Beethoven was delightful; the Bruckner was less successful—a stretch for me and my singers and orchestra.) At that point I think I understood the thematic connection between the adagio and the Te Deum, but Steinberg points out the connection is more explicit than a musical idea—in the adagio Bruckner is specifically alluding to the line in the Te Deum (composed at the same time as Symphony No. 7) that says, “non confundar in aeternum” (let me not be confounded for ever).

According to Steinberg, Bruckner’s Seventh is the one symphony that met with critical success in his lifetime. It also appears to be relatively (for Bruckner) free of issues surrounding performing versions. The one controversy with this work is a triangle and cymbal crash that no one is quite sure if Bruckner wanted in or not. It appears that Sir Simon wanted to include the extra percussion. It seems to work.

I think I hear some things in the Seventh that Mahler takes from Bruckner. (I’ve read that Mahler enjoyed Bruckner’s music and, up to now, have been wondering why. I have some thick Mahler biographies in my future, I hope I learn more.) One is the false climax—building to what should feel like a giant peroration, but then a collapse—allowing for another build.

Another thing I hear Bruckner doing (and Mahler copying) is the embellished repeat. When a musical idea is repeated it is never repeated exactly. There is some sort of transformation—little changes in harmony or added counterpoint or a variation in the theme.

There is something restorative about this music that takes so long to achieve its ends. For a microwave society, it is counter-cultural. You can’t really boil the experience down. You can note the tunes, but it’s the way they are transformed and altered and extended that makes me admire this particular symphony of Bruckner. It does feel like a spiritual act.

The digital Concert Hall offers at no charge an introduction to Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony by a German musicologist, Albrecht Dümling.

Some takeaways:

1. Bruckner had his share of detractors who described his music as “bits of bombast,” “shamelessly long,” and “giant snakes.”

2. Music had political overtones with partisanship—you were either in the camp of Brahms or Wagner. Bruckner was firmly in the latter.

3. One of the things I’ve critiqued in Bruckner’s music is that it treats the orchestra like an organ. Dümling maintains this was Bruckner’s intent. (Contrast this with Elgar, another organist, who was all about color and subtle transitions.)

4. Appreciated how Dümling characterized the last movement as condensed and speeded up forms of ideas that had come before.

UPDATE (12 May 2016):

It’s been difficult to get the adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh out of my head. The soaring lines are so exhilarating and when you work in a music-free environment (One of the greatest curses I can imagine is working someplace where music, over which you have no control, is piped in.), it’s fun to have these lines pop into your brain.

While the previous Bruckner symphonies from the Steinberg list I am in no hurry to listen to again, there is something visceral about the Seventh that made me want to return to it and reinforce some of these aural memories. I chose a performance by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Vienna Philharmonic is exquisite and Maestro Karajan knows how to make Bruckner sing. There are one or two brass entrances, especially when it’s big, that you could wish for a little more precision, but this is a beautiful recording. How do you describe the warmth of those strings and the phenomenal blend of the orchestra, section by section and as a whole?

I’ve read a few places, now, where writers refer to Bruckner’s symphonies as “cathedrals of sound.” Until the Seventh, I thought it hyperbolic and far too generous. The adagio is 23’ long. Still, you don’t want it to end.

This is a poignant recording. It was Mr. Karajan’s last, and the concert of 23 April 1989 featuring Bruckner’s Seventh was the last time he conducted in public.