Symphony No. 4 in Eb, WAB 104 ("Romantic")

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            It’s common musicological coin to observe that there is little in the life and personality of Anton Bruckner that informs our understanding and appreciation of his music.  While he composed a large body of significant sacred vocal music, it is his nine symphonies (the last not completed) that have established his importance as a major composer of the late nineteenth century.  His is the story of a provincial man of extremely modest origins, of little early genius, and who endured decades of obscurity.  And yet, despite inordinately long years of assiduous study and an innate obsequiousness, his patience gradually yielded widespread recognition of his talents and creations in early old age.

            Even at the end of his active career, when he held a prestigious position teaching music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, he remained a curious rustic, simple in his eccentric ways, and naïve in the ways of the world.  Many musical notables of his time could not restrain from ridiculing his peasant ways, his remarkable penchant for seeking hopeless relations with teenage girls, his bouts with obsessive counting of everything—including leaves on trees—and a bizarre fascination with the dead.  That’s certainly burden enough on one’s chances of artistic success in the elegant, intellectual world of nineteenth-century Vienna, and yet Bruckner’s symphonies have come to assume an essential position in the development of that genre in late Romantic musical style.  Though unique, they are nonetheless a link in the chain of evolution of the Austro-German symphonic tradition--from Beethoven and Schubert through to Gustav Mahler.  While laboring in obscurity as a village schoolmaster, music teacher, and organist, his assiduous musical studies—right into his forties—gradually enabled him to develop a remarkable personal vision of symphonic form, texture, and psychological content.  

            His works are (in)famously long, repetitious, frequently really loud, often dense in texture, heavy with the brass, make frequent use of a rather rare rhythmic figure (more on this later), teeming with contrapuntal motifs, and often seem static in the absence of a sense of development and forward motion.  But—these traits are not fatal, or even criticisms.  They are an essential part of magnificent sound structures whose mystical, euphonious—and often recondite---nature unfolds at a leisurely pace, the musical logic of which often eludes one until the end.

            He was a master of harmony and counterpoint, owing not only to his long years as a church organist and respected improviser on that instrument, but also to his detailed study of the subject, finally succeeding his famous teacher in Vienna at the Conservatory. His mastery of the richness of late-Romantic harmony often yields startling juxtapositions of chords and keys, unprepared dissonances, and advanced sonorities, but those are necessary elements of his pushing the musical boundaries of the time. He crafted new and involved systems of phrase structure and metrical analysis, and altered ways in which musical “landmarks” appear as his movements unfold.  That’s a lot, no doubt, and accounts for much of the “Bruckner sound” for the listener.

            Yet, notwithstanding all of these particular contributions to the development of the symphony, there is so much of the familiar in his approach.  His works are in the conventional four movements, with variants of sonata form flanking the usual interior slow and scherzo/trio movements.  The orchestral instruments are the usual for the time, except in the last three symphonies, which bring in Wagner tubas as reinforcement for the horn section.  Unlike his successor and admirer, Gustav Mahler, he felt no existential need to incorporate the human voice, birdcalls, maudlin village bands, bundles of switches, mandolins, cowbells, and other novelties in the search for personal expression. In general, while much has been previously made of his admiration for Wagner and that musical style—it is generally clear to most, now, that his fundamental orientation is to the tradition of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.  He simply pushed the conventions of the symphony much further than did, say, Brahms. Given the constant revisions that he and his associates made to his symphonies, the many manuscript and printed versions, and even the two major collected scholarly editions of his oeuvre, there are multiple versions of all of them. His Fourth Symphony exists in at least three major versions.   The “third” version from 1888—in yet a new edition, is based upon the latest scholarship.  While the “second” version saw far more performances in the last halfcentury or so, the “third” is enjoying a renaissance.

            The first movement begins with a typical Bruckner trait:  a shimmering “halo” of strings from which mist the signature horn theme appears.   The horn, of course, is the most “romantic” of instruments, and its choice here is not fortuitous—Bruckner’s adroit scoring imaginatively evokes the antique, and the instrument’s sound comes almost to dominate the whole work.  As a conservative composer Bruckner did not plaster descriptive terms or programs to his works, but the Fourth Symphony is an exception, hence the moniker, “Romantic”-–in the sense of a medieval tale. He left behind several versions of the vague programmatic elements that underlay this work, and the idea of a brass instrument sounding the dawn from high in a tower is our inspiration here.  At a leisurely pace the idea grows, replete with intimations of nature awakening and knights riding out on “proud steeds.”  Finally, a huge orchestral swell leads from this tranquility to the advent of the heavy brass with the central theme of the movement, in his famous 2+3 rhythm. After an exploration of this stentorian idea, contrasting, lighter themes eventually arrive, redolent of graceful Austrian dances reminiscent of Schubert—replete, here, with the composer’s penchant for abrupt forays into distant keys.  Soft, spooky, woodwind solos; quiet textures over rolling timpani; exuberant outbursts from the brass; and the opening horn motif are woven throughout the development, ending with a glorious brass chorale filling the hall.  Bruckner is known for his innovations in musical architecture, and the recap is typical.  It is not a literal recapitulation of the opening section, but takes its time to explore the material further, and not in a way that implies a looming close. Rather, his extensive coda ultimately gives the ear the harmonic signs that we have, at last, reached the denouement—signaled by dynamic unison horns proclaiming the opening motif.  Like his idol, Wagner, Bruckner takes his time.

            Bruckner’s slow movements are usually audience favorites, and this one is a particularly charming one, starting with a doleful tune over a “walking” bass.   Later, a contrasting section offers a soft chorale.  Moods and ideas alternate, including some cheerful moments, but Bruckner being Bruckner, this meditative interlude leads to an inevitable heroic triumph before the pensive end. 

            The scherzo and trio is the composer’s new one for the second version of the symphony from 1878.  Deemed a “Jagd” (Hunting) scherzo by the composer, this movement also takes its programmatic inspiration from the Middle Ages.  Unusually, the outer sections are not in the traditional three-beat meter, but in duple time, and are an absolute tour-de-force for virtuosic horn display—and all the brass, for that matter.  Horses, dogs, deer—and horns--to the fore!  The middle section is a gentle, Schubert-like Austrian Ländler, which Bruckner characterized as a mid-day repast for the hunters.

            The finale, like the previous movement, is a significantly revised one.  Opening with a long, throbbing pedal in the basses, tension builds as the horns and others intone a variant on a familiar motif that leads into a fortissimo imprecation from the brass of granite-like strength.  Only Bruckner could have written and scored this, but it is certainly suggestive of the Wagner he adored—shades of Wotan’s Farewell.  Soon the contrasting second group arrives, accompanied by the throbbing of the opening and we’re surrounded by a bucolic Austrian atmosphere.  But, even in these salubrious tunes, listen for the inevitable interjection of the flatted scale step that has informed so much of this symphony—from beginning to end.  It’s difficult to follow the ins and outs of Bruckner’s creative manipulations of sonata form, here, but the unity of the materials is palpable, nonetheless.   Motifs, scale alterations, and the ubiquitous Bruckner 2+3 rhythm are all woven together as the finale unfolds at a leisurely pace, constantly shifting in moods.   The long coda finally brings a sense of finality, in a buildup that is a sonic and psychological marvel.   Probably far too much has been averred about the “influence” wrought by Wagner on his acolyte, Bruckner.  But there can be no question but that while the former’s fingerprints are frequent in the latter’s work, Bruckner borrowed abstemiously and paid back with interest.  He created his own, unique masterpieces, and this work is a noble and distinguished example.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan