Symphony No. 5 in Bb major, WAB 105

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            It’s common musicological coin to observe that there is little in the personal life and personality of Anton Bruckner that informs our understanding and appreciation of his music.  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 intense study and an innate obsequiousness, his patience gradually yielded widespread recognition of his talents and creations in early old age. Though 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.

            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 demeanor, his simple clothes, his remarkable penchant for seeking hopeless relationships with teenage girls, his bouts with obsessive counting of everything—including leaves on trees—and a bizarre fascination with the remains of 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.  While laboring in obscurity as a village schoolmaster, music teacher, and organist, his continuous 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, 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 deleterious.  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—Simon Sechter--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 much of the familiar in his approach.  His works are in the conventional four movements, with variants of sonata form flanking the standard interior slow and scherzo/trio movements.  The orchestral instruments are the usual for the time, even restricted—no piccolo, English horn, or bass clarinet. The exception lies 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 made hitherto 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, his contemporary, Brahms—though without the genius, some pundits would say.  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 most of them.  His natural modesty and lack of confidence made him inordinately susceptible to well meaning, but misguided, advice from those who sought to “help” him improve his works.

            When in 1868, Bruckner succeeded his mentor, Sechter, as a teacher of theory at the Vienna Conservatory, while in his mid-forties, his focus on the composition of symphonies finally began in earnest. That intense burst of interest lasted through the middle of the 1870s, culminating in the completion of Symphony No. 5 in 1876.  Like all of his symphonies, it follows the conventions pointed out above:  four movements, with the interior movements consisting of an adagio and a scherzo.  Traditional sonata form is basic—but expanded.  And for all of his putative admiration of Wagner, his orchestration is traditional and relatively conservative.  On the whole, Symphony No. 5 stands firmly in the Austro-German symphonic tradition that leads from Haydn and Mozart, through Beethoven, ending in Bruckner, really, rather than in the intensely personal and unique works of Gustav Mahler.   Bruckner builds on that tradition and but takes to a monumental scale, infuses it with rich, progressive harmonies, and completely integrates into it a stunning mastery of counterpoint.

            In the first movement—like all of his first movements—Bruckner builds an imposing musical edifice out of a sonata form with three groups of themes.  Moreover, unlike his other symphonies, he prefaces this formidable array of material with a slow introduction.  It begins with a mysterious pizzicato descending scale in the low strings that sounds almost Baroque.  Soon Bruckner interrupts this tranquility with one of his signature blocks of stentorian, brass dominated chords. Eventually, like the other symphonies, the actual movement proper is introduced with a string tremolo that leads to the allegro first theme group in the “right” key, but withal is a bit of a harmonic surprise.  The theme—and this is a salient trait—is not particularly winsome, nor melodious, but is nevertheless sharply profiled, and a perfect subject for the masterful contrapuntal manipulations so characteristic of this consummate theorist and organist.  It is immediately repeated on a higher scale step in the best Bruckner manner.  Big unison statements in the full orchestra follow; the composer loved massive unisons.  The second theme group follows soon, and is in F minor—Db major—F minor—easily identified by its soft pizzicato chords.  Finally, the third theme again surprises by being in the distant key of Db major--and is introduced simultaneously with its own contrasting contrapuntal accompaniment.  If all of this seems like too much to comprehend—it is admittedly a challenge for even the most experienced listener—the best bet is simply to sit back and enjoy the marvelous ways that the composer takes all of these contrasting ideas and weaves them together in a weft of amazing contrapuntal mastery—almost every technique but retrograde is employed.  One will hear abrupt contrasts of color, dynamics, and melodic material, sounding rather like an organist sitting at a huge console, constantly moving between various manuals.  The development gradually yields to the recap—one that is not exact, and full of harmonic surprises—and the imposing movement concludes with a substantial coda that integrates the impressive variety of themes.

            Bruckner’s adagios are the movements that audiences often most enjoy, and for good reason.  Their expansive architecture, lush orchestration, and memorable melodies provide ample time to luxuriate in the joys of romantic orchestra textures.  In this movement the composer has crafted almost every measure from two basic thematic sections.  The first begins with a measured pizzicato bass line whose triplet rhythm is totally unperceivable until the solo oboe enters with the main tune in duplets.  Pay particular attention to the second half of the melody, with its drooping intervals of a seventh—they will play an important part throughout.

            After a bit of exploration of this first idea, the second main section enters—a lush rich chorale in the strings.  These two fundamental ideas will be drawn upon for all that follows.  Like Beethoven and other masters, Bruckner is thorough and economical in making use of his material.  One is reminded of the old saw that packing houses used everything of the hog except the squeal.  The form of Bruckner’s adagios is not simple, nor do they need to be.  Here, he takes his usual two ideas and alternates clear restatements of them with some development, articulating the whole with his famous dramatic pauses.  In this particular adagio, listen especially for the signature “drooping” intervals of a seventh from the second half of the first main theme. They are pervasive, and like most melodic sevenths, pack considerable emotional wallop.  The movement ends dramatically, pppp, with the themes gently superimposed.

            The third movement is in the familiar scherzo tempo and rhythm, and this one typically smacks of the composer’s Austrian home.  It is clearly rooted in the dances of Upper Austria, but with Bruckner’s signature massive, expansive approach.  But of all of his scherzi, this one is different, for instead of the usual ABA form going back to Haydn, here Bruckner chooses to employ the sonata form—an unusual choice.  So, we have three themes—incidentally, the first set to the same bass line as that of the opening of the adagio movement, considerably sped up. The “somewhat slower” second one is, as usual, in the dominant key, and is followed by a third theme.  Then, of course, ensue a development and a recapitulation.  Are we finished?  No.  A traditional trio section comes along, in real peasant dance style—it’s easy to recognize, with its slower tempo, lighter orchestration, and overall simple mien.

            But, since it is a scherzo, at the conclusion of the trio, we now go all the way back to the very beginning and repeat the three-theme sonata form, replete with development and recapitulation!  Whew!  And with this, a titanic “dance” movement concludes.

            As one may expect, the finale is a formidable movement, illustrative of all of the proclivities that we have come to expect from this expansive composer.  It’s long, it’s complex, and it’s transcendental.  Here, Bruckner achieves the improbable task of combining the traditional sonata form with an imposing double fugue.  One may remember that at the beginning of his ninth symphony, Beethoven “reviews” some of the main themes from the previous movements before settling in on his famous “Ode to Joy” theme.  Bruckner does much the same here, beginning the last movement with a few measures of the solemn slow introduction to the first movement.  Abruptly, a solo clarinet intrudes with a “cheeky” little motif that soon will be the opening of the first main theme of the last movement.  But, the orchestra responds with a statement of the allegro theme that opened the first movement, proper.  That too, is again interrupted by the pert solo clarinet, insisting again upon the new theme.   And again, the orchestra answers with a bit of an earlier movement, this time it’s the melody played by the soulful oboe at the beginning of the slow movement.  Yet again, the clarinet interrupts and insists upon the new theme, which this time the orchestra finally heeds, and with this new theme plunges into an impressive fugue.   The “herky-jerky” rhythm of the new theme is strongly redolent of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge theme (incidentally, a double fugue, too), which, of course, Bruckner knew well.  As in any respectable fugue, a non-contrapuntal episode of new, contrasting material follows, this one rather cheerful.  After which, the third theme appears—a commanding octave jump.  Bruckner then surprisingly wraps up the thematically rich exposition with a solemn chorale.

            The development begins with an unaccompanied solo horn beginning a fugue based upon the short chorale that we have just heard.  After an impressive exploration of the chorale-like fugue subject, Bruckner pulls an impressive feat out of his bag of tricks and re-introduces the first fugue simultaneously with the chorale fugue:  a double fugue!  This impressive feat goes on at length, taking us right into the recapitulation.

            In the recap the double fugue finally exhausts itself, the tempo and the dynamic drops dramatically, and the cheerful second theme enjoys a bit of recap.  Soon, the octaves of the third theme start hammering away, and the very first theme from the first movement joins the fray, tying together the whole from beginning to end.  The tension builds, with a veritable “whack-a-mole” of all the themes jumping out from everywhere, until, when it seems as if the movement will never end, the monumental chorale in the brass, in a blazing fortissimo, finally hammers this amazing sonic edifice to a smashing conclusion.

            Ironically, this work, which pushed most of the elements of the Austro-German symphony to boundaries that were never envisaged, was never heard by its composer played by an orchestra.  In most ways it stands alone in the evolution of the genre.  For some, it is an acquired taste, for others, it—and its companion works--is a glorious achievement by a most unlikely country rustic who pursued his musical vision with almost unparalleled assiduity.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan