Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107

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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 hopelessly seeking relations with teenage girls, his bouts with obsessive counting of everything—including leaves on trees—and a bizarre fascination with dead bodies.  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, 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. Unfortunately, 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.

            After composing a wealth of choral music stemming from his long service in the St. Florian monastery, and assiduous study with teachers well into middle age, he completed his first symphony in 1866 (but only the first version), at the age of forty-one.  As the years rolled by, six more, in a welter of versions—the famous “Bruckner Problem”—followed, with the sixth completed in 1881.  But try as he must, success, approval, and appreciation for his symphonies totally eluded him.  Finally, in an 1885 concert in the city that had tormented him, Vienna, the approval from the musical world that he had long sought came to him with a performance of the Seventh Symphony.  It’s still his most popular and respected.

            The opening bars of the typical symphony by Bruckner are famous for their floating “fog” of lush, tremolo strings, out of which gradually emerges the first important idea.  And so it is here—in an amazing, soaring melodic line in the ‘cellos that arches over two- dozen bars and two octaves.  The second theme comes rather soon, introduced by the woodwinds, with a little Wagnerian twist.  All proceed with a measured dignity until we reach a decidedly more active third main idea—which dances along, constantly changing in mood, finally giving some opportunities for the brass. But, it winds down, and solemn horns then lead into a surprising, gentle, and lightly-scored beginning to the development—unlike so many “stormy” developments going all the way back to Haydn and Mozart.  All the material heard so far goes through myriad tempos, dynamics, contrapuntal manipulations, and variations of all kinds.  Here, the composer obviously draws upon his considerable skill as an improviser at the organ to do likewise with his orchestra.  There are so many imaginative things happening at this leisurely pace that one easily forgets that this is the first movement—the one that is usually so much more vigorous in the tradition of symphonies.  All of this so-called “development” merges right into what usually is a recap, but in Bruckner’s way of thinking, both parts are more or less one long section, and the conclusion arrives almost as a surprise.  The coda to this expansive, pensive movement begins with a signal from the timpani, as it initiates a long soft roll on low E.   The power and grandeur that we may have listened for in vain earlier, now begins growing in earnest.  Fanfares, an imposing crescendo, and harmonic stasis lead to a stately conclusion--one that nevertheless rather abruptly intimates there is much more yet to come.

            Bruckner’s slow movements are perhaps the most accessible aspect of his symphonies.  Although he integrated considerable innovations of form and structure into them, the overwhelming perception of the listener is that of a stately web of gorgeous instrumental sound that moves slowly and inexorably—punctuated by dynamic climaxes—to eventual finality.  To be sure, he carefully crafts them out of specific motives and themes, and they weld the whole together, permeating the texture with familiar, recognizable ideas.  But one does not listen to these slow movements to follow the details, but rather to sense the whole, and the serene, steady sense of moving forward.  All of this is the key to the Adagio of the Seventh Symphony.  It has been said that this is the movement (finally!) that made Bruckner famous.

            Bruckner adored Richard Wagner, and the older man’s music was an influential model (but in subtle, not obvious ways).  Grieving over Wagner’s death, Bruckner crafted this movement as a heartfelt tribute to him.  Most apparent is Bruckner’s introduction into the brass section of a quartet of Wagner tubas—curious instruments played by French hornists.  They look rather like a slender baritone horn, but with a smaller bell.  Their sound is somewhere between that of a trombone and a French horn, and Wagner had more or less designed them for use in his Ring of the Nibelung.  Their rich, mysterious sound informs much of the movement.   In addition, the experienced listener will from time to time hear harmonies that are clearly Wagnerian in their origin.   Both the “tubas” and the Wagnerian-sounding melody and harmonies are heard right at the beginning—not a slavish imitation of his “master of masters,” but clearly derivative.   Bruckner goes on to weave a lush texture of intertwining melodies that will last almost half an hour.  Sections of new material alternate with familiar ones, as the composer takes his time in this delicious example of late romantic orchestral sound.  Very gradually building in intensity to a smashing apex (with the famous cymbal crash), the Adagio gently winds down, just as slowly as it had built.  Led by the solo flute, the Wagner tubas finally enter, echoing the beginning in their doleful tribute.  Slow arpeggios in the unison horns finish the movement, seeming to invoke Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

            Bruckner, true to his wont to expand the musical landscape (of course, so did Mahler and others, for that matter) takes the usual three sections of the traditional scherzo movement and subdivides the outside parts into three parts, themselves.  So, the vigorous first section (with its “rooster crow” theme) has a more refined and subtle and somewhat brief middle part of its own.   The major middle section takes that idea, a smooth lyricism in the middle, to an even more pronounced level—it’s almost waltz-like.  Throughout all of this one hears the composer’s predilection to change the orchestration by clear blocks or sections.   So, for example:  strings for four bars, brass for four, and woodwinds for four—not consistently, of course, but more than almost any other composer.  Most attribute that to his experience as an organist—pulling stops section by section for constant color change.  The return of the rhythmically active first big section completes the movement.

            After much seriousness, searching, and exploration, the long arc of this symphony reaches the finale.   But, rather surprisingly, Bruckner starts right out with three clear main ideas in succession—no diversions, here.  The first of these, energetically heard right at the beginning, is a jumpy, rather happy affair, soon followed by a broad, almost Schubert like tune in the violins, accompanied by a pizzicato walking bass in the low strings.  From time to time the winds color the melody, as this second idea is explored somewhat more than the first.  And then, the powerful brass—the Wagner tubas join us, again, after laying out of the Adagio—almost overwhelm us with a version of the first theme, but now in the minor.   All of these ideas are then explored in very different, but recognizable guises, and after a dramatic pause, we’re ready for the recap.  But, Bruckner, in one of his hallmark procedures, begins, not with the energetic first theme, but with the serene, chorale-like one.  He’s saving the first for the peroration.  Hints of it are heard with increasing intensity, and the significant coda finally blazes it out—and now with a clear connection to the opening of the first movement.  Fanfares and his signature, granite-solid, tutti unisons loudly proclaim triumph in the best fashion of his idol—Beethoven.  Then a long pedal point on the tonic low E emphatically brings this long journey to a glorious end.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan