Sunday, September 30, 2012

Anton Bruckner: Symphony #7

Somehow, a few years back, YHB became a fan of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), a composer whose long, complex and dynamic symphonies are in a league with those of Wagner and Mahler, though the works of those two are far better known.

Yet, Bruckner is fascinating, because he reached back into the past to evoke the melodic phrasing of Beethoven, adapted the current work of his idol, Wagner, in harmonic sophistication, and pointed the way to the future with unusual modulation and unexpected dissonance.  This made the composer something of a traditionalist and a groundbreaker simultaneously.

Bruckner was born in a small town in northern Austria, where his father was a schoolteacher and his first music teacher.  He became known as an excellent organist and developed his skills further at a monastery at St. Florian nearby.  Later, he trained to be a teacher and worked as an assistant, though he had a terrible time in the field, thanks to the humiliation he suffered at the hands of his boss.  His sense of inferiority, perhaps inborn, was certainly enhanced during those years.   Indeed, his symphonies were marked by continual revisions, so that the term the "Bruckner problem" was coined to deal with the issue of the various editions of the composer's works.

The composer did find a better teaching position at St. Florian and, by the mid-1840s, was also beginning to compose music that showed his future direction in life, though he was a notoriously late bloomer.  He was appointed organist at St. Florian in his late twenties and continued teaching until his early thirties.  He did not write his first major work until he was forty and success and attention eluded him until he was well into his sixties.  Strangely, though he continued to be recognized as a virtuoso in organ performance, he never wrote any works for the instrument.

After become a music teacher at the Vienna Conservatory in 1868 and then at the University of Vienna seven years later.  A son of the country at heart, the unsophisticated, religiously devout, insecure and simple Bruckner struggled to find acceptance in the wordly capital of his country.  A thorough disciple of Wagner in an era in which advocates of the latter battled with supporters of Johannes Brahms regarding which "school" of music wsa superior, Bruckner found himself severely criticized for his choice.

Still, he pursued his singular composing vision, writing several symphonies that were published and performed, though he was unappreciated for about twenty years.  Only with the completion of his fourth symphony, the only that he named, calling it "Romantic," was he given some recognition of his unique talent.  At the very end of 1884, however, with the premiere of the seventh symphony, which was published the next year, he finally found acclaim and favor.

And, it is a spectacular achievement, filled with beautiful melodic themes and figures, ingenious harmonies, and a refined sense of the building, subsiding, rising again, and then release of tension that marked the composer's work.  Typically, there were some revisions in the years immediately following

Like the other monumentalists Wagner and Mahler, listening to a Bruckner symphony takes patience and time.  The seventh clocks in a 67 minutes (though paling in comparison to the nearly 90-minute eighth and a final unfinished ninth that was already 66 minutes through three movements, while the incomplete finale could perhaps have been a half hour in length) with the first two movements taking over two-thirds of the length. 

The 26-minute adagio, in particular, is a gorgeous example of Bruckner's sense of structure and dynamics, rising and falling in rhythmic and harmonic tension and featuring many episodes of beautiful melodies.  The more compact scherzo and finale feature more examples of dramatic bombast complemented by contemplative passages, including the sweeping and graceful melodies of the former and the monumental buildup of the finale. 

It is worth noting that the symphony was written during the last illness of Wagner, though it was dedicated to Bavaria's King Ludwig II, a patron of Wagner and whose reign soon ended with strange intrigue and even more bizarre death of the deposed sovereign.

Bruckner lived another decade or so after the seventh symphony and has remained a relatively unappreciated composer since.  Though the photo above is from a late 1990s disc issued by an Austrian label, the conductor Georg Tintner was a one-man revivalist of Bruckner's works through a series of recordings made for the Naxos label and other entries from the Bruckner symphonic catalog will come from that impressive series.

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