Composed: 1874, revised 1878 and 1880
Length: c. 65 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 13, 1927, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
It is hard to imagine the Bruckner of legend - morbidly shy, solitary, and insecure - enjoying the acclamation of vast enthusiastic audiences in Paris and London. But that is how he was received in those cities in 1869 and 1871 when he displayed his legendary skill as an organ virtuoso. He had recently been appointed to a professorship in harmony, counterpoint, and organ at the Vienna Conservatory, and had moved to the imperial capital from Linz. He was 44, and very little known in Vienna, even though he had already composed three symphonies and a magnificent body of choral music.
The London success spurred him on to compose with new fire. He began to compose a new symphony every year, with the Fourth (actually the sixth in the series since the first two were never given numbers) begun on January 2, 1874, and completed that November. He himself gave it the title "Romantic," perhaps because it echoes so many features of German Romantic music from Weber and Schumann to Wagner. The Second Symphony was performed in Vienna in 1873, but the Third was still unperformed and the Fourth remained unperformed for some years too. Bruckner always had to contend with the entrenched hostility of Eduard Hanslick, Vienna's most influential critic, who did everything in his power to keep Bruckner's career in check.
A Fifth Symphony came into being soon after the Fourth, and this too remained on the shelf for many years. Then in 1878, following a disastrous concert in which Bruckner had himself conducted the Third Symphony to a half-empty hall, he decided not to compose a new symphony but instead to revise the Fourth, and although almost all his symphonies underwent revision at some time or other, revisions to the Fourth were more radical than most. He replaced the Scherzo entirely and subjected the Finale to radical revision. The 1880 Finale is in effect a new movement. In its new form the work was played in Vienna on February 20, 1881, under Karl Richter and was well-received. At a rehearsal for this concert Bruckner gave Richter a small coin, begging him to drink his health with a glass of beer. Richter, touched, kept the coin on his key-chain ever after.
Bruckner's situation did not improve, however, despite growing fame. His later symphonies appeared at wider intervals and all were subjected to revision, sometimes by Bruckner himself, more often by well-meaning but incompetent hands, which has left a legacy of dubious editions and confused sources. The 20th century saw a series of sustained efforts to present Bruckner's works free of the depredations of other editors, and on this foundation he has come to be appreciated as a major symphonist, in the shadow of neither Wagner nor Brahms nor Mahler, but speaking eloquently with his own voice.
Bruckner's symphonic style is broad and leisurely. Haste and condensation play no part in his structures. He lays out his themes one by one and builds upon them in monumental fashion. Despite his enthusiastic admiration for Wagner, he does not call for Wagnerian immensity in his orchestration, confining himself to the size of orchestra that Beethoven had at his disposal, with no percussion and no coloristic instruments such as the harp or the English horn. Nor does he explore the complex overlapping and combination of themes, as Brahms might. The music progresses step by step, section by section, with cumulative force.
The themes that stand out are, first and foremost, the splendid horn solo that opens the work against a shimmering string background, then a five-note figure (grouped as 2 + 3) that recurs in the Finale. From time to time the brass enter in a solid phalanx, often in direct contrast to passages of lyrical writing in the strings. The second movement, in C minor, has the character of a funeral march alternating with echoes of a German chorale. It builds to a finely judged climax followed by a trail of drum taps leading to silence.
The Scherzo is the apotheosis of hunting music, with the horns in full cry, and its short trio offers gentle rustic contrast as a trio by Haydn or Beethoven might. For the Finale in this version Bruckner introduced a broad descending three-note phrase which follows a somewhat circuitous route, with plenty of contrasting material, to the grand close in which the symphony's beginning is, mightily transformed, also its end.
- Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.