Length: c. 70 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 4 Wagner tubas, tuba, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 19, 1936, Otto Klemperer conducting
In the pantheon of 19th-century composers, Anton Bruckner holds a unique if not enigmatic place. Widely known as a composer of symphonies at a time when the music drama and the symphonic poem were all the rage, this heir to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony managed to avoid the infusion of literary concerns that so influenced the Romantics. That Bruckner should recognize the purely absolute music of the symphonic genre to be his ideal, resulting from his encounter with the music of the arch literary composer Richard Wagner, is one of history’s supreme ironies. It was a hearing of Wagner’s opera Tannhauser in Linz in 1863 at the age of 39 that initiated Bruckner’s inward path to self-discovery. Wagner, the master of harmonic innovation, was the key to artistic freedom.
Up to this time in his career, Bruckner had been a perennial student of music theory. After securing a position as organist at the cathedral at Linz at the age of 31 in December of 1855, he set himself on a path of intense theoretical studies (by way a correspondence course with rigorous exams once a year in Vienna) with the then-renowned Austrian theorist Simon Sechter. Under the tuition of Sechter, from 1856-1861, Bruckner became an expert in strict counterpoint and harmony. Upon completion of these studies, at age 37 he felt compelled to acquire full expertise in symphonic form and orchestration, which he did with Otto Kitzler, principal cellist and occasional conductor at the Linz Municipal Theater. (Kitzler was also the conductor of the Tannhäuser performance that was revelatory to Bruckner.) Wagner’s example showed that a composer could break the rules of harmonic progression drilled into him by Sechter and still create a work of genius. Bruckner had found a new master from which to learn, at the age of 41.
Bruckner became a great composer nearly overnight. As a consequence of this encounter with Wagner he immediately began to compose his first significant works of instrumental music, his first three symphonies, under the spell of this master. Bruckner’s individuality and steadfast assuredness proved effective in his not being overwhelmed by the theatrical values of Wagner’s operatic work, but by the sonority of his orchestration and perhaps the musical filling of great swaths of time.
The Symphony No. 7 was Bruckner’s memorial monument to Wagner. Much of the Symphony had been completed when he attended a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth in July 1882. That was to be his last meeting with Wagner, who died in February of 1883.
The first movement opens with a theme first heard in horn and cellos that emerges out of a hushed, sustained dyad accompaniment in the violins. Two more important themes ensue, followed by a development and coda. The Adagio begins with music for four Wagner tubas (the first appearance of these instruments in symphonic music). The movement consists of two contrasting themes, each one given to elaboration. Bruckner was at work on this movement when he heard of Wagner’s death in Venice.
The Scherzo, with its rustic atmosphere brings contrasting comic relief to the intensity of the Adagio. The first theme of the finale shares the basic outline of the first theme of the first movement. The link between the two movements is further enhanced by the return of the Symphony’s first theme in the fanfares of the closing measures.
Composer Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.