Composed: 1884-1887, rev. 1887-1890
Length: c. 80 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 8 horns (4 = Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 23, 1961, William Steinberg conducting
Critical and popular approval arrived for Anton Bruckner in 1884, his 60th year, with the enthusiastic reception accorded his Seventh Symphony when it was introduced at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert conducted by Arthur Nikisch. The composer, after years of opposition from the musical establishment - particularly from the partisans of Brahms in their battles with the adherents of Wagner - was ready to be regarded as his own man rather than an anti-Brahmsian or a Wagnerian.
A change in Bruckner’s concept of sonority enters with the Seventh, and is maintained in the two succeeding, and final, symphonies. While the characteristic Bruckner “organ sonorities” remain (Bruckner and his contemporary César Franck were the first important composers since J.S. Bach whose primary instrument was the organ), there is now a heightened emphasis on the dark, rich sonorities of low brass, including in all three works a quartet of so-called Wagner tubas, a cross between the tuba and French horn.
The success of the Seventh did wonders for Bruckner’s fragile self-esteem, so much so that he embarked with unprecedented determination on what would be his largest symphonic creation, the Eighth Symphony.
The Eighth occupied Bruckner for three years, whereupon the score was sent to the conductor Hermann Levi, who had been entrusted by Wagner with the Bayreuth Parsifal premiere in 1882 at which, incidentally, Bruckner was in the audience. Bruckner had found in Levi what he thought would be his ultimate champion. Levi had, after all, also led his Te Deum in Munich and had helped raise funds for the publication of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. Levi was, however, completely bewildered by the Eighth Symphony and rejected it.
It was the great tragedy of Bruckner’s life that he valued too many opinions too highly, and would act on them to his own detriment. In this instance, Levi’s rejection plunged the composer into profound depression. The final consequence, however, was not artistic paralysis, but a manic need to re-write, not only the Eighth, but his first five numbered symphonies, which were substantially revised between 1887 and 1891.
Whether the changes in the Eighth reflect Levi’s views - it seems that he did not so much suggest revising the symphony as scrapping it - we don’t know. What is clear is that Bruckner did away with the first movement’s loud coda in favor of the present soft one, ending the movement as it had begun, in mystery, and he wrote an entirely new trio for the scherzo. Finally, at the behest of the conductor Franz Schalk, the composer overhauled both the slow movement and the finale.
All of this resulted in three different versions of the Symphony, bringing us to the thorny subject of Bruckner “editions.” To touch on the matter as lightly as possible, the scholarly edition conducted by Lorin Maazel is by Leopold Nowak, published in 1955 and based on Bruckner’s 1890 version. For further clarification, the reader is referred to the late Deryck Cooke’s essay on the composer in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Vienna, where Bruckner had lived, embattled, often scorned, was the scene of the Eighth Symphony’s premiere the week before Christmas, 1892. The conductor was yet another eminent Wagnerian, Hans Richter; the orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, playing in the Musikverein, its home to this day. The Eighth, like its predecessor, was a success. Portions of the music even won a kind of grudging approval from the waspish critic Eduard Hanslick. “A stormy ovation,” Hanslick wrote, “waving of handkerchiefs from the standees, innumerable recalls, laurel wreaths. For Bruckner, the concert was certainly a triumph. Whether Richter performed a similar favor for his audience is doubtful. The program seems to have been presented only for the sake of a noisy minority.” The composer Hugo Wolf, on the other hand, wearing his critic's hat and writing in the fashionable Wiener Salonblatt, called it “the creation of a giant, surpassing in spiritual dimension and magnitude all the other symphonies of the master.”
If the Eighth is, like the others, Wagnerian in its sonority, its architecture is derived from Beethoven, most notably his Ninth Symphony. Bruckner’s Symphony, like Beethoven’s, begins with a murmurous, misty “background,” out of which emerges a vast construct, with three major thematic subjects. The principal theme is based on two rhythmic motifs, the first dotted (a sort of motto, heard throughout the Symphony), the second among the composer's most frequently employed figures, two quarter notes followed by a triplet. There’s a gorgeously arching second theme, in G, then a third, in E-flat minor, whose billowing crescendos take the exposition to its climax. The development is, considering the richness of its content and the size of the entire Symphony, remarkably compact.
Wolf regarded this opening movement as “simply shattering, destroying every attempt at criticism.” One should nonetheless point out, among many memorable moments, the grand climax of the recapitulation, with trumpets and horns thundering out the dotted rhythm of the main theme ten times, an episode Bruckner referred to as “the announcement of death,” followed by a tense silence and three pianissimo timpani rolls.
The scherzo, a ferocious, menacing dance, is placed second, a practice initiated by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. It is predicated on a repeated five-note figure (C, E-flat, F, G, G) that pounds itself into the brain, as Bruckner scholar Robert Simpson noted in his The Essence of Bruckner, like “the constant thud of a colossal celestial engine beyond even Milton’s imagining.”
The vast Adagio is to many observers Bruckner’s crowning achievement (he thought so himself) - whose design, rather than its harmonies or thematic content, resembles, again, the comparable movement in Beethoven’s Ninth. The opening material, which couldn’t have been written without the precedent of the “Liebesnacht” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is contrasted by an even more heart-rending theme, announced by the cellos.
The fourth movement is music of intense cumulative energy which, to quote Simpson again, “is the greatest specimen of Bruckner’s new kind of finale… The best way to appreciate its grandeur… is to imagine some great architect wandering in and about his own cathedral, sometimes stirred and exhilarated, sometimes stock-still in rapt thought.” The coda, in blazing C major, reviews the opening themes of all four movements, while summoning up visions of the Rheingold finale: the gods crossing the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla.
After serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Opera, followed by a long-term relationship with the Los Angeles Times as a critic/columnist, Herbert Glass has for the past decade-plus been English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.