Composed: 1866; rev. 1890–91
Length: c. 49 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 11, 1971, Claudio Abbado conducting (Vienna version)
About this Piece
There are few composers in the history of Western music who pursued the study of the mechanics of their craft as doggedly as did Bruckner. He literally never stopped studying counterpoint and harmony; and his fascination with the nuts-and-bolts aspects of music caused him to interrupt his own composing for lengthy periods during which he sought the counsel of the leading pedagogues of his native Austria.
The amazing thing about Bruckner’s music is that it never sounds like the product of rigorous training. The seeming free-associative elements in which it abounds are, we realize today, the products of a thorough assimilation of the techniques employed by his predecessors and the resultant freedom to vary them in order to create a personal style.
Yet, throughout his long creative life, Bruckner remained unconvinced of his talents and the thoroughness of his education. He never believed in the completeness of his absorption of the techniques of those composers he revered: Beethoven, Schubert, and, later, Wagner. Thus he was constantly revising his own works or allowing well-intentioned friends, who did not grasp the uniqueness of his talent, to revise them for him.
A case in point is the still little-known First Symphony. The work was completed in 1866, when Bruckner was 42 years old and living in the Austrian city of Linz. The Urfassung of the First is therefore known as the “Linz Edition.” In 1890, with the bulk of his creative effort behind him, he decided to “polish” the First.
Bruckner made the fatal error of applying to this comparatively early creation (prior to the First, his efforts were mostly in the field of liturgical music) all the acquired mastery of a quarter-century of study and composition. The impetuosity of the “Linz Edition” was all but refined away.
Thus we have two complete, often wildly dissimilar versions of the First: the 1866 “Linz” and the 1890–91 “Vienna” editions, both in Bruckner’s manuscript. The composer’s first thoughts represent what we all want of a composer: inspiration and originality, warts and all; therefore, the Urfassungen are now generally considered to be the echt Bruckner editions.
The First Symphony offers a few of the distinguishing characteristics of the Bruckner style, but, naturally, in embryonic form: an overall structure loosely derived from Beethoven’s Ninth, i.e., outer movements of matching intensity, an extended slow movement, and a weighty, rather than frivolous, scherzo with a folksy trio. The instrumentation owes much to the Wagnerian expansion of instrumental sonority, particularly as regards the brass.
Another “sound” which was to become a Bruckner characteristic is suggested in the First Symphony: the “cathedral sonority,” a dramatic pause after the conclusion of a loud, brassy statement, bringing to mind the reverberant tones of an organ in a vaulted Gothic cathedral. (Bruckner, it should be remembered, was one of the finest organists of his time.)
The Bruckner hallmarks notably absent from the First are his beloved repeated four-bar phrases, mysterious movement-opening tremolandi, and those stupefying brass-dominated codas born of his first enthralled exposure to the final pages of Wagner’s Rheingold.
Here, the opening is highly dramatic: a grim, marching succession of quarter notes, quite unlike anything to be found in the music of Bruckner’s symphonic predecessors. The march is of vague tonality, its tramping motion almost imperceptibly broadening into the movement’s principal allegro theme, in C minor. After this theme has been fully stated (a classic sonata-form course is still being pursued) and we are prepared for the development, Bruckner pulls a whopping, tradition-shattering surprise by introducing a majestic new theme in the trombones. A full-scale development of the allegro material follows, and it is not until this has been completed that an “orthodox” second subject appears and, finally, a brief coda.
The Adagio also begins with a groping for discernible tonality. The composer eventually settles into a flowing cantabile theme in A-flat that is perhaps the Symphony’s most memorable melody.
The first movement was more or less in C minor, the Adagio in A-flat. The Scherzo is in G minor. And so we see another Bruckner pattern emerging: key relationships between movements based on dramatic effect rather than prescribed classical order. A-flat followed by G minor must have caused some consternation among the work’s few 19th-century hearers. Otherwise, the Scherzo is organized in classical terms, with a particularly appealing, delicately scored trio.
The present Finale is the only one in a Bruckner symphony that begins allegro and fortissimo. This abrupt, fiercely energetic movement, with its agitated coda, is filled with harmonic surprises and reminiscent of the finale of Schubert’s “Great” C-major Symphony, a work that Bruckner had long held in almost worshipful esteem. ―Excerpted from program notes by Herbert Glass