Anton Bruckner 1824-1896
( Originally Published 1935 )
Symphony No. 7, in E major
I. Allegro moderato
II. Adagio: Sehr feierlich and langsarn
III. Scherzo: Sehr schnell; Trio: Etwas hangsamer
IV. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht schnell
The question of the value of Bruckner's symphonies has divided musical opinion ever since these symphonies were composed. Frequent post-mortems have been conducted in their honor, but these have proved immature. The Bruckner symphonies have a way of remaining in the repertory. It is something of a testimonial to him that hour-long compositions, without cuts, by a composer who remains outside the pale of the conversationally entertaining, continue to be heard and acclaimed by at least considerable elements of modern audiences. The Bruckner symphonies are nine in number, and they have different characteristics within the confines of their immense but by no means entirely cohesive structures. The music is prevailingly Wagnerian in texture, and also power-fully impregnated with the spirit of the German chorale. They are tremendous fragments rather than completed monuments. Because of their musical and spiritual essence they are precious. Where Franck was Belgian, Bruckner was German in his mysticism, with-out Franck's clarity and lucidity of thought, or subtlety in modulation.
We need not deny that the Seventh symphony, like all Bruckner's symphonic conceptions, would gain in clarity and effectiveness if it lasted forty instead of sixty minutes. In addition, it is uneven and in places disjointed. At one moment Bruckner prophesies like John of Patmos; at the next he may lose the thread of his discourse. Nevertheless, his music is that of heavenly spaces.
Bruckner, whose behavior, at times, was that of a humble and subservient peasant, had his convictions, which he expressed in his inimitable way. One day he said to a friend: "I think that if Beethoven were alive, and I should go to him with my Seventh symphony and say, Here, Mr. Beethoven, this is not so bad, this Seventh, as certain gentlemen would make out,'—I think he would take me by the hand and say, `My dear Bruckner, never mind, I had no better luck; and the same men who hold me 'against you even now do not understand my last quartets, although they act as if they understood them.' Then I'd say, `Excuse me, Mr. van Beethoven, that I have gone beyond you in freedom of form, but I think a true artist should make his own forms and stick by them.' " And stick by them Bruckner did.
Of the. four movements of the Seventh symphony the slow movement is the most famous. It has had especial attention because of a public belief, which seems misleading on the face of the actual evidence, that the composer intended the movement as a dirge in memory of Richard Wagner. This story has been given credence by Bruckner himself, who once wrote the conductor Felix Mottl, of the slow movement, "Please take a very slow and solemn tempo. At the close, in the Dirge (in memory of the death of the Master), think of our ideal," and in scoring this pass-age Bruckner used the tubas which Wagner had employed with such magnificent effect in operas of the "Ring of the Nibelungs," and which had made a sensation in Bayreuth. But the fact is that the letter to Mottl was written in 1885; that Wagner died in 1883; and that, according to the best evidence, the slow movement of the symphony was completed by Bruckner in 1882, five months before Wagner's death. Bruckner said nothing about Wagner when the symphony was first performed, under Nikisch, in his presence. In 1900, eight years later, he wrote Mottl: "At one time I came home and was very sad; I thought to myself, it is impossible that the Master can live for a long time; and then the Adagio in C sharp minor came into my head." One wonders. Bruckner was preeminently an honest and simple man, and yet all of us have ways of persuading ourselves that at a certain time we thought this or that, or did something from a different motive than actually animated us at the moment. It matters little what circumstances led to the composition of the Adagio, any more than it matters that Beethoven had Napoleon in mind when he began to write the "Eroica" symphony. Bruckner's epical funeral march, like Beethoven's, is of universal meaning. To narrow its significance is to make it smaller and less profound. Beethoven, Bruckner—and how many' others!—have suffered from conceptions of little men, prone to find in the expressions of great souls something that reflected the limitations of themselves!
Think of Bruckner's Iife. Like Schubert, he was one of a large and poor Austrian family, of humble birth and miserable circumstances. In his youth, teaching school, and. playing the organ for seventy-five cents a month, he nearly starved. He tried to eke out a living by fiddling for dances and weddings. The musical training 'he needed as composer was denied him till comparatively late. When he was thirty-seven he was studying theory and orchestration, and was over forty when he composed his first symphony. Nevertheless, when he was examined for his skill in counterpoint by a committee of three, the conductor Anton Herbeck—the same who discovered the score of Schubert's "Unfinished" symphony—said, "It is he who 'should examine us"; and Bruckner lived to teach theory and composition and lecture on these and other subjects at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. A dreamer, he stumbled awkwardly, with groping hands and shining face toward God.