Anton Bruckner: Symphony No 6 in A

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1979)
I had been making my way through Bruckner’s symphonies a few months ago. I love no. 1 (especially the scherzo, all of which I actually enjoy from Bruckner), but instead of starting from the beginning and re-listening and posting, I’ll move forward with the next one on my list, #6, which apparently caused some bewilderment and criticism upon its release. This is what the Interwebs (Wikipedia) tell me. Bruckner’s third was a disaster, he was sick for the premiere of his fifth and never heard it performed, and yet he continued to write. Let us see what he has up his sleeve for no. 6. Interestingly, the “premiere” in 1883 was only of the two middle movements, and this performance (by the Vienna philharmonic) was also the only performance of this symphony Brucky ever heard in his life. The ‘full version’ was not premiered until 1899, also with the Vienna Philharmonic, but under Gustav Mahler, who apparently made significant changes to the score. The original score (by Bruckner, and the only symphony that he himself never revised or changed) was only performed as Bruckner had written it in 1901 in Stuttgart. It is the least performed of his symphonies, to the bewilderment of a small group who do love it. This recording comes in at around 50 minutes. As I listened, I did some reading on information about Bruckner and the (maybe inevitable) comparisons to Mahler. Some praised Bruckner’s big-picture architecture, while criticizing his smaller scale note for note crafting (textures and melodies) as being a bit underwhelming. I need more time (a few more listens) to understand or analyze and grasp the structure of such a large work, but I can say I found it, on a whole, moving and stirring and enjoyable. The first movement was heroic and stirring and epic sounding, almost like film music in some places, or at least I envisioned something epic and moving… The mixed rhythm was a bit interesting. Movement two was beautiful, and interestingly also in sonata form. The scherzo was uncharacteristic of Bruckner’s scherzi, but unique and interesting. I also enjoyed the fourth movement. Not much to say, relatively speaking, about a one hour symphony. I can at least say it is unique in Bruckner’s symphonies so far and I don’t feel it deserves the reputation of being Bruckner’s “black sheep.” One must wonder though: 1. How much influence do critics have on replacing people’s first impressions with their own? I.e., would people have had such a negative impression of this piece based on an unadulterated listen, without a negative seed having been planted by critics? 2. This also brings to mind the fact that in the days before mp3s or CDs or widely available recordings or radio broadcasts, people only would have heard their “favorite song” (as we cutely refer to it today) maybe once in their lifetimes (some composers, like Bruckner, Schubert also comes to mind, never heard some of their own works performed). What would your takeaway be from only listening to a symphony one time, with the chances of ever hearing it again (as would be with most laymen) being very slim? Were audiences then more artistically minded than today? More educated than today? Or just more eager and willing to soak in the rare opportunity of hearing a symphony being played live? Or are our average audiences just too far removed from appreciating this form of music? 3. On a lighter note, Bruckner’s least-acclaimed symphony was the only one he never revised. Would it have been “improved” (changed) in any way if it had gotten a revisit? What would that revision be like? Bruckner felt this symphony to be his “boldest”, and the fact that he saw no need to revise it seems to suggest he felt it was fine as it was. This reminds me of Rachmaninoff’s defense of his third symphony as being one of his best, and his surprise that it received less than critical acclaim. I short, I liked this one.


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