Bruckner Symphony no. 4 in Eb major, ‘Romantic’ (Haas, 1881)
performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm (1973 recording), or below with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Claudio Abbado
So did I have that epiphany (from Tuesday’s post)? I think I may have. It seems there comes some point where you hear something (or everything) you didn’t hear in the 100 previous listenings, and then… you can never really go back and unhear it, kind of like that GIF of the spinning ballerina girl in silhouette spinning left or right, or the image of the beautiful young woman or the old hag: once you see it one way, it can be very difficult to unsee it. That’s my thought.
not my image
Again, Let’s just put Bruckner in the context of part three of our German(ic) symphonies. He’s the third post, and the second Austrian in the mix, with only one actual German so far (Beethoven). We didn’t do his pastoral, but Brahms got his pastoral in, and now Bruckner does… sortofkindof. The two composers had their issues, and Bruckner was clearly in the Wagner camp, but as I mentioned on Tuesday, if there had to be a fourth B, it would be Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner. I say that not because I love his music (yet), but solely because he played such an enormous role in musical history of the time (as later would another Austrian!). So that’s where he fits into the mix. And both he and Brahms will continue to reach out into next week’s post as we continue an interesting little thread of musical history. Stay. Tuned. I had kind of hoped this one occasion would help me really hear the piece. It was a long drive up into the mountains to film part of a movie with a crew I was part of. The picture inlast week’s article (two links!) was taken at our destination. The scenery was beautiful, the air was clear, and riding through and into mountains and tunnels was wonderful. Perhaps that setting would put this kind of music into context. I felt perhaps like I understood it better, but it still wasn’t an eye-opener. It was the beginning though. Again, words like ‘majestic’ and ‘towering’ come to mind with Bruckner’s music, and riding through the mountains covered in fog on a dirt road with valleys and trees and the landscape… it felt like maybe that’s how this music should feel, and sure enough (this sounds so cliche) it sounded different after that listen.
Also, my modus operandi for these kind of … early listens is often just brute force. Listen
listen listen listen listen. With some skill and attention and practical knowledge, a person can cleanly and neatly pick a lock and get at whatever is behind it. Or, you could just beat the hell out of it until it gives in. I’m the latter. At least at first. If I come in blind (like I did with Mahler’s fifth), I really have zero idea what’s going on. As I mentioned last week with Mahler’s works, I didn’t listen in any kind of order, chronological or otherwise, but I did notice that the pieces got easier and easier to ‘learn,’ and I can’t imagine it was because the latter few I decided to listen to were just more approachable. After the fifth and second and first, the others came easier. The sixth is just.. big, as is the third, but the fourth was a snap, really, as was, surprisingly enough, the seventh. The eighth also is just enormous. Anyway, enough about Mahler. What I mean to say is that after some point, you get over the learning curve and begin to catch up, and that hopefully makes the other pieces in the oeuvre fundamentally somewhat more familiar. Maybe.
To be honest, I’m still grappling a bit with this piece (at the time of that writing; this post was written in phases, stops and starts, and by the end, a few days before posting, I was close to a convert). I have no intentions of beating it into submission until it’s my favorite musical thing; I have no such hopes. I do, however, want to come to understand it, and for whatever reason, I feel like I haven’t understood it until I begin to appreciate it, which I also associate with liking it. People are different. Sometimes I feel I don’t understand people, and I want to. And then sometimes I realize there’s just nothing to understand, or nothing worth understanding. This is different. I want to get it.
This is a long symphony. I somehow didn’t expect that… I get it from Mahler, and all the parts and pieces are clear and don’t often seem to be drawn out, even in his half-hour movements. There are two movements here around twenty minutes each, depending on the recording, and the length of these two together (the first and last movements) being longer than many entire symphonies. The two middle movements aren’t super long, to be honest.
I had to take this piece movement by movement. Along with that is the “Bruckner problem.” Which edition? Many of the recordings I have or have listened to are of the Nowak edition of 1953 (Celibidache, Solti, Chailly, Skrowaczewski, Maazel ), but the recording I fwas most familiar with is Karajan’s, which is of the Haas, as is Böhm’s recording I referenced. I tried to set that aside… as to me, the horn in the recapitulation or whatever other differences to me are less significant than the interpretation of what is in the score, whichever score it is. I’m not going to get into all that, because I don’t fully understand it (or frankly… care?), but it’s all very nicely laid out on the Wikipedia page.
I had hopes that in listening to Maazel, Karajan, Barenboim (1880 version? Listed on the same Wikipedia page above as unpublished), Celibidache, or Chailly, I would hear something I didn’t in Solti, hoping it was Chicago’s fault. Solti’s cycle seems not often to appear in “best-of” lists, so I was thinking perhaps Karajan would show me what this guy is all about. And after many readings, honestly, they all sound…. Similar-ish. This again, admittedly, is probably my fault. I am intensely picky about my Mahler recordings, and have listened literally hundreds of times to different performances, and they’re all different; each has a voice, a story, a form of expression or a certain quality, each expression and individual sound extracted from each different ensemble, crafted by the conductor. Bruckner is just… Big and towering and polished and … Aside from tempos or something, I don’t really recall having any eureka moments whatsoever aside from some of the more noticeable qualities of the actual orchestras.
All that aside, after the almost-eye-opening listen to Karajan and Berlin in the mountains, my next listen was at my desk the day after I’d finished with Brahms’ second, and it felt… familiar, and strikingly more beautiful. But still not my favorite. I would get a lot of flak for this I think if professionals were to read or hear me say this… but I feel like Bruckner’s drama and beauty is… ack, I don’t know, in his contrasts (the enormously toweringly loud and then not), his religious obedience to structure (as far as I can tell), and his gorgeous harmonies. To me. And I know this is wrong and oversimplified and biased and perhaps offensive, but it’s like… each symphony was just using those things in a different way. Anyway, those are the things I most notice about him and the works I’ve heard so far, and about this symphony, so let’s talk about it.
The movement opens with shimmering tremolo strings and what is likely the most Austrian thing in the history of ever: a horn call (sort of). It’s in so much music, not all of it actually Austrian, but Strauss and Mahler and Brahms and Beethoven and Schumann (as far as I recall) all make use of this like, sound effect. That’s what opens the piece, and it’s not long before we hear the Bruckner rhythm, his crotchet-crotchet-triplet thing, first ascending then descending, in the glory of the full, roaring ensemble. The horn and the Bruckner rhythm both are both important in this symphony, each having specific roles and almost being themes in and of themselves.
Anyway, what we hear is triumphant and majestic, and that’s our first theme. The second is a cute, playful (at least relatively speaking) little ditty led by the violins and other strings. It feels like animals in the trees, or children playing amid the hustle and bustle of adults doing grown up things in the town square. There’s a flute solo. There’s also some difference between versions in the recapitulation, as I understand. In one, the opening horn call is retained, in another, absent. This movement has all the things I’ve kind of come to associate with Bruckner: roaring brass, lush strings, his eponymous rhythm, towering sounds, beautiful harmonies, and structure. It’s a confident, strong opening to the ‘Romantic’ symphony, and if you let the music kind of take you away without thinking about it too much, I feel like it’s showing different parts of this bustling village in preparation for a hunt (or whatever the program was to contain). The program seems not to have stuck with the symphony, and Bruckner didn’t even stick with the program, the finale not having any notations or ideas associated with it, but for now, I feel like the first movement is our introduction, setting the stage, showing us around, and there’s plenty here to learn from.
The second movement is also gorgeous. It’s referred to as “song, prayer, serenade” in the meagre program notes that exist, but to me… it sounds almost like the most blissfully happy funeral march that ever existed. It’s not mournful or sorrowful, but it has a certain beautiful melancholy and heartbeat to it, the great majority of which (well, at least the beginning of the theme) reminds me of the Trauermarsch of Beethoven’s third. It’s not overtly anything like that, but it feels so similar to me. Even the slight suggestion is strong enough and almost more satisfying than an outright funeral march. This is the piece’s slow movement, and perhaps that solemnity comes from the “prayer” portion of the program. Perhaps it’s putting things in perspective, remembering the past, and having hope for the future. When I think of that kind of Chivalric romance, I think of a time in European history where life was hard, even for the nobility, and part of the heroism, to me, was that in some sense or other, death was kind of always around some corner. Be it a freak accident, pestilence, starvation, war, betrayal, whatever… and family heads riding off to find food or protect the castle or whatever.. think of all that, and perhaps the solemness of this movement makes more sense, instead of a funeral march. Lots of strings, pizzicato and bowed, are warm and flowing and rich, and winds melt in and out of the main themes. Is it just me or are clarinet, oboe and flute, like that renaissance baroque sounding trio in this movement at times? Horns play their role here, and the entire thing just flows like water. It’s almost mesmerizing.
The third movement (the scherzo) is the hunting song, with the trio serving as entertainment for the hunters midday. It’s one of my least favorite of Bruckner’s scherzos that I’m familiar with. I love the scherzi of the first and third symphonies. They’re almost frighteningly lively and big.
This one opens similarly to the first, with shining strings and horns (I told you), but it builds to a fanfare-like call and we are on the hunt. It’s lively and exciting and feels heroic and adventurous and all that. There’s a quieter, more string-laden subject after this big opening, pizzicato and all, and it almost sounds like scurrying animals, but not in a gruesome way. The fanfare returns. It actually sounds like a hunters’ question-and-answer, shouting back and forth on the hunt. The trio enters, and while the program mentions a barrel organ, I envisioned something more like an accordion, but it is a quieter, less intense break from the hunt we just witnessed, pleasant and restful. It sounds spring-like, in just some ways cliche-ishly like the opening of Peer Gynt. But it’s not, but it reminded me of that. In any case, it’s done before long (I guess they don’t really need to rest for too long), and all the hunt business returns and the movement is over.
The fourth movement opens with some of the most ominous-sounding, dramatic music of the whole symphony. For just a split second, it sounds like the opening of Mahler’s sixth, but only in passing. It’s similar in form to the other movements: nervous strings and building brass. It builds energy with a whole-note melody in the horns (horns!) that spreads through the orchestra and gets progressively faster (half note, quarter note…) until the three-note rhythm completely ignores the time signature and everything goes into a frenzy and climbs up to a towering, kind of epic height and jumps off, and then TIMPANI….
It’s spectacular! Except that it seems like there are a lot of these kinds of moments in his music. This perhaps isn’t an uncommon expression, but it’s crunchy and big and gnarly. This movement is also in sonata form. Of course.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning again at this junction that we are out of the program at this point. The hunt is over. There wasn’t anything in mind for the finale. What’s left?
This dramatic beginning theme ends triumphantly, and a truly stunningly beautiful string melody takes center stage as the second subject. It feels like some of the material from the first movement is being, not replayed or imitated, but kind of reminisced over. The string theme is playful-ish and the Bruckner theme shows its face again. There’s something about this bit in high woodwinds marked belebter (busier) that sounds …. Exotic or foreign and ear-catching. It’s immediately then marked noch etwas belebter, and it’s this string theme that kind of reminds me of what we heard in the first movement. It keeps getting busier, and that exotic theme shows up again in full orchestra at the F mark. Would we expect anything less than a 20+minute sonata-form finale from Bruckner?
This is actually the movement that gave me the most trouble. It’s long and complicated and involved. I’m not going to get involved with it, but I learned a lot (that I can’t remember anymore) about how this final movement is constructed from this article here. That there is some serious analysis.
What struck me the most from all of it was how pretty much the entire … Well, everything in this symphony all comes from ideas or material presented in the previous three movements. The harmonies, rhythms, intervals, themes, keys, everything. It’s all been presented before, and is just… Reinvented. I would say recycled, but that makes it sound haphazard or inferior. It’s an amazing movement, but really sticks super strictly to the bounds of what’s been presented already. What is amazing to me about this (in reading about it, not listening to it, or most of it; I can’t say that I hear all of this, but some of it I do) is how each of these separate, seemingly unrelated ideas can be sewn together and an entirely new movement compiled, one that stands on its own, supports its own weight, and holds the listener’s interest. It feels familiar enough to suggest the relationships, but not so familiar as to feel regurgitated or boring. In that respect, I can appreciate the man’s genius.
With ALL the constraints put on this piece, the intervals from the horn’s opening three notes coming from one movement, the instrumentation from others, the harmonies, rhythms, etc., it would seem there is very little to work with to make everything ‘fit’ together… very little room to move, as it were. One could see how perhaps this entire symphony was contrived from the finale, the three preceding movements extracted from the fibers of what comes last, but it is even more impressive to have built three strong movements of a program and lastly, to weave them into the framework of a finale grand closing movement. Perhaps that in itself is the program material for this movement: the culmination of the first three, the great epic, all-encompassing finale.
As to recordings, I mentioned earlier that I was enamored with Solti’s recording (perhaps mostly due to Chicago’s famous brass sound), but also quite loved Karajan’s performance with Berlin and their strings and that ever-so-obvious portamento, to the point that I missed its presence in other recordings. It’s like silk. Or butter. I had heard (read) about the perfection of Böhm’s recording with Vienna, and it seemed to have the perfect balance of all of these: the roaring brass, perfect strings, and enough contrast and sound quality to keep the piece alive for its entire length. It won me over, but there really wasn’t a bad version I listened to, I suppose.
To be honest, I was a little perplexed when I realized I was starting to enjoy this symphony. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I didn’t want to enjoy it, but I had, for some time at least, the feeling that Bruckner wasn’t for me, and I was actually okay with that. But now that it’s like, “Oh, I get it,” I’m perhaps acknowledging that I was wrong before. Maybe? I’m okay with that too. It happens a lot. It’s also that I was almost maybe kind of sure that there was a composer I didn’t like. Not everyone can like everything, right? But it seems I may have come around and warmed up to Bruckner.
And how has that happened? Well, maybe I was cheating. I found a narrative that I can understand and grafted it onto the music, letting it serve as a map. Maybe that’s it. This huge, sprawling mass that seemed featureless and overwhelming from afar needs detail and definition, and finding that helps. Or I’m too much of a musical simpleton to appreciate what he’s doing here.
Mahler, perhaps is the opposite way: enormous in scope, for sure, but also perhaps overwhelming in size and detail and material. The storylines and expressions are so clear and so definitive and (at least for me) the narrative is so strong. It’s individuality in a different way. That made sense in my head.
I thought of this piece in those terms: Bruckner’s pastoral symphony, one with clear program notes and a story that could help me understand it, and that’s good. I’ve really taken a 180 with this piece. I didn’t detest it before, and I don’t love it now, so that still kind of counts as a 180.
But seriously, I don’t know that I can afford to have another Mahler-like obsession in my library or rotation or wheelhouse or whatever. Mahler is at once thrilling and exhausting enough as it is. Will Bruckner be that way? I have no idea, but we’ll see what happens when I get around to another of his pieces. That could be a while.
I haven’t done this before, but here are some other links I read over in preparation for this, but didn’t quote or use above:
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