Bruckner Symphony no. 1 in Cm

performed by The Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (or below in another performance I actually do enjoy [most of] by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony. [I say actually because it seems this set doesn’t come up in as many ‘best cycles’ discussions]. Other excellent options are Skrowaczewski or Wand)

This was the first place I started with Bruckner, and it seemed logical. My explorations of Schubert and Beethoven symphonies (and recently, Haydn) have been quite fruitful starting from the beginning, so that’s what I did here. Where else would one start?
Well, at a more interesting or approachable point, maybe.
I didn’t not like the first symphony the first (few) time(s) I heard it, but it was hard to wrap my head around, not because it was long or extremely complex as much as that I didn’t really know what to think about it. This had been my problem with Bruckner for a while, and, as I’ve shared here before, his music has taken considerable effort for me to open up to and come to appreciate. The recent experience hearing his monstrous eighth live was a big step in understanding the work from this extremely highly-regarded composer.
I did the sixth ages ago, and by ‘did’ I mean, I listened to the same performance of it a bunch of times in the same day and then wrote down my first impressions of something I didn’t really understand.
The most studious I’ve been with Bruckner was with his fourth for one of the German(ic) Symphony series last year, and I did come to enjoy that piece quite a lot.
I would listen to Bruckner’s first here and there when I didn’t really have any specific desire to listen to something in particular. It had enough aural mass to fill the silence for however long it played, but I usually got a bit distracted for the second and fourth movements. So I’ve had many previous encounters with this piece in the way you say hello (and almost nothing more) to a colleague one or two times a day when you pass them in the halls. “Hi, Bill.” “Hi, Tom.” That’s me and Bruckner 1.
Or it was. It annoyed me a little bit to start somewhere other than the first (excepting the pitiful effort at no. 6), but no’s 4 and 7 got the most votes when I asked around for a ‘best’ or ‘most gripping’ or ‘where to start with Bruckner’ work. So I went with the fourth, and feel that now we can go back and start with number one.
There’s also that messy business of the study symphony and no. 0, which, I suppose, we will get to some time later; count them as the behind-the-scenes/extra footage of Bruckner’s oeuvre.
The first movement, for just a split second, feels like the opening of Mahler’s sixth. It begins with a heartbeat, strings enter politely, and then it quickly spins into a big giant wall of sound, as it seems happens with many Bruckner symphonies. The first movement is quite enjoyable. It’s energetic, has a nice lyrical contrasting second subject, and isn’t too hard to follow.
The second movement opens in a way I would almost describe as ominous, but makes a few
twists and turns, presents what feels to me almost like an American spiritual before presenting a sunnier theme. It reaches its first big glorious climax a few minutes in (about four and a half, if you’re enjoying Karajan), and the theme that comes after it is downright pleasant. It’s obviously the most subdued of the four, but… as beautiful as a few of the climaxes in this movement are, I have to say that it kind of epitomizes the way I personally feel about much of Bruckner’s music, but we’ll get there a bit later. It’s a pretty movement.
The third movement is probably one of my favorite Bruckner scherzos. It’s almost circusy in the way it jumps and dances and gallops. A very dark circus, towering, and slightly violent. It’s really very captivating. That bustling, busy jumping-through-hoops theme gets played twice with a contrasting quieter section to it, then this wild ABA part has a much quieter C section before the ABA returns. It’s all very triply and dramatic, and I think it’s kind of hard not to appreciate this movement. It’s easily the most straightforward of the four. Solti’s reading of this movement is phenomenally quick, so quick I don’t enjoy listening to it now. It was the first recording of this piece that I got used to, and the others seemed slow at the time, but Karajan’s (or others’) heavier, more paced approach has more weight and impact, and I like that much more; it feels more effective.
It seems rare that I like fourth movements as much as first movements. Perhaps it’s just that they’re more challenging stuck at the end of a piece this long. In any case, what gripped me originally about this symphony was the first movement and the scherzo, but the more I began to listen to this piece, the more the finale gripped me… It really seemed to have something commanding it was determined to say, at least from the beginning… Then it kept going. It’s nice music, but… again, more below.
The first, second and fourth movements are all of pretty close to equal length, depending on the performance obviously, but pretty consistently getting 20-30 seconds longer with each movement (excluding the scherzo, which is five-ish minutes shorter). This makes the first symphony more approachable than some of his others, like the eighth, which I recently heard with two movements easily each over twenty minutes in length. There’s nothing of such bulk here, but the general feel is one of Bruckner.

Two things. 

There’s lots of talk about how these first three symphonies (1-3, not the even earlier 0 and 00) are not ‘mature Bruckner.’ That’s not to say they’re ‘immature,’ but that they’re not indicative of the mature, more fully-developed composer and his style. The suggestion from most to come to know the fourth or seventh as introductions to Bruckner seems also reflect this opinion. That being said, I can’t say I notice a demonstrable difference between the first in fourth, as if the composer had made some enormous strides in style or form or some huge artistic innovation. I don’t see it. I’m sure there are things that show he had matured or refined his style or craft, but… without digging into scores or doing lots of research, as a (slightly more than) casual listener, they don’t jump out at me.
The second thing, and something that it seems a large group of people may agree with, and a possibly just as large but far more ardent group would disagree with, is the potential… dare I say it… boringness of Bruckner’s music. As contradictory as that may sound, it isn’t necessarily a criticism… I just feel like… the structure and detail of his symphonies are so (so what?) focused… strong, set, concrete, that they become the focus… his themes and the serious attention given to structures and arcs, both large and small, throughout the piece… that’s fine, but what I DON’T feel I get from this music, as much as I would like to, is a sense of narrative…. something that tells me a story. It tells me a structure, a very rigid, even pleasant structure with its themes and contrasting ideas and all that, but the only passion that really stands out to me… in many ways, is a composer striving for a kind of musical ideal, his idea of perfection, of form and formalities.
I hate to compare the two, or really Bruckner with anyone, but a Mahler symphony… it tells me a story. It grips me and pulls me along. Even something as long and bulky and epic as the third holds my attention for ever bar. To be honest, in most ways, I care almost nothing about the form, the blueprint of the piece. Mahler knew how to use those ideas, how to treat his themes, but they weren’t the focus. I do thoroughly love the way the first movement of his third is laid out. It’s brilliant, but even without understanding or identifying that structure, the third (and the second and the fourth and fifth and sixth, etc.) have such strong narratives to them that not only are they made up of beautiful and/or powerful, terrifying, heart-wrenching, unique music, they bring me somewhere, tell me something, have a point, they are an experience. The example I wanted to share about the second movement is that… while it’s pretty while I’m listening to it, on most occasions listening to this symphony, or thinking back about it having finished it, I find the second movement to be almost completely un-memorable… I have had to go back on multiple occasions and make mental notes about different places or things about it, and I feel that way, for some reason or other about much of Bruckner’s music. While the listening is fine, I don’t find there to be much emotional experience registering with me, and when I do, it’s a bit forced. I make a conscious effort to make a mental note about this or that part, and I can’t put my finger on what I haven’t gotten about his music that makes it not speak to me.
That being said, I had chills and was very moved by some very big, intense passages in the eighth when I saw it live, but that impulse to a tragic or beautiful or thundering passage is only momentary. It’s an awe at the bigness or shock of something, one of the slices of memory that should make up the larger whole.
I didn’t expect to come into the discussion of this piece and end up so negative, but I’ve listened to this piece so many times on and off for quite a long time, and listened to many different recordings and versions, let it wash over me doing other things, sat and focused on it, made notes while I was listening… I’ve really tried. And while many Brucknerites would say ‘the first isn’t where it’s at,’ I had much the same experience with the fourth.
I read a post on a classical music forum that was no less than absolutely scathing, stating Bruckner’s music was entirely devoid of feeling or emotion or talent or passion or anything redeeming as enjoyable music, and while I am by no means willing to go that far, in my frustration to come to be passionate about Bruckner’s music, I have to say reading that was a relief.
To put it simply, in listening to so much other music from Bruckner’s era (or before or after), a listener might feel like he gets some idea of what the composer was feeling or thinking or trying to convey, what was ‘going through his mind’ in a piece. There are deceivingly cheerful pieces, like Schumann’s second or Mozart’s clarinet concerto, but one feels at least to some extent like they ‘get’ the composer… maybe? One may feel that way with Bruckner after listening to a symphony of his… but then listen to another, and another and another… and then I begin to feel like I have ZERO idea what this man is trying to convey except that he was an organist and loved Wagner and Beethoven’s ninth.
See you next week.

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