performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
That’s a mouthful, but it’s likely who I’ll feature in the rest of my Bruckner symphony articles. I’ll get to why on Thursday. For now, this.
… much about the work betrays the style of the times, but Bruckner’s own mode of expression can already be recognized in a number of other traits.
Leopold Nowak, in the preface to Anton Bruckner: Sämtliche Werke: Band 10: Studiensymphonie F-Moll: Studienpartitur
Double-zero, eh? Well, we’ve talked before about the Bruckner Problem, and while it isn’t actually relevant to this symphony, it’s worth mentioning. The double-zero was essentially a homework exercise “under Otto Kitzler‘s instruction in form and orchestration”, says Wikipedia. It is the only of Bruckner’s symphonies (aside from the Linz version of the first) not written in Vienna. (He later revised no. 1 at least some, hence the Bruckner problem thing.) Wikipedia interestingly says:
There’s a section in the above-linked article titled Criticism, which elaborates briefly on things such as the composer calling it ‘schoolwork,’ and
Biographer Derek Watson says that compared to the Overture in G minor, the F minor Symphony “is certainly thematically uninspired and less characterful,” but that it does have “some moments of warm melodiousness and consistently fine if unoriginal scoring.”
I have to say I agree. Georg Tintner, a respected Brucknerian, defends the work against (Bruckner’s teacher) Kitzler’s not so positive view of the work. Tintner finds the scherzo to be the strongest and the finale the weakest of the work.
Well, anyway, let’s hop to it. As stated, the symphony is the first Bruckner wrote, with “no. 0” coming between symphonies one and two. We’ll get to that one later.
Perhaps it’s just that this work follows Mendelssohn in my playlist of stuff to write about, but I swear I hear a playful, youthful, Mendelssohn-esque daintiness that doesn’t exist in most of Bruckner’s other work. It’s almost like this is Bruckner before he discovered Beethoven’s ninth. The opening of this movement is contrapuntal and sinuous, heavy on strings, and lacking that typical monstrous height of sound we hear in much Bruckner, but we are not without tweetlings and chirps from woodwinds here and there. Listen for the first thunder of percussion: it marks much more the full-bodied sound we know and love from Bruckner, but there’s still a vivacious stringy, bounciness that is uncharacteristic of what he would later write. It sounds like Mendelssohn’s penchant for bring the past into today rather than actually looking forward. The second theme of the movement has much more Brucknerian-style lyricism, with a few calls from horns, a sort of bucolic, Austrian sound, and a beautiful line from flute, then clarinet. This is starting to sound more like the Bruckner I know, as does the punch that follows. There are some juicy moments, and the first movement comes to a satisfying, hammering Brucknerian climax, but even with Skrowaczewski’s powerful, clean direction, it feels like it could be better, like there isn’t a whole lot to work with here. Overall, as also referenced in the Wikipedia article, my initial impressions (without having first seen it written) were that there was something missing, that it was all a bit flat. While there are some solos and quieter moments, overall, there’s not much variation in dynamics, and the Wiki article also adds lack of phrasing. The finish is certainly satisfying, but there wasn’t much building up to it before then, so the ultimate result is a little meh. And Mendelssohn-esque, for real.
The second movement starts to feel much more like the Bruckner we know. There’s more space in the parts, more phrasing written in, perhaps because it’s a slow movement, with broader tempi and is just more forgiving that way. I don’t have nearly as many criticisms of this movement. There call-and-answer between horns and woodwinds that give it a warm, pastoral, welcoming, serene sense. The andante molto is the largest movement of the symphony, and features an oboe solo, with strings interjecting here and there. It’s quite nice, but I get the impression that it’s somehow just the slightest bit muddled. The oboe solo is gorgeous as is, and so is the sweeping line presented from strings, but they seem to argue with each other a little bit, get in each other’s way. The strings win, and it’s only a bit later that the clarinet musters the courage to try its hand at a solo, in its lower register. I don’t have much against this movement. It’s broad and spacious, like the sun warming your back on a day with a slight chill in the air. There are some more emotive passages in the middle portion, but I’d say this movement and the one that follows are the two most characteristic of later Bruckner.
The scherzo is really wonderful, as Tintner suggests. It redeems the whole work (or ass much as possible, anyway). It’s got a kick and a crunch to it, the towering, almost terrifying looming mass of sound, giant chunks of power, growling brass, crunchy strings, and singing woodwinds. It’s ornate and powerful and digs its claws in where the rest of the symphony doesn’t. This is a success. The trio brings a nice, sweet contrast to the work, featuring bucolic calls in brass, and it’s pleasant, but not anything terribly memorable. It does, however, make me anticipate the return of that wonderful scherzo, which does return swiftly in this five-minute movement. It’s so satisfying. The crunchy strings, the timpani, all of it. This is something it seems Bruckner genuinely just had a knack for… The scherzo was also the only thing I really cared for in the first symphony.
That brings us to the finale, much shorter than any of the other finales of any Bruckner symphony, the shortest movement of the work aside from the scherzo. Bruckner’s finales are generally also toweringly large, epic movements, but this one clocks in at a dainty eight minutes. There are signs of the kind of thing that Bruckner would later write, hints of what he’s known for, but the first theme seems never to reach the heights it could have. The entrance of the contrasting second theme is unmistakable, something it seems Bruckner also kind of did regularly in his symphonies. We’re presented with a more spacious, delicate string-focused theme to round out the beginning of the movement. But overall, that’s the general feel I get of this movement, that there’s a lot of youthfulness in it, good ideas, interesting content, but that it is less than the sum of its parts, that they never come together and accomplish a whole lot. Granted, the end is crunchy and commanding and nice, but there is no semblance of the long epic journey the later Bruckner symphonies take us on.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. It is by far Bruckner’s shortest symphony, coming in at less than 40 minutes, about half the length of the same conductor’s reading of Bruckner’s eight symphony, so there’s its overall brevity paired with his general youth and relative inexperience. As mentioned above though, it does have certain qualities that stand out, that make you say “oh yeah, he uses that later,” or “I recognize that little idea,” but they’re all to much greater effect.
Maybe if this symphony had been written by another composer (and a decade earlier, so it wasn’t overshadowed by Bruckner himself), it would have earned some degree of attention or praise. In another (lesser) composer’s oeuvre, it might have been the crown jewel, or at least something to be more proud of. But maybe Bruckner knew he could do better, and better he certainly did.
I might actually prefer this one over his first symphony, or it might just be that I’ve come around to Bruckner, warmed up to him in a way that I hadn’t when I wrote about the first. In any case, we’ll be talking more about that warming up and coming around in Thursday’s post about one of Bruckner’s ‘canonical’ symphonies. Stay tuned.