Bruckner Symphony no. 2 in Cm, WAB 102

performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken under Stanisław Skrowaczewski

Those names.

The effect of its breadth and grandeur has remained with me ever since.

-Robert Simpson

(This article is tons longer than I thought it’d be.)

So you may or may not remember our previous encounter (before this week’s posts) with Bruckner, his first symphony, which, scherzo aside, I decided I didn’t really care for, like, at all. I won’t go into all the reasons why, but as much as I wanted to like it, it was just unmemorable. But then there was Tuesday’s piece, which I found more… approachable? Quaint? Dainty? In any case, we’re on to something much, much better.

My sentiments about the first tend to be in line with the general sentiment that Bruckner really began to hit his stride in the symphony with (some say the third but usually) his fourth symphony,  which also happens to be one of his most accessible. My experience with the first symphony led me to believe that this was a justified, well-founded idea, that his early symphonies were immature, but then Stanisław Skrowaczewski happened.

I can’t really say if it’s his cycle in particular that blew me away or not, but I’d been listening around for a Bruckner cycle I could get behind, and I’d kind of gone through a few of them, especially with the fourth, and been not blown away. Abbado’s fourth was nice, as was Wand’s, but the sets from Karajan and (more unconvincingly) Barenboim didn’t impress me, even though the former is probably quite highly regarded (by whom?). Solti’s I figured was a middle-of-the-road safe choice, and others like Jochum, Inbal, Tintner, Celibidache, and Sinopoli intrigued me, but I just couldn’t get around to buying or borrowing them all to listen. In any case, I somehow got around to listening to Skrowaczewski’s and was instantly impressed… nay, blown away. For whatever reason, the first impression this cycle made with me was with the second symphony, and it shattered that idea that Bruckner didn’t write a worthwhile symphony until his fourth. The second is magnificent. (I just read, recently, in a wonderful little package of materials sent to my by The Robert Simpson Society, [picture below] that the symphony that made the first big impression on Simpson, who was not only a composer of phenomenally engaging symphonies himself, but also a respected writer on Bruckner, was the second, and his words about it open this article. I’ve lately been enjoying Simpson’s symphonies immensely, and knew of his extensive writings on Bruckner and Nielsen, and was pleased to be able to add his fascination with it to the article I started writing months ago.)

It is/has been stated that the symphony  is sometimes referred to as the ‘symphony of pauses,’ and you’ll see why. He uses these pauses to great dramatic effect, especially in the final movement. Despite that, it is an aspect of the symphony the poor guy was criticized for.

The second symphony was composed after the “no. 0” in D minor, completed in 1872, and premiered in 1873 under the composer’s baton. It is the only “official” Bruckner symphony (that is to say besides the ‘zero symphonies’, the study symphony, or 00, having been discussed earlier this week) not bearing a dedication. Bruckner offered both the second and/or third to Wagner, and he chose the third, and it seems Liszt, to whom a dedication was also offered, wouldn’t touch the piece, so it went undedicated. Shame. Phillip Huscher, program annontator [sic] for the Chicago Symphony, has a wonderful and rather lengthy set of program notes about the second symphony here. Besides his articulate description of the piece, he gives a ton of background information about Bruckner, how he was in his 40s before he had heard Wagner’s music, which everyone knows was life-changing for him, and 50-something before he met the man and ultimately dedicated to him his own third symphony, which Wagner chose over the second. This story, I think, is widely known, as is the bit about Bruckner being so flustered that the next day he forgot which of the symphonies Wagner had chosen, the complete second or incomplete third. What he does elaborate on is the story of Liszt rejecting the offer of the dedication of no. 2. Apparently he’d accepted it, had a score of it, but left it in some hotel room. He says Bruckner offered the dedication to Liszt….

…who had once praised this symphony. Although Liszt formally accepted, he left the score behind in a hotel room in his haste. When Bruckner learned this, he was deeply offended and withdrew the offer.

Can you blame him? I’d be offended, too, maybe, but Bruckner seems to have been especially socially inept. Just read Huscher’s program notes. (Also, quickly, as with every Bruckner symphony, there are multiple versions from the composer’s incessant revisions, one where the order of the inner movements is switched, some solos changed, sections or repeats removed, etc. Wikipedia lists them here, as well as a discography of them. Skrowaczewski’s version is Nowak’s 1877’s edition, also recorded by Giulini, Jochum, and Karajan, among others.)

The symphony opens with an instantly captivating passage in strings, sinuous, magical, bordering on ethereal. It’s spacious, brimming with subtle excitement, like taking the first steps on what is to be a magical and epic journey. There’s contrapuntal texture, colorful use of brass with/against the strings, and the bass line played under the shimmering tremolo of the beginning comes quickly to the fore. After this development, like a small arch having been completed, the first little section of an enormous structure already cast, there is the first of our pauses, or simply just an intense quiet, followed by more strings, a warm, slightly cozier, honey-like theme taken by cellos. It’s a stunning mix of clear simplicity, but with detail and depth. It reaches typical Brucknerian heights and strengths. If you’re not familiar with what that is, it’s a growling, gnarly yet warm and shimmering, towering mass of sound, like a Kraken made of oak growing through the floor of a cathedral (the ever-present cathedral allusion), overlooking a mountainous landscape with verdant green grass in the valley below. It’s at once massive and somehow endearing.

Anyway, we come back down from that and the sudden quiet has the effect, not of starting back at the beginning or the bottom, but rather the next block, the next chunk of our massive structure being added. It is at once a beginning and a continuation. My difficulty with Bruckner in the past was with the enormity and almost overwhelming size and scope of the music, especially in comparison with Mahler, who is always giving you something to focus on, an incredibly engaging narrative, while Bruckner might orbit around the same scene for a while. Here, though, there’s color and detail and scenery aplenty. Perhaps it’s the extended woodwind section started by an oboe that is later transmitted to bassoon and flute, all over our strings. It’s a personal, intimate moment of delicacy. There’s a horn solo as well, which might be a bit cliche, but it lends a bucolic, natural character to this movement, hearing this music over an alpine landscape, before the opening gesture returns, leading to another cliff-scaling passage as the movement continues to climb to new but satisfyingly familiar heights. There’s pizzicato that runs through a large section of the development as the buzzing of the growing energy builds to where we know it will burst.

Enough play-by-play. Just listen. I think what’s so satisfying about this movement is a sense of evolution, of development and organic growth, like a castle that assembles itself out of the ground, starting with only a few very simple gestures, but flourishing from the most basic building blocks to build a masterful, solid, yet ornate and beautiful structure. It is as if the entire thing wrote itself after the composer put the first few bars on paper.

For as much content as is left in the first movement, the recapitulation happens early, and you can’t miss it. It’s strong enough to be the foundation for the entire movement, and it subtly but unmistakably returns to round out the first movement. There might not be anything violent or earth-shatteringly new about the symphony so far, but the young Bruckner has shown he’s got conducting chops, and if nothing else, a mastery of development and form, navigating sections of the movement, transitions and stops-and-gos without losing an ounce of forward motion or energy. This is due in part to Skrowaczewski’s handling of the score, also. The first movement is an incredible example of form, casting a sharp, craggy and well-defined profile that lends itself to being enjoyed. It also ends powerfully and commandingly, almost cataclysmic-sounding.

But as we had contained within the first movement itself, there is a sudden sense of contrast there to pick up the energy rather than extinguish it. The second movement, marked andante, is the longest of the symphony, and begins with a delicate opening gesture, supported by a rich foundation of basses, over which cellos sing a dirge-like melody. Things for a moment seem tragic and dark, but it brightens a little. The movement, for me, has finally begun about three minutes in, at rehearsal mark H, after a long pause (actually notes held by brass then strings), where a horn introduces the most memorable theme of the movement.  This leads into an even more emotive section, and as we could say of much of Bruckner’s music, it’s important not to try to focus on any-one-where in particular, but just kind of let it all happen around you. It’s majestic and grand and builds in glory, like the sun rising over the horizon to warm a cold, dark landscape. By about six minutes in, we have most of our content presented, things we’ll be working with in this monstrous movement. Huscher says of the second movement “Time and again, Bruckner climbs to the summit only for a better view of the peak ahead. The central climax is enormous, yet very still.” It seems big, tall things are a common analogy for Bruckner’s music, but with each pause, with each new section, it does seem as if we’ve reached new heights, only to get a new vantage point of our current surroundings and keep climbing. It’s an effective way to tell a story, if not a bit slower to drag you in and engage you as violently and unabashedly as Mahler.

One of the things you do begin to appreciate about these symphonies cast in enormously large scales is that, for example, Bruckner does just have that much to say in the andante, which clocks in at just over 18 minutes, not actually terribly long relative to some of his later work, but that’s part of the ‘effect’, if you will, taking the time to let things happen, to take their course and ascend and descend, the sense of story and progress and plot, of a journey, and I am coming to love that in his work more and more.

In contrast with three 17-18 minute movements, we have the (relative) itsy-bitsy six-minute scherzo. The first movement ended powerfully, contrasted with the soft beginning of the second movement, which ends softly, a singing horn that finishes with muted strings. So naturally what comes next is a powerful burst of energy, another of Bruckner’s wonderful scherzos. By this time, we’re more than halfway through this hour-long symphony, and as brief as this movement is relative to all the others, it feels like an intermezzo, an introduction to what is to come in the finale. As a Brucknerian scherzo, it packs punch, drive, crunch, and extremes of contrast. It’s got it all: thundering timpani, soaring brass, pastoral woodwinds, crunchy strings, at times white-knuckled against each other, at others all playing together in a field. In another perfect contrast to that, angelic cellos bring us the trio, a delicate, open-armed melody to balance the violence and power of the scherzo.

Huscher points out that Bruckner was criticized, even laughed at for his regular use of pauses in this work, like gaping holes in the score, but they’re very effective in my opinion, like turning a corner and not knowing what’s around it. There’s a two-bar pause in the trio, and one braces for the crashing return of the scherzo, but it isn’t that fast, but it does return with force, and look! maybe you were too breathless to realize, but in among all this scherzo-ing, there are things like woodwind solos. The beginning of the end, for me, is the coda of the scherzo. There’s a fermata at the end of the scherzo proper, and two silent bars at the beginning of the coda, with the silence broken by the timpani marked with (only one?) forte. The end of the scherzo is one of the richest orchestral moments I can think of: something with crisp force and power, a towering, almost ominous kind of command.

While the final movement begins with second violins marked piano, the energy from the scherzo is still hanging in the air, and it sounds like flies buzzing over whatever’s left, a kind of unsettled rustling that leads us into the real gem of this symphony. While some of the portions of this symphony developed slowly, it doesn’t take long for the finale to get going. Less than a minute in, at rehearsal mark A, we begin the towering, violent theme that I feel this entire symphony leads up to.

Bruckner obviously loved triplets of any kind, and he uses them wonderfully here, a piece that sounds either heroic or tragic, but epic regardless. We get to enjoy more of the same building-block type development, the contrasts of themes, and expansive, spacious landscape for which Bruckner became known, but I feel he is in top form here, perfect execution and balance of his ideas, a soul-shaking, powerful journey toward the epic end of this youthful, energetic work. Huscher says:

The finale builds frantically to an outburst, only to fall back and try again. Further attempts rise and are greeted by silence, or, at the center of the movement, by music of rapt stillness. The form is Bruckner’s own, though it bears obvious remnants of both sonata and rondo.

I don’t hear the outbursts and silence as a ‘fall back and try again,’ but I’m not sure what I hear instead; perhaps it’s some kind of internal conflict. Regardless, the manner in which Bruckner uses silence as a transition point is, I think, expertly executed. They end up being pivot points for the work. Huscher mentions that the work quotes Bruckner’s F minor mass. I wouldn’t know anything about that, but while this movement’s most memorable moments might be the cracking, heart-pounding moments of almost catastrophic timpani rolls, the quiet, subtle passages are also of supreme beauty.

In any case, the finale is episodic, but not in a way that I can label definitively. It doesn’t matter, though. The effect is the same. We reach new heights in various manners, and the masterful architect brings us passages of delicate woodwinds, a bassoon and a flute dancing around each other, a horn solo, and you’d be excused for thinking that things are looking pretty chipper. I have to say, though, that my favorite moments in this work are the terrifyingly powerful ones, the ones that sound like the world is ending. For all the criticism that Bruckner got for this work, the least his detractors could admit is that he can write a hell of a climax, such as we have in the coda. Huscher speaks of its “deep holes of silence and a fleeting image of the symphony’s opening.”

I can’t really think of any other words to describe the raw power behind those high points in the symphony. They rattle your soul, take you aback. It is almost as if he is reaching a height that becomes almost unbearable, that a composer shouldn’t toy with, and the impression a listener has (much more so, I would imagine, in the concert hall), is to hold on white-knuckled to your seat because of some kind of imminent danger. It’s exhilarating, breathtaking, pensive, colossal, and perhaps best of all, you walk away from the formidable coda of the finale remembering the beginning of the work, and feeling like you’ve survived something. When the opening gesture from an hour ago returns, it feels as if we’ve come full circle, as if we get the big picture. It is an experience, something that changes you, demands to be heard and understood, and for all those very reasons, I have no idea why or how this symphony isn’t hailed as one of the greatest of Bruckner’s career, at least before he wrote 4 and 7 and 8, and 9.

There’s tons more to talk about here: discussions of Bruckner’s personality and his goals as an artist, how he saw himself, how others saw him. Is the work optimistic or pessimistic? I said it sounds youthful, but by the time this work was completed, he was pushing 50. Perhaps it’s more an unpolished vibrance that was later to be focused and refined, but no matter what Bruckner thought of himself or acted a fool in public, I feel his second symphony to be an enormous triumph, a resplendent achievement in what seems otherwise to have been a rather lonely, sad life until his later success. Bravo.

Stay tuned for another Bruckner work this weekend. You know what I’m talking about. See you Saturday.

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