Bruckner String Quintet in F major, WAB 112

performed by the Fine Arts Quartet and Gil Sharon.


People (rightly) think of Bruckner as a craftsman, a constructor of enormous, highly-developed, colossal symphonies, and there’s a reason for that. As we saw this week (with the exception of his study symphony, a significantly shorter work, but a precursor to the heights he would eventually reach) and have seen in the past with a few of his other symphonies, he does tend to write large, sprawling works with massive chunks of sound, pulsating, growling, spinning scherzos that drill into your chest, and all of the rest.

But what happens when you take that architect of a composer and give him only four instruments? Well, that is what it seems one Joseph Hellmesberger, Sr. wanted to find out when he commissioned a string quartet from his subordinate. It seems odd that the ultimate composition was instead dedicated to Duke Max Emanuel of Bavaria, and that it was not a quartet but a quintet (an extra viola), but we’ll talk about that soon.

I’ll also interject at this point, before I’ve lost you, that I think this work is a fantastic gateway, first-look type of work if you haven’t cracked into Bruckner’s symphonies, and I’ll talk about why down below.

Hellmesberger, who was also Austrian, was a violinist and conductor who came from a very musical family. In 1851, he became violin professor at the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied with his own father. In addition to that, Wikipedia says he was also “artistic director and conductor of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde concerts as well as director of the Vienna Conservatory.” Also of note is that he was the founder of the Hellmesberger Quartet, in 1849, as Wiki says, “the first permanent named String Quartet.” So he was a pretty important guy, and when he asks you to jump (and write a string quartet), you ask “how high?” (and apparently write a quintet instead).

Hellmy didn’t seem to mind, but did find the original scherzo too challenging for the group, so a separate intermezzo was composed and substituted into the work. It apparently now stands alone, and “It was not until 1885 that the Hellmesberger Quartet played the Quintet with the original scherzo,[1] Max Mustermann joining on second viola.[4]” Duke Emanuel was apparently impressed enough that he gave Bruckner a diamond pin, which may have earned him the dedication.

The work is in four movements, with the scherzo second rather than third, although this was apparently not originally the case. I haven’t listened to the intermezzo; we’ll save that for a later SQS perhaps. Unsurprisingly, Bruckner also revised this score multiple times. At 45 minutes, it’s hefty for a string quartet work, around the length of Schoenberg’s epic first string quartet.

As mentioned, I’ll talk after the discussion of the work about why I think this is a good starting point for Bruckner, to get into his works. That was something I myself had a difficult time doing, and as the above dates indicate, this is not an early piece of some kind. It was commissioned between the composer’s sixth and seventh symphonies, so it’s well into his (even) more mature career, once he’d developed a style and a voice, and I think one can hear Bruckner in it even as a chamber work.

There are the common clichés that appear when speaking of Bruckner’s symphonies: the cathedral, the blocks of sound, the fascination (obsession?) with Beethoven’s ninth, and all the rest, but it does serve us well to think of those, or at least have them in the back of our minds as we listen to this work, because although it stands on its own, independently as a remarkable chamber work, we can and probably should see it in symphonic terms, at least to relate to his other work. Maybe?

The opening gesture, while not the tremolo in strings that opened his second symphony, is a gesture that I feel would be appropriate as the beginning of a symphony. Bruckner’s orchestration is typically that large, chunky kind, with big sections of sound, and they’ve essentially been pared down here to their simplest constituents: five instruments. The opening gesture in the first violin would sound perfectly at home on a horn, with cellos and basses backing it up, or violas and cellos, maybe a bassoon in there. Any Bruckner listener also knows how the composer loves triplets, and we have one in the first bar. After an exact eight-bar phrase, the cello echoes the exact same figure, and it’s very clear that the ball has gotten rolling. What else is it about this that feels so Brucknerian? The trilly bits that come after it are woodwinds, countering the brassy bucolic call of the horn. I could go on like this, but what I don’t want to do is paint this quintet as a symphony for five. It isn’t, and while there is so much awesome stuff in here that we can pick out and identify as transparent, pared down Bruckner, the work is successful on its own merits as a quintet.

The first movement is exquisitely constructed, with its moments of rich high, and delicately personal passages, but it does exhibit a wonderful, followable form, and ends vibrantly. When it does, we get to the scherzo, and this, I would say, is noticeably different from what we’d get in a typical Bruckner symphony. While it’s still (I think) unmistakably Brucknerian, it’s not the whirling, dizzying, almost a bit crazed powerful thing that his symphonic scherzos are. Replace that with a playful, almost folksy tune, buoyant and warm, even a bit intriguing. It comes in a few quick segments, the parts of the scherzo, then the trio, with pizzicato and chirping violins, later answered by a segment in the other (lower or higher) voice. I feel like this slightly episodic treatment is also part of Bruckner’s thing: trombones and tuba take a turn, with low strings, then a contrasting passage, another chunk of different orchestration like high bassoon, flute and violins, or something. The trio is noticeably trio-esque. It’s by far the quaintest of them all, with harp-like pizzicato, and somehow feels much smaller, or intimate than the five instruments we have been working with, so it’s an effective contrast. The scherzo returns to round out a nice chambery Bruckner.

Almost exactly halfway through the work, we reach the third movement, adagio, in G-flat major, an interesting half-tone key change for the work, and don’t we just kind of expect the slow movement to be something great? It is, but…. I’ll say for the majority of the work, I feel like it never reaches wide-open expanses that his glorious symphonic slow movements do. While everything up to this point has worked as well in miniature as (if not more charmingly than) in a symphonic application, expectations of symphonic grandeur must be put aside here. At least in my opinion, the work doesn’t feel as broad and spacious and encompassing as a symphonic slow movement. Instead, it’s intimate, personal, and that’s equally as effective. The comparison isn’t to be negative; it’s just that it doesn’t do this movement justice. Passages like where the cello rumbles out a long melodic line in its low register with the rest of the ensemble singing a contrasting line in unison give a greater impression of spaciousness, and there are definitely moments where one can hear it in symphonic color, but the ‘condensed symphony’ idea is a tempting one that may ultimately be an injustice to the glorious expressiveness of this movement, written for a quintet, and it is wonderful.

Citing Uwe Harten’s book Anton Bruckner. Ein Handbuch, pp. 206-7, Wikipedia says:

the form is more compact and the score starts with a clear melodic profile in 3/4 on a pedal point of the cello. On the other hand, the finale starts as in the symphonies with a tremolo. The combination of all musical ideas at the end of the first movement, and the three-thematic setting of the finale are also similar to that of Bruckner’s symphonies.

These characteristics are things that can appear no matter the medium, and by the time we get to the finale, we might be wishing Bruckner had written more chamber music. What would a piano quintet of A. Bruckner be like?

In any case, I’m not sure if the opening of the fourth counts exactly as a tremolo, but I do see the resemblance. I can’t recall anyone else off the top of my head who uses a “three-thematic setting” in their finales (or really any movements) as does Bruckner, so it’s kind of a unique thing, and we have it here. It feels spacious and lengthy (although it isn’t as long as most of his symphonic movements) for the ground it covers and the story it tells. The arc is a large one, at least for the content it presents, and I find myself enjoying each individual moment of richness, the present textures and sounds than developing the overall bird’s eye view that I probably should. The very end suddenly jumps out as distinctly different, a coda of some kind, maybe? It’s suddenly focused, angular, everything has fallen into place and is moving with purpose toward a singular point: the end. It feels like the composer just couldn’t resist giving the biggest, roundest symphonically-colored wrap-up to an already pretty epic work. Wikipedia says in its concluding remarks:

Bruckner biographer Derek Watson finds the work “by no means a ‘symphony for five strings’ and it never stretches the quintet medium beyond its capabilities, save perhaps for the last seventeen bars of the finale, where [Bruckner] is thinking too much in orchestral terms.”[8]Robert Simpson… declared it “one of the most idiosyncratic but deepest chamber works since Beethoven.”[9]

I guess that last seventeen bars is the orchestral bit. I wouldn’t criticize it, though. The result of the work overall is one of a grand scale, but also, almost oppositely intimate and close. One can look at it either way equally successfully, but there is a bit of a dichotomy in the work as a result. Maybe it’s just that the piece reaches such a perfect balance between these two extremes that it’s almost hard to believe.

In any case, I mentioned earlier that this work might be a great primer for a Bruckner newbie, and I think it is so because it presents what we’ve discussed as some typical Brucknerian practices, be it in structure, presentation, whatever, in a much more boiled down, transparent way. I think the feeling of confusion in Bruckner, at the beginning (if we are to use that cathedral example) is that the music is often so expansive and grand, so epic and broad, that it feels empty, like a small person standing inside an enormous Medieval cathedral, towering walls, enormous vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, carvings, color, opulence everywhere, but also a feeling of great expanses of empty, and not knowing where to look or how to begin to appreciate it.

That isn’t the case with the quintet. It’s more intimate, close-quartered, someone compacted, or concentrated, and certainly looking at the score, with only five staves, gives one some insight into the kind of things that the man does in his works, a stepping stone toward identifying these main concepts in a symphony like the fourth or seventh. I also feel like hearing structure is perhaps more important in Bruckner than almost any other composer, and if we can break down a movement and call this one ‘subject A’ and that part ‘subject B’ then have A1, B1, whatever, someone can get a visual concept of the layout of the work, all of these things make it that much more enjoyable, and I feel that the quintet, although it is a later work, is an excellent place to start if you’re new to Bruckner.

All my qualifying remarks and comparisons and everything aside, it is a stunning composition that Hellmesberger must have been very pleased to receive, and I’m sure it would be breathtaking to hear in a recital hall. Stay tuned for other epic things coming up later in the month.

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