Bruckner Symphony No. 3 in D minor, WAB 103

performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Riccardo Chailly, or below by the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra under the late Stanislaw Skrowaczewski

(cover image by Adam Edgerton)

It’s been sometime since we’ve seen Bruckner.

And aside from the revisit article earlier in the week, it’s been a long long time since we’ve seen a symphony. August was all chamber, July was opera. June was a lot of piano stuff. We have to go back to the English Symphony Series to get to the last symphonies I wrote about, the most recent being from Robert Simpson.

Again, aside from the Brahms revisit, which was a long time in coming, it seems fitting that our next symphony, after Simpson (for whom I have big plans next year) is a composer whom he adored very much. We’ve also, despite his great fame, really discussed very little of Bruckner’s music. I just can’t get around to his sacred stuff, or organ stuff, or both, but we’ve done his study symphony, the first and second, and fourth (as well as a very early “I listened to this today” sort of article on his sixth, which I should delete), so today’s post completes the early ‘canonical’ symphonies. I’ll get around to no. 0 eventually. We also did his quintet, but overall, that’s still just a half a dozen works.

The Bruckner Problem

I actually wrote an article about this years ago, but it’s probably not terribly good, so I’ll skip linking it, but Bruckner was notorious for revisions and rewrites and second- and third-guessing himself, and letting “friends” or associates coerce him into making changes, or else he was especially sensitive to their feedback, so he revised and revisited the same work multiple times, and no other symphony of his suffers from this incessant, episodic revision than the third.

I had the best intentions of giving a very halfhearted attempt at digesting the plethora of versions and revisions that plague this symphony, but once I got to reading, I quickly gave up. I’ll include a few quotes below of the prefaces to different versions from Nowak, but in summary, I’ll relate to you the almost intractable problems of revision he faced with an example to which you can surely relate.

Have you ever accidentally ended up with two versions of a file you’re working on, and realized you made some changes to this one, but later others to the other one, and perhaps even a third, and now need to find some way to collect these sundry updates and changes and compile them into one version? It’s a nightmare. Some programs now can do that for you, show you the discrepancies between two versions of a file, but in the old days, it was a line-by-line comparison. It seems that Bruckner’s third suffered the same fate, where later printings mixed and matched different editions, some which did have certain changes, others that didn’t, meaning that there’s not even a clean chronological order to follow the evolution of the work. Some of Nowak’s statements below:

  • “The first version, completed in 1873, was twice revised by Bruckner himself, in 1878 and in 1888/89. There are therefore three distinct versions of this symphony, not to mention two separate forms of the first version, which was “substantially improved” in 1874. Then there are the editions of  1878 and 1890, both of which differ in some respects from Bruckner’s original manuscript.” – Leopold Nowak, December 1958
  • “There is not a single autograph of the first version of the Third Symphony in existence. In the first version written in his own hand Bruckner entered the alterations in the second (1877) version and, as was his habit, discarded some sheets which he did not need for the second version… Consequently, the autograph of the second version… contains sheets from two different versions…” Nowak, April 1977

For a more at-a-glance summary of the revisions, check out this site.

This is arguably something I should pay more attention to than I will, but I’m just not for now. As listeners, not only are we picking between orchestra, conductor, record label, sound quality, but also which version of the piece is being presented, whose revision, whose edits, etc., so it certainly complicates things. For me, Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner is just pristine, dynamic and powerful but polished and elegant. His name certainly isn’t as famous as Abbado or Karajan, or Solti, or those who, at least to me, made their reputations on Bruckner, like Tintner or Wand, but I love Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner, and have recently begun to enjoy Chailly’s as well. There’s plenty to choose from.

The History

Bruckner completed work on the first version of his symphony numbered three in 1873. In September of that year, with the work still not completely finished (but presumably mostly finished), he presented the score to Richard Wagner, the man he may have worshipped more than he did Beethoven’s ninth, along with his second symphony. Wagner was just more than a decade Bruckner’s elder, and the younger composer revered him. They met at the premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde almost a decade earlier, in 1865, and had apparently kept in touch.

Bruckner’s purpose was to offer Wagner the dedication of whichever of the two symphonies Wagner chose, and he chose the third, leaving the second to be the only (official or published) symphony of Bruckner’s not to bear a dedication (which is a shame, because I love the work!). I’ll include the whole paragraph from the Wiki article about this piece relating the slightly inebriated evening:

According to an anecdote, Bruckner and Wagner drank so much beer together that, upon arriving home, Bruckner realized that he had forgotten which symphony Wagner had chosen. He wrote a letter back to Wagner saying “Symphony in D minor, where the trumpet begins the theme?”. Wagner scribbled back “Yes! Best wishes! Richard Wagner.” Ever since then, Wagner referred to Bruckner as “Bruckner the trumpet” and the two became firm friends.

While Viennese audiences were in all likelihood already disinclined to appreciate the music, the circumstances surrounding the premiere made it an even greater catastrophe. The conductor originally planned for the premiere, Johann von Herbeck, a name I’ve never seen, unfortunately died a month beforehand, so the composer unfortunately stepped in, and Bruckner’s conducting skills left quite a bit to be desired. According to a book by Benjamin Korstvedt, the Viennese audience slowly dwindled as the piece was played, and even the orchestra apparently abandoned the composer (hopefully and likely after the piece was finished), leaving a sparse few by the piece’s end, among them being Gustav Mahler, who was unsurprisingly sympathetic to the man’s work. Mahler, at this time, would have been only 17 years old. Imagine his excitement.

Nowak makes mention that this symphony is the ‘longest’ of all of Bruckner’s works, referencing its length of over 2,000 bars of music. While it may be longer on paper, the four movements of the piece come in at less than an hour, one of only a few Bruckner symphonies to be so brief (1, 2, 6, excluding the two zero symphonies).

The Music

The first movement is the longest, at 20ish minutes, and begins with an ethereal D minor. Indeed, it is marked ‘Sehr langsam, misterioso,’ and it might bring to mind wafts of Beethoven’s ninth. Things are magical here absolutely from the get-go. It latches onto your soul and won’t let go. By the first few minutes of the first movement, we have a few waves of almost cataclysmically powerful music, that which will stay with us for the duration of the piece, but after almost every roaring, tumultuous climax, there’s a soft echo of an answer, giving a warm, rounded spaciousness and breadth to the music. The shapes and outline of the work, the ‘Wagner theme from trumpet, will reappear in the finale. I love Tom Service’s expression of how this work affected him in this article about Bruckner. He mentions the “cosmic mist of D minor arpeggios” and “ear bleeding climax” of the first movement, having the effect of “an almost hallucinogenic vision… a sublime landscape, by turns nightmarish and consoling.” The first movement soars and roars and growls, but wait for the second theme to enter, and you’ll see what kind of scope this movement covers. There’s yet a third theme, a “massive unison figure for full orchestra,” as Stephen Johnson says for the LPO recording I’ll mention below. There’s a development, but the overall impression is that of an arch.

The first movement ends chest-crushingly with the motif that opened the movement, magnificent, menacing, almightily epic. As for the second movement, the London Philharmonic’s page for a recording with Skrowaczewski is the only place that makes a reference to the inspiration behind the second movement adagio. It says there that this movement was “composed in memory of Bruckner’s mother.” In the booklet, Johnson says more specifically that it is the third theme of the three in this movement, “a quietly dignified, slow-dance-like figure for strings” that was composed for Mrs. Bruckner, “a strong-minded, musical woman, prone (like her son) to deep depression.” This movement reaches a powerful climax, but in hindsight, when people think of great Bruckner adagios, they think inevitably of the seventh, not the third, but there’s a simple, delicate tenderness to this movement.

The third movement, dwarfed by the others of this work, is short but powerful. I feel the scherzos of Bruckner are one of his most immediately impressive things; the broad sprawling nature of a slow movement or the epic grandiosity of a Bruckner finale may be a bit much for some, but with a scherzo of such magnificent force, this might be the best thing to toss at someone and say, “Here, you should listen to Bruckner.”

You might associate the Ländler with Mahler, but Bruckner’s already making reference to it here, in both the scherzo and subsequent trio. It’s perhaps not as quaint and pastoral as Mahler’s would be, but it’s there, and for such a short movement, it packs quite a punch, easily standing up to the longer movements in this four-movement form.

Admit it: when you think ‘Bruckner’ you think ‘polka.’ No? Yeah, me either. But we get one in the finale, after a suitably enormous introduction. It sounds like we’re galloping off to war, to ride off into oblivion and do something outrageously heroic, but that second subject is our polka, and Johnson quotes Bruckner as saying that was his goal with this symphony:

That’s life. That’s what I wanted to show in my Third Symphony. The polka represents the fun and joy in the world, the chorale its sadness and pain.

Again, it might not seem as effortless and at home as Mahler’s more rustic passages, but it’s certainly a stark contrast to the more apocalyptic sounds we find elsewhere. In the big scheme of things, this finale is rather short, one of the shortest of all of Bruckner’s symphonies, and with a polka playing a central part in the work, we might expect a more optimistic finish, and it’s what we get. Take all the mystery and wonderment and grandiosity of the opening bars of the first movement, which we revisit here, and see them in a bright, warm, sunny triumphant light, and we see the overall journey Bruckner had in mind, and it is a truly spectacular one.

In contrast with the cataclysmic failure of the first premiere, the premiere of the third version, more than a decade later, was a resounding success, as Nowak relates.

The first performance of the Third Symphony (third version) by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Richter on 21 December 1890 was a great personal success for Bruckner. As he himself wrote to August Göllerich: “I am still too deeply moved by its reception by the Philharmonic audience, who must have recalled me at least twelve times, over and over again…” The humiliation of the first performance of the symphony, on 16 December 1877 was now, thirteen years later, turned to jubilation, and in the very same concert-hall too. From now on, there was to be no holding Bruckner’s genius: it took flight to encompass the whole world.

Nowak, 1958 publishing

It’s said that this work is Bruckner’s breakthrough, artistically, structurally, that it was the first glimpse of what he would later become, and it certainly looks ahead to the even greater heights he would attain. For now, we can be thankful that Wagner chose the third as his work, and that despite the confusion over versions, the composer’s artistic vision shined through.

Stay tuned as we begin something entirely new next week. Thank you for reading.


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