Revisit: Bruckner Symphony no. 6 in A, WAB 106

performed by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra under Sergiu Celibidache

(cover image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger)

Its themes are exceptionally beautiful, its harmony has moments of both boldness and subtlety, its instrumentation is the most imaginative he [Bruckner] had yet achieved, and it possesses a mastery of classical form that might even have impressed Brahms.

Robert Simpson

When I started writing this blog, I was under the impression that I’d be looking for the non-mainstream, the stuff that your average bear didn’t know about, to focus on the more obscure.

Or at least I assume that’s what I was thinking. My first few posts, very brief and the opposite of insightful, featured composers like Rautavaara, Myaskovsky, Aho, and Milhaud, long before I ever got around to Beethoven or Brahms or the regular canon.

And it’s obviously in the context of that symphonic canon that we appreciate what more modern or experimental approaches to the symphonic form offer us. But one of the more popular composers who made it into my very earliest articles was Bruckner, even if I was writing about his least performed symphony, or one of them, the sixth.

It is only coincidence that the sixth happens to be what Simpson, quoted above, also says some people feel to be the ‘ugly duckling’ of Bruckner’s output, as well as the only symphony that apparently underwent zero revision from the composer. Some of Bruckner’s symphonies are infamous for having many confusing performing versions, incorporating some changes, but not others, or revisions by others with some of their ostensible improvements, and a selection of those from the composer’s pen.

But the sixth did not have that. It was completed between 1879 and 1881, and dedicated to, of all people, his landlord. At the time of its composition, only three of Bruckner’s symphonies had been performed, and the premiere of the third was disastrous.

The work was first published in 1899, a few years after the composer’s death. He only heard (part of) it once in his lifetime, a performance of the two middle movements by the Vienna Philharmonic under Wilhelm Jahn on February 11, 1883. Gustav Mahler himself led the first full performance of the work, with apparently extensive revisions, in 1899, the same year the work (and Mahler’s own first symphony) was published.

Wikipedia says that Bruckner’s sixth has “extensive ties to the fourth and fifth symphonies and is considered to have been composed as a reflective, humanistic response to its two direct symphonic predecessors.” I’m not sure about the humanistic part, because it wasn’t until later that Bruckner really got elbow deep into the tragedy and cataclysm of things like the eighth symphony. I don’t know what there was to be humanistic about in response to the fourth or fifth. At the very least, the strong connection to the fourth symphony is readily apparent.

The first movement is in sonata form, and makes immediate use of the “Bruckner rhythm,” that main theme derived from the fourth symphony. We even have an opening horn call. There’s something slithery, or exotic, or just otherwise unique about the main figure for this first movement, which clocks in at only seventeen minutes. There’s an almost militaristic kind of heartbeat, a pulse to this first movement, that feels like it’s going to be some kind of march, but atop that pulse is celebratory, triumphant brass that always keep the movement inflated enough to float along relatively jovially.

The second movement, marked ‘Adagio, sehr feierlich’, is indeed, and it’s the longest movement of the entire work. Even in these central movements we can here the echoes of that memorable theme from the first movement. It stands out in this large adagio more like a shadow, a faint shape, only suggesting what’s actually there.

The third movement scherzo is the shortest of the four, and we hear a more direct use of the content from the first movement, especially in some parts of the trio, where it seems like this quiet passage keeps wanting to turn around and revert back to that opening figure that’s so memorable. It’s a bit repetitive and episodic for me, and while it’s nice enough, to be critical for a moment, I feel most of it doesn’t lend a whole lot to the overall forward progress of the piece.

The finale is also not a (very) long movement. Usually Bruckner saves up his biggest, baddest tricks for an enormous final movement, and we still have three subjects here in a sonata-form movement, also typical of Bruckner. The third of these refers back to content from the second movement, again making strong connections throughout the work, but still to me nothing like the strong argument and epic journey of the fifth symphony.

I would say, without implying that I don’t like the piece, that the sixth is my least favorite of the 4-6 trilogy of works. It’s a very nice work, and I very much enjoy Celibidache’s powerful reading. What’s so incredible is how the music, while being as grand and enormous and epic as any Bruckner is (with the pauses and quiet passages we’ll talk about momentarily), it really is overwhelmingly positive. The last three might not be so. The seventh, eighth, and ninth are quite heavy, as we shall eventually see, but this work is almost dainty relative to the others, in Skrowaczewski’s hands coming in at under an hour, Celibidache slightly over. (Simone Young’s reading is shorter than Skrowaczewski’s).

Maybe Bruckner isn’t really your thing, but this may be him at his most untroubled and carefree, with some truly beautiful, dare I say almost Tchiakovsky-esque, lyrical passages in the finale. It’s triumphant, clear, sunny… the pauses, the seams, between the enormous towering phrases and the quiet contrasting passages aren’t so oil-and-water here, since they’re all looking forward. There’s less sense of intense conflict, and more of just a very enjoyable, warm unfolding. That’s not to say that the close is a soft, flaccid, meagre thing. It’s grand, but without even the slightest hint of tragedy or melancholy. It’s unabashedly hopeful.

Dyneley Hussey was not so positive about Bruckner’s penchant for what Wikipedia calls Bruckner’s “seemingly endless journey to a conclusion of musical thought.” He says:

His [Bruckner’s] most tiresome habit is his way of pulling up dead at frequent intervals, and then starting the argument all over again…One has the impression…that we are traversing a town with innumerable traffic lights, all of which turn red as we approach them.

This comment may not have been directed specifically toward the sixth, but it got plenty of criticism anyway.

It’s very interesting this idea of tempo. It’s related to phrasing and development and all those other larger-scale things that are a bit more difficult to appreciate about a hefty piece like this. Often, when we talk about phrasing, it’s in the same way that a (good) reader would group words into chunks, pause at certain places, speed up or slow down when appropriate, and all the rest. But in a broader way, tempo means a lot when we’re talking about sections or passages in relation to one another, how one is emphasized (or not) and how those transitions are executed.

For example, I’ve been listening casually to Chailly’s Mahler cycle, and find him in many of the works, to be on the (very) slow side, especially in the sixth, and it doesn’t work for me. Here, however, Celibidache’s deliberate tempo is what I got used to with the sixth, and anything else seems flippant and hasty. There’s really a glorious kind of majesty and positivity in this work, and the slower tempos throughout give it some additional weight without devolving into stodgy, sloggy indulgence. We have a little more room to breathe, time to savor everything that’s in this work. It is, at least for me, a very different kind of expression than say, the two earlier works in this major-key trilogy of symphonies. If for whatever reason you can’t abide Celibidache’s more deliberate tempi, I’d recommend Skrowaczewski or Simone Young.

Well that’s it for Bruckner for a (short) while, and we’ll move on to a composer who greatly adored Bruckner, quoted in this article, even, so stay tuned for that, and thank you so much for reading.


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