Bruckner Symphony No. 7 in E, WAB 107

performed by the Hamburg Philharmonic under Simone Young, or as below with the Vienna Philharmonic under Carl Maria Giulini

(cover image by Fábio Ferreira)

Bruckner’s seventh symphony, one of his most famous and successful, was written between 1881 and 1883, and then (shocker!) revised in 1885. It is dedicated to Ludwig II of Bavaria, who died the following year. He’s the guy who commissioned the construction of the Neuschwanstein Castle, and was also, as Wikipedia says, “a devoted patron of the composer Richard Wagner.” In fact, this was so much the case that the article later states:

Ludwig was probably the savior of Wagner’s career. Without Ludwig, it is doubtful that Wagner’s later operas would have been composed, much less premiered at the prestigious Munich Royal Court Theatre (now the Bavarian State Opera).

The work was premiered in Leipzig on December 30, 1884 under the baton of Arthur Nikisch, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

As a result of Bruckner’s changes, as well as those of others, there are various versions of this symphony. The original 1883 version exists with some changes made by other contributors, and the composer’s, but we are apparently not clear on the original form. There were versions made by Haas and Nowak, the latter of whom kept most of the changes made by Gutmann, one of the earlier editors of the score. I’ve never really been one for the more academic or historical aspects of the various editions. I’m okay as long as the version is considered to be at least mostly true to the composer’s intentions, be they original or later.

The work is obviously in four movements, as below, and has a playing time of about 65 minutes, unless you’re listening to Celibidache. With the live recording and the pauses and his tempi, it hits 80 minutes.

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam
  3. Scherzo. Sehr schnell. A scherzo in A minor, with a trio in F major.
  4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht schnell.

There’s more connection to Wagner with this work than just the dedication to Ludwig, but we’ll get to that momentarily.

The first movement begins, as do so many Bruckner symphonies, with a quiet gesture, tremolo strings here, and it begins the long (and not slow) journey that is this symphony. Wiki tells us that Bruckner claims to have heard this opening in a dream, and was able to get it in writing after he woke, but it also makes use of part of his Mass in D minor, which was also at the time the subject/victim of revision by the composer’s pen.

The second movement may be the most famous of the whole, the one that gets all the association with Wagner. It is a marvelous movement in its own right, exceptionally, solemnly heartfelt. It’s famous for memorializing both Wagner himself, around the time of his death, and before the announcement of Hitler’s death on May 1, 1945 (as well as two years earlier after the German defeat at Stalingrad, but both of these are less moving than Wagner’s death).

It marks the first time Wagner tubas were used in a symphony (this is what Wikipedia says, making it sound like it was the first time ever, not just in a Bruckner symphony, which seems like it would also be true), and it is said that the climax was written by the composer upon hearing of Wagner’s death. Of course, you can see how this may very well just be a Romantic idea that got attached to the work, but at the very least, Bruckner knew Wagner’s passing was approaching. The movement is broad and soulfully deliberate, something you see in the score. When you see in the score how slowly the music is notated, you realize how intentionally this atmosphere was presented, how we are to savor each note, each interval and turn of phrase. It makes for one of the greatest, most spectacularly grand, powerful slow movements in all of music, and the historical significance doesn’t hurt.

There is the business of the cymbal crash in this movement, also, how it not only marks the moment of Wagner’s passing, but how it was added, then later (by whom?) removed. The cymbal and triangle parts are thus sometimes included, sometimes not. This is a matter of preference.

The scherzo is in A minor and generates a sufficiently energetic frenzy, featuring two quarter notes as the first beat of many of the bars, giving it a stirring nature. The trio in F major is placid, a truly quiet moment of respite before the scherzo begins again. While it’s satisfyingly stirring, after a bit, I do find it to be a bit repetitive.

The finale has the buoyancy and welcoming gestures of a first movement, and it seems odd to me sometimes that this symphony that is so well known for this solemn, tragic but breathtakingly beautiful adagio should begin its finale with something so positive. The second subject (I think?) of the finale, to me, shows Beethoven coming through in a simple but deeply beautiful, moving, memorable melodic line, poignant and pure. In contrast with that is one of the grandest, most toweringly epic phrases in music, menacing, biting, a sort of primeval brass roar. Simone Young and her heavenly Hamburg band drive this nail very well, and she makes stunning use of those long pauses, wringing every ounce of weight out of them.

I shan’t speak much further about the finale and its grandeur, but the sense of “this sounds like an opening movement” of the finale’s beginning obviously returns (with order of themes reversed, or mirrored in a ‘tragic sonata form’) in the recapitulation, but here it sounds like coming home, the end of a long journey, refreshing and encouraging.

(This use of the tragic form isn’t uncommon in Bruckner’s music, but the ‘tragic’ moniker for this reversal of roles in the finale seems out of place in this setting considering the grandness and triumph with which this symphony ends. The final notes of the symphony, a rich rounded brassy sound, hang warmly in the air, and somehow that burnished sound seems an appropriate end to this work.)

All historical significance and memorializing aside, this is just an excellent symphony. It’s maybe more ‘the Wagner symphony’ than the third (dedicated to Wagner), but it’s also these two symphonies (3 and7) that bookend the composer’s central ‘major key’ trilogy.

Something I didn’t refer to above, mostly because I don’t want to (read: can’t) get too specific about it, is how I feel certain sections foreshadow or recall (depending on the order) different movements or sections of the work overall. I think there are passages that presage moments in the second movement or finale, but overall, be it with thematic material or overall atmosphere, this is really a superb work. The scherzo is unquestionably the weakest movement of the piece, but that doesn’t much detract from one of the composer’s finest, most successful symphonies. Almost all of the things that one of Bruckner’s more conservative contemporaries might have found challenging or offensive is really no longer such today, and we are left with a well-rounded, incredibly convincing whole of a symphony, a cohesive, deeply engaging journey of a work.

We did Brahms’ requiem earlier in the week, and I don’t think I’ll do Bruckner’s masses or any of his sacred stuff… but we’ve only got two symphonies left in his output, and the last one isn’t even finished! In any case, we probably won’t see much of Bruckner for a while. There’s plenty more to look forward to, though, including an enormous milestone, so stay tuned, and thank you very much for reading.

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