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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin

Brahms's main Viennese rival as a symphonist was Anton Bruckner (1824–96), a slightly older composer who had an even later start than Brahms as a composer of symphonies. He was trained as an organist and church choirmaster, and quietly plied that trade at St. Florian's, a seventeenth-century monastery near the Austrian port city of Linz, where he became kapellmeister in 1858. Ten years later he moved to Vienna to take a post as professor of harmony and counterpoint, and also worked as “provisional organist” in the Imperial Chapel until his spreading fame as a virtuoso and improviser procured his elevation to the post of court organist in 1878.

By that time he had had three symphonies performed (out of six composed). His switch from church to concert hall as main theater of operations had come about in the wake of his belated exposure to Wagner's music, unplayed in provincial Linz until 1863. It was Wagner's musical style, pure and simple, with its luxuriant orchestra, its harmonic daring and its complex motivic textures, that captivated Bruckner, who had no inclination at all for dramatic composition and paid no attention to Wagner's theories. (Or to the actual content of the operas, if a famous anecdote is to be believed: After listening enraptured to most of Die Walküre during the first Bayreuth Ring, Bruckner opened his eyes at last during the “Magic Fire” music and asked his companions, “But why are they burning that girl?”)

Symphony as Sacrament

fig. 14-1 Anton Bruckner, painted in 1888.

And yet he proclaimed himself Wagner's disciple and became known as the “Wagnerian symphonist,” another seeming contradiction in terms that brought him a degree of ridicule at first, and also the enmity of Hanslick, Vienna's most powerful critic, which considerably retarded his progress as a concert composer. It was in an effort to secure easier access to performance that some of his pupils began making simplified versions of his works and publishing them with their teacher's reluctant approval, thereby creating a nightmare of “versions” through which performers today have to chart their course.

Bruckner's work was often compared invidiously with Brahms's, especially by Hanslick, and the two composers regarded one another with suspicion and disparagement, Brahms referring to him as “that bumpkin” who wrote “symphonic boa constrictors”3 and Bruckner declaring for his part that he'd rather hear a Strauss waltz any day than a Brahms symphony.4 But Bruckner's music shares with Brahms's the crucial element of synthesis. The antithesis transcended in Bruckner's case was that between Wagner on the one hand, and on the other, the ancient sacred styles in which Bruckner had been trained to a point past mastery.

Thus Bruckner's music, too, resounds with evocations of “vocal collectivities.” It, too, employs preclassical structural devices. And it bears unmistakable traces of organ improvisation: extremely slow, sustained adagios, and a heavy reliance on sequences and rhythmic ostinatos in the allegros that brought listeners either to a state of ecstasy or one of utter exasperation. Bruckner's lengthy rhythmic processes made for monumental—yes, Wagnerian; but also Schubertian—length. One of his ostinato patterns, a pair of quarter notes either followed or preceded by a quarter-note triplet ( or ), was so characteristic and so frequently employed as to become a trademark: musicians know it informally as the “Bruckner rhythm.”

Bruckner, too, instrumentally rewrote Beethoven's Ninth, not once but repeatedly—and, it could be alleged, uncritically, or at least far less ironically than Brahms—in a fashion that, especially at first, invited the dreaded charge of epigonism. As Deryck Cooke, one of Bruckner's main twentieth-century advocates, has pointed out, Beethoven's last symphony provided Bruckner with “his four main movement types—the far-ranging first movement, the big adagio built from the varied alternation of two themes, the sonata-form scherzo, and the huge cumulative finale—as well as the tendency to begin a symphony with a faint background sound, emerging almost imperceptibly out of silence.”5 Bruckner's Third Symphony in D minor (the key of the Ninth), of which the first performance, on 16 December 1877 (Beethoven's birthday), was a legendary disaster, is the most heavily charged of all with specific appropriations from Beethoven's last symphony. Its beginning quite obviously replays Beethoven's opening gambit: preparatory arpeggios prolonging the tonic, a theme formed out of a root-fifth-root descent, a climactic unison. And the resemblances do not end there: a chromatically descending basso ostinato haunts its coda just as it did Beethoven's. And yet the Third Symphony was also the symphony that most demonstratively declared its composer's fealty to Wagner through its effusive dedication—a dedication that Wagner just as demonstratively accepted as a mark of his esteem. And well he might: in its ceremonious linkage of Beethoven and Wagner, Bruckner's symphony was telling Wagner's story, ratifying precisely the view of German musical history that Brahms had challenged.

Bruckner did not break into repertoire status alongside Brahms or achieve real public impact until he was sixty. The turning point was the triumphant Leipzig premiere (under Arthur Nikisch, one of the earliest “virtuoso conductors”) of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony at a Wagner memorial concert on 30 December 1884. The symphony had become a Wagner memorial in its own right halfway through the process of its composition. Bruckner had written two movements, the first and the third (scherzo), when he had a dark presentiment. “One day I returned home feeling very sad,”6 he wrote to Felix Mottl, a conductor and fellow Wagnerian. “The thought had crossed my mind that the Master would not live much longer, and then the C♯-minor theme of the Adagio came to me.” He began writing the Adagio on 22 January 1883, only nineteen days before his forebodings were confirmed, and finished it in April.

Thus, because of its slow movement, the Seventh Symphony can also be considered a specially designated “Wagner Symphony,” but a more mature and representative one than the Third, making this virtually unprecedented twenty-minute Adagio (probably Bruckner's most widely played single movement despite its length, owing to its frequent ceremonial use) an ideal vantage point for surveying his achievement. The very fact that the slow movement is the symphony's center of gravity is an aspect of that achievement: it salvages and develops an aspect of the Beethoven legacy to which other nineteenth-century composers did not respond. (In Brahms, most conspicuously, slow movements tend to have the character of intermezzi, considerably lighter in tone than the outer ones.)

Symphony as SacramentSymphony as Sacrament

ex. 14-1 Anton Bruckner, Symphony no. 7, II (Adagio), mm. 1–9

Except for the absence of harps (which would be abundantly present in his next and longest symphony, the Eighth), Bruckner's orchestra for the Adagio (and the finale, which he composed afterward) is a somewhat more compact version of the Götterdämmerung orchestra, without piccolo, English horn, or bass clarinet, but replete with “Wagner tubas” plus contrabass tuba to furnish the burnished or “cushioned” Wagnerian sonority, and cymbals and triangle to accentuate the shattering C-major climax. The Wagnerian orchestra is deployed in a manner strikingly different from Wagner's, however. Bruckner's use of the instrumental sections (strings, winds, brass) as separately functioning, often antiphonal choirs is widely thought to be a transfer from his organ technique, in which a “registration” is set so that the different keyboards will activate contrasting ranks of pipes that can be played off one against another or combined by “octave coupling” for tuttis. Bruckner's frequent homorhythmic textures of course evoke choirs of actual voices in the manner of chorales, or (within Bruckner's Catholic world) of antiphonal psalmody.

In form, the movement derives, as usual, from the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth, with its alternation of two sections: A-B-A-B-A, with the As growing progressively more ornate (or, in Bruckner's case, more heavily laden with counterpoints and further extended through modulations and motivic development) and the Bs having the character of serene interludes, moving at a more measured pace and a slightly faster tempo (andante for Beethoven, moderato for Bruckner). In this movement the resemblance of the B section to its counterpart in the Ninth is too close to be anything other than a deliberate allusion.

The opening section begins with a striking contrast between two ideas that will each be given broad development. The first, a lyrical lament or threnody sung by the choir of tubas (the “C♯-minor theme” as Bruckner called it in his letter), will bring the movement to a close in a coda that Bruckner called his “funeral music for the Master.” The other is the forceful chorale for the strings that answers the tubas, a melody later incorporated into an actual choral Te Deum to set the final words, non confundar in aeternum (let me never be confounded).

In the Adagio's opening section these ideas take four and six measures respectively (standing in a proportion of 2:3); the rest is given over to a concluding hymn that is developed sequentially to a climax. In the first return of “A,” the two ideas are expanded by sequences into massive formal blocks in roughly the opposite proportion: about thirty and twenty measures respectively in a proportion of 3:2. The tonal progression between the sequence repetitions most frequently ascends by semitones, so that each seems to function as the leading tone to the next (or alternatively, so that each progression consists of a deceptive cadence to ♭VI).

In the passage shown in Ex. 14-2, for instance, the chorale motif is heard first in E♭ (a semitone higher than the root of the immediately preceding dominant-seventh chord on D) and then proceeds once by authentic cadence to A♭, next by a “Lisztian” descent down a major third to E (= F♭, also understandable as ♭VI, approached from the tonic rather than the dominant), and thence—in a manner that “Brahmins” thought unspeakably crude, though certainly effective—through four ascending half steps until the A♭ is regained at m. 133 to begin the second moderato section.

Symphony as SacramentSymphony as Sacrament

ex. 14-2 Anton Bruckner, Symphony no. 7, II, mm. 114–33

In the last and longest “A” section, the texture is augmented by a constant sextolet in the violins, borrowed directly from Beethoven's figuration at the analogous spot in the Ninth Symphony. Once past the opening gambit, the order of presentation is reversed. The chorale is put through a variety of extensions and sequential repetitions on the way to the climax, pitched on C natural so that the return to the tonic C♯ can sound like another deceptive ♭VI resolution; at which point the tubas return for the last extended reference to their opening threnody.

Both the dynamic, climax-driven shaping of the movement's vast expanse and its consistent saturation with ♭VI relationships testify to the composer's concern with “organic form,” in which everything (following Wagner's conception of “endless melody”) is thematic. It could go without saying that the main themes of the symphony's outer movements will likewise be variants of a single idea, an upward-sweeping tonic arpeggio following an initial descent from first degree to fifth (Ex. 14-3). It was a rare late-century symphony that did not display the sort of thematic interconnections and reminiscences taken for granted in the symphonic poem, suggestive not only of organic form but also of dramaturgy. This, too, has to be regarded as a dialectical synthesis in which formal principles initially thought incompatible gradually converged.


(3) Quoted in Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p. 271.

(4) Hans-Hubert Schönzeler, Bruckner (New York: Vienna House, 1978), p. 65.

(5) Deryck Cooke, “Bruckner,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. III (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 364.

(6) Quoted in Schönzeler, Bruckner, p. 80.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014002.xml