Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Bruckner Problem

As we prepare to gather around Bruckner's Fourth Symphony in E-flat, nicknamed the "Romantic" Symphony, we find ourselves facing a problem. What problem? The problem of which Fourth Symphony we should listen to. Why is this a problem? Because you may be listening to one version of Bruckner's Fourth while I am talking about a radically different one. This problem concerns most of Bruckner's other symphonies as well, so it is quite sensibly known as The Bruckner Problem.

So before we read this symphony together, we need to at least understand the Bruckner Problem as it relates to Bruckner's Fourth. A good place to start would be to read this Wiki article several times, taking notes as needed; then think about it for a while in a quiet place, preferably where there is room to pace up and down; then read the article again. But I can see how that might be asking a lot of you. Since you did come to my blog to read what I have to say, I will do my best to make The Bruckner Problem as simple and clear as it can be.

Anton Bruckner (1824-96), the son of a small-town Austrian schoolmaster and organist, left home to study counterpoint and become a great organ virtuoso. In mid-life, he fell in love with the music of Wagner; but, being devoted to classical structures, contrapuntal procedures, sacred music, and beer, he never quite fit into the Wagner clique. His great ambition was to write symphonies on a Wagnerian scale, not only in length but in grandeur and in fluid, far-ranging harmony. And this he did, undiscouraged by the public's slowness to appreciate his work. Happily, the Fourth Symphony became one of his most successful works - though only after a good deal of trial and error. And thereby hangs The Bruckner Problem. Let's take it step by step, shall we?
  1. 1874: Original Version. Bruckner completes his first version of Symphony 4. This "first blush" version wasn't published or performed until 1975, over a century after it was written.
  2. 1878: Volksfest Version. Bruckner revises the first 2 movements and replaces the Scherzo and Finale. The new 3rd movement is nicknamed the "Hunt" Scherzo, and the new 4th movement is nicknamed "Volksfest" (popular festival). Except for the finale it is the same as the 1880 version.
  3. 1880: Vienna Version. Bruckner replaces the "Volksfest" with a third and final finale. This is the version of the symphony's first performance, conducted by Hans Richter in Vienna in 1881. Though historically significant for that reason, the 1880 version was never published or performed again.
  4. 1881: Karlsruhe Version. Following the Vienna premiere, Bruckner made some further revisions, particularly in Movements 2 & 4. Felix Mottl conducted the first performance of this version in Karlruhe that same year, without Bruckner present. It was poorly received, but many musicologists regard this as the "definitive version." This was the version Robert Haas, editor for the International Bruckner Society, published in 1936 and 1944. If your recording says something like "1878/80 Version: Edited by Robert Haas," or simply, "Haas Edition," you may take that to mean this version of the symphony.
  5. 1886: New York Version. Bruckner makes still more changes before giving the symphony to Anton Seidl, who conducted the "revised definitive" version in New York in 1888. Leopold Nowak, Haas's successor, published this version in 1953 under the confusing misnomer "1878/80 Version." So if your recording mentions those dates and adds "Edited by Leopold Nowak," or "Nowak Edition," it is actually based on Bruckner's 1886 version.
  6. 1887: Löwe-Schalk Version. Ferdinand Löwe, Franz Schalk, and Joseph Schalk thoroughly revise the score, allegedly under Bruckner's supervision. Meant to be the first published edition, this version had its first performance in Vienna, under Richter, in 1888. Because Bruckner was dissatisfied with that performance, the 1887 version was never published or performed again.
  7. 1888: Final Version. Bruckner makes some final, major revisions to all four movements following the premiere of the 1887 version. It was this version that the firm of Albert J. Gutman published in 1889, and again with the errata corrected in 1890. This was the only version anybody heard from 1888 to 1936; it is often, perhaps erroneously, identified with the Löwe-Schalk Version.
So, why all the confusion and controversy? Why doesn't everybody simply perform the final version, which represents Bruckner's final documented thoughts on this symphony, and which was published with his approval during his lifetime? The remarkable sequence of revisions and rewrites that I have just decribed isn't the problem. The problem - The Bruckner Problem - is that we're not sure the 1888 version really represents Bruckner's wishes. In fact, musicologists are bitterly divided on this. Some seem to be unable to decide which is the most authentic version of the Fourth. Others are rabidly opinionated on the matter, whether or not their opinion is based on documented evidence.

Point of Contention #1: Haas took his "definitive edition" from Bruckner's 1881 revision, though he somewhat confusingly described it as the 1878/80 version. Nowak compounds the confusion by basing his "1878/80 version" on the 1886 score. So two recordings of a so-called 1878/80 version may, in fact, contain two different versions of the symphony. So, look carefully at the record label. A good CD issue will probably say whether it is a recording of the Haas or Nowak edition. Recordings of the Haas edition include the first complete recording of the Fourth, conducted by Karl Böhm in 1936. One can also find this edition in recordings by Bruno Walter (CBS, 1960), Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1970), Georg Tintner (Naxos, 1996), Günter Wand (live for BMG, 1998), and others. As for the Nowak edition, it has been performed by Eugen Jochum (DG, 1955 & -65), Georg Solti (London, 1981), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 1987), Simon Rattle (EMI, 2006), and many others, including some who had also conducted the Haas version.

Point of Contention #2: Were Haas and Nowak correct about the 1878/80 version being "definitive"? New evidence casts doubt on their views. It is now clear that sloppy scholarship, unfounded assumptions, and subjective, inconsistently-applied criteria were used to rule out the authenticity of the score published by Gutmann in 1889-90. The picture of Bruckner as an insecure composer too willing to bend to pressure (e.g. from people like Löwe and the Schalks) to make revisions against his own judgment is no longer as credible today as when Haas popularized it. Plus, a manuscript long thought to prove that Bruckner still supported the 1878/80 version in 1890 has been debunked. Meanwhile, the existence of Bruckner's own 1888 revisions cannot be discounted as readily as Haas and others claimed. So, brace yourself for a new wave of recordings of the 1889-90 edition, republished in a critical edition by Benjamin Korstvedt in 2004. It has already been recorded by conductor Akira Naito (Delta, 2005). Or, you may also find earlier recordings based on Gutmann's first published edition, such as those conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1951.

It is also possible, if you are really interested, to hear the original, 1874 version of the symphony in all its unrevised glory. Published by Nowak in the 1970s, it has been recorded under the baton of Eliahu Inbal (Teldec, 1982). Even the Volksfest finale of 1878 is on disc, thanks again to Tintner (Naxos, 1998).

So, before I go on to "Reading Bruckner's Fourth," do your best to wrap your mind around The Bruckner Problem. I hope my summary helps more than it hurts. Though I would like to hear and compare the Haas and Korstvedt editions, perhaps the 1874 version, and even (someday) the Volksfest, for now I am content with my CD of a 1967 recording of the Nowak "1878/80" (i.e., 1886) version, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted by Eugene Ormandy. I simply don't have room in my library, my schedule, or my brain to pursue a comparative study of Bruckner's 4th recordings. In my next post I will stick to one and only one topic: what Bruckner's Fourth means to me.

IMAGES: Bruckner at various ages; part of a manuscript from a Bruckner Symphony.


Unknown said...

I love a wide variety of composers, both famous and not so famous, but there are a few composers I don't love, and chief among them is Bruckner. For me, there is only one "Bruckner problem": no talent! Boring, boring, boring. Why is Bruckner still a thing?

RobbieFish said...

Well, I for one don't find him boring. Usually. There are passages here and there that try my patience. But there are also thrilling and haunting movements that create a timeless space where I feel like I could live forever.