Now that The Bruckner Problem has been laid out on the table, let's clear the table and read the Fourth Symphony - bearing in mind that my comments are guided by a recording of the Nowak edition of the 1886 version of the work. The full title is Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, and its nickname - "Romantic" - is one that Bruckner himself suggested. He did not mean this in a kissy, lovey, mushy sense, but in the sense of a medieval romance, like the tales of the Age of Chivalry celebrated in some of Wagner's operas.
It is - I find this concept coming up sooner than I had intended - a "programme" work. That is to say, it isn't "abstract" or "absolute" music, but music intended to suggest particular images or points in a storyline. One of Bruckner's protégés alleged, for example, that the first movement is supposed to evoke "medieval town - dawn - from the towers of the town voices ring out, bidding the townspeople wake - the gates are thrown open - knights on proud stallions thunder out into the open countryside - the magical spell of the forest enfolds them - forest murmurs - birdsong," etc. In the 1878 version of the score, the scherzo contained markings (deleted from later revisions) such as "hunting theme" and "dance tune during mealtime on the hunt." In an 1890 letter, Bruckner interpreted the second movement as "song, prayer, serenade" and the Trio of the Scherzo as "how a barrel-organ plays during the midday meal in the forest." So, file that in the back of your head, and see how it fits what you hear.
Movement I is marked Bewegt, nicht zu schnell. Bewegt means "emotional," as in the phrase tief bewegt, "deeply moved." It begins with a gentle horn call over a whispering string accompaniment. The instrumentation opens up, suggesting awakening. The brass enters during a transitional passage, flooding the scene with a light and energy. A second group begins more quietly and daintily, though with intermittent explosions of brass-driven power. This dies down to a general pause at about 5'45", where the development begins very softly. A similar dying-away occurs at about 11'10", signaling the recap, where Bruckner adds little elaborative touches to the material we started with. A coda begins quietly around 15'30" - notice how Bruckner uses pauses, be they ever so brief, to articulate the joints between his musical sections. The two-minute coda builds up to a finish resonating with brass notes, and finally topped off by a ponderously majestic version of the opening horn call.
What just happened? Did any pictures come to your mind? Perhaps you were too busy straining to hear the tune through piles of brass chords. Advice: go back to the beginning and listen to the movement again. This time, pay attention to the soft parts; that's where you can best hear Bruckner working out the finer details of his themes. The attention-grabbing loud parts have a tendency to drown themselves out, as you can only clearly hear a few brass instruments, often playing repeated notes. There are lots of these big passages, since the idea of the piece is to get caught up in the majesty of a romantic knight, decked out for battle and riding his charger out on a daring quest. Thus the music expresses, by turns, religious devotion, martial virtues, the purity of dawn, and sweet, chaste desire. Listen particularly for three recurring themes: the opening horn call, the six-note ascending/descending scale figures of the transition theme, and the dainty, string-driven second subject. The transition theme, by the way, contains an example of the "Bruckner rhythm" - a little musical signature he wrote into many of his pieces.
Movement II, in C minor, is marked Andante quasi Allegretto. Apparently there was no German word for this, which I take to mean "extremely moderate" in tempo, neither fast nor slow. It begins with a yearning tune introduced by the cellos against a soft string accompaniment. Your ears should perk up at the first three notes of the tune (sol-do-sol), the same intervals that led off the first movement's opening horn call. Being susceptible to mental pictures (and willing to give way to them while listening to evocative music like this), I like to picture a maiden waiting at a tower window, wistfully watching the horizon for the return of her champion. Something curious happens in the horn parts at about the 3' mark, like a punctuation mark, page turn, or an indication that "time passed..." Then the violas announce a new theme, accompanied in a manner similar to the first theme. This melody is more searching and tonally unstable. Our solitary maiden seems to have gone past wistfulness to distress of mind as she struggles to keep her anxious thoughts in order.
At 5' a flute suggests a somewhat more cheerful idea. This must be the codetta, because the development abruptly begins around 6'15". Through the dense smoke of counterpoint you can, now and then, make out the outline of at least the first theme. It's the most energetic passage in the movement so far, until it dies away for the recap beginning a little before 8'. As in the first movement, Bruckner adds little highlights to his themes on this second time through. The new transition to the second theme is particularly interesting. The desolation of this theme and of the way it is scored is very striking. After a more elaborate version of the musical comma previously remarked upon, the coda begins at about 12' with an even more elaborate version of the first theme. This is the most imaginative part of the movement, for my money, as it presents a sequence of contrasting moods while more or less steadily increasing in energy and volume for about two minutes. Then the life goes out of it and the music ends in a passage of touching melancholy, is if our maiden has awakened from a wonderful dream that her knight had returned and finds herself still alone in her tower.
Movement III is the "hunting" Scherzo you have been waiting for. Check your safety and keep your blaze-orange vest on the outside of your coat, for the foxes are running, the dogs are barking, the horses are going flat-out, and the horns are calling to each other. You hear them from the far distance, the middle distance, up close. You're in the middle of the chase; you're suddenly alone, separated from the hunt. You rest for a moment; you pick up a signal, or your dog picks up a scent, and off you go again. To be sure, this isn't a realistic depiction of a hunt; it's romanticism, through and through, and Bruckner was never embarrassed to say so. The whole orchestra gets into the act, the whole brass section pretending to be horns, until the Scherzo comes to an all-but-deafening conclusion. By contrast, the Trio has a rustic simplicity, whispering of a peaceful country life. Too soon, the noise and chaos of the hunt rushes back out of the distance, perhaps on its return to wherever it came from. Bruckner has a gift for spotting the precise moment when the yodeling of the horns is about to become monotonous, and inserts an ear-catching modulation at just that point. Subtle music it is not, but it does raise the spirits!
Movement IV, which runs for about 19'30", begins with a plunging theme that seems to be searching for the tonic (E-flat) as it goes through several keys, while at the same time building up to a colossal "all in" passage known, in the lingo of music nerds, as a tutti. At about 2'30" Bruckner uses one of those patented pauses to effect the transition to a gentler, more horizontal tune rising up out of the lower strings. At 3'10" this steps aside for a theme introduced by the upper winds. Bruckner makes a good deal of this theme, including a loud brass statment of it, before allowing it to fade away. At 5'15" we are suddenly engulfed by a massive minute of musical hysteria, followed by a calmer codetta that seems to draw consolation from fragments of the 3'10" theme. As one might expect by now, this fades away, and the development commences softly after a brief pause, at about 7'15".
From this point onward, this movement eludes formal analysis. There is no clear borderline between development and recap; the remainder of the movement seems to be a kind of jousting match between the grim, plunging theme from the opening and its more gracious opposite number from 3'10". First the one, then the other holds the upper hand as these two themes battle it out, one interrupting the other, that one lurking quietly behind this one. At one point (say, 12'20") the plunging theme appears downside-up in the clarinet part. By about 16'40" Bruckner seems to have awarded the laurel to Sir 3'10", but the victory is ambiguous; for the bars that softly follow quote first the 3'10" theme, then (for the first time, tenderly) the plunging theme in what sounds to me like a heroic death scene. Bruckner slowly stirs this up to a massive conclusion full of ecstatic, religious solemnity. This is hardly the kind of "Hollywood ending" you would expect after Mr. Nice puts Mr. Nasty down, but it is perhaps in keeping with the composer's romantic vision of medieval honor, piety, and chivalry.
Bruckner's "Romantic" Symphony is not necessarily any more romantic than the others. But it does kick @$$ in a very special way that has made it, almost since the beginning, one of the master's most beloved works. Sure, it's over an hour long, but how long does it take you to read Ivanhoe? Plus, it lights up circuits in your hi-fi system that don't see much action. Long it is, but not long-winded; it simply has big ideas and lots of them, and gives them plenty of space in which to duke it out - or to pace the atop its crenellated walls, wringing its hands with longing - or to laugh, and dance, and ride with the hounds to the sound of near and distant horns. In short, it creates a world around you, a fascinating world you will be in no hurry to leave.
EDIT: Below is a video of Rafael Kubelik conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement of this symphony. Enjoy!