Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reading Bruckner's 5th

Having tilted bravely at the Bruckner Problem (apropos his Fourth Symphony), I think we are well aware that Anton Bruckner was a composer who had problems. He was finicky, insecure, frequently crushed by the public's (and the critics') indifference to his music, and constantly driven to revise work he had already perfected.

At the time he wrote his B-flat Major Symphony No. 5 (1875-76), he had a lot to be troubled about. He was the defendant in a lawsuit. His career as an educator at Vienna University was proceeding turbulently. Without meaning to, he had made a great enemy in a music critic named Hanslick, who had set himself up as one of the cut-throat bastards of Western culture. (Hanslick is famous for saying Tchaikowsky's Violin Concerto "stinks to the ears.") And even his friends, such as Franz and Joseph Schalk, had a way of preying on Bruckner's insecurities.

Between them, and for other reasons, Bruckner never got to hear an orchestral performance of this symphony, though he lived until 1896. He did hear a two-piano version performed in 1887, but he was too sick for the orchestral premiere in 1894. So any hopes Bruckner may have attached to this symphony only added to his disappointments.

And then of course, this symphony has its own "Bruckner Problem." Naturally, the composer had some second thoughts, resulting in an "1878 version" of the symphony that has generally been the one performed, either in the 1935 Haas or the 1951 Nowak edition. Most performances of this symphony, and nearly all recordings, have been of one of these editions. The original score completed in 1876 is no longer extant, and can only be partly reconstructed from the fragments that remain. Meanwhile, the version that Franz Schalk conducted at the premiere, with probably unauthorized cuts and reorchestrations (or at best, revisions Bruckner accepted under duress), was published in 1896 as the "Schalk edition." This was the only version of the Fifth Symphony performed until the Haas edition came out. It is still occasionally played, and has been recorded as recently as 1998.

Though the Fifth Symphony is sometimes called his "Tragic" symphony, Bruckner did not take out his troubles on it by writing "autobiographical music" or by depicting everything that was going wrong for him. He did not write music of dark pathos or particularly bitter anguish. Rather, he worked out his pain in music of great thematic density, contrapuntal rigor, and formal sophistication. It is a symphony with large-scale symmetry: the outer and inner pairs of movements are united by similar themes and by their opening pizzicato patterns, for which the work has also been called the "Pizzicato" symphony. It has four sonata-form movements, and the finale also carries forward a sophisticated fugue. And it's an enormous work: for example, my CD of a 1993 recording of the Nowak edition runs close to an hour and a quarter. Two of the movements brush the 20-minute threshold, and the finale downright crosses it.

And now, here's a road map to the main points of interest in this symphony. The first movement opens with the only slow introduction in all of Bruckner's symphonies. The first thing you may hear, provided the volume is turned way up on your hi-fi system, is an oscillating bass pattern in the low, pizzicato strings. Over this, the other strings lay on the first glimpses of a vast, spacious, solemn edifice. After about a minute, an ascending arpeggio (broken chord) heralds the entry of the wind instruments, which contribute an impression of strength. At about the 2-minute mark, this opening Adagio gives way to the main sonata.

The initial, descending theme of the Allegro proves, later on, to be of no consequence at all. The music builds up quickly to an early climax, like the score to the moment in a sci-fi movie where one of the actors says, "I never imagined it like this," while gazing off-camera; cue special-effects sequence and BIG MUSIC. Right after this, say around 3:00, comes the first theme most listeners will readily identify on a drop-the-needle test. Bruckner creates space for it with one of those background string tremolos that he liked to use. This could be analyzed as a transitional theme, because it pulls the music from one key to the next with great efficiency. Bruckner makes a good deal of this theme, generating another minor climax before subsiding to a general pause - another favorite device of his, marking the break between the First Group and the Second.

The second theme involves the pizzicato strings in a sort of plucked chorale, full of searching and awe of the holy (in the sense of total otherness). In the absence of a score to guide my analysis, I can only guess that Bruckner achieved this effect through a combination of tonal instability (i.e., a readiness to slip into a different key at any moment) and indecision between major- and minor-key versions of the same chord. A countersubject is soon added to this theme, turning its almost monastic contemplation into something more personal, an expression I suppose of Bruckner's private yet very intense faith. Not for nothing is this symphony sometimes nicknamed "Church of Faith" - and yes, I believe that about exhausts the nicknames for this work.

Again, Bruckner brings the music down to silence, then introduces a Third Group: a key ingredient in his expanded take on sonata form. This one, arriving around 7:00, has an arch-shaped contour and is introduced by the woodwinds. Soon we are in full-blown codetta mode, with thrilling piles of brass notes, accelerations, crescendoes, and a gentle theme introduced by the horns and passed around among the wind instruments over, yes, another string tremolo.

Close to the ten-minute mark, development begins. We hear the ascending arpeggios from the slow intro, then the big theme from the First Group. Then, most interestingly, Bruckner takes us back to the beginning of the slow intro with its solemn string edifice, only this time the pizzicato-bass oscillation is transferred to the clarinet section. Soon we find our favorite First-Group theme flipped upside down. It goes right-way-up again at about 12:00, in time for some "serious development" (i.e. dramatic-sounding chord progressions). The pizzicato theme from the Second Group returns in the horns and woodwinds, sounding more chorale-like than ever.

By a little after 14:00, Bruckner is building up to a rather compressed recapitulation. The big theme from the first group appears without any of its erstwhile preliminaries. Then, in under a minute, he gets us back to the Second Group's chorale passage. Bruckner dwells on this theme considerably longer. It isn't until 17:00-ish that we hear the Third Group again. The accelerating part of the codetta is followed by an even faster coda that obsesses over the first theme, building almost steadily to an architecturally massive conclusion - saving an almost humorous moment when the momentum breaks for a gentle, upside-down repeat of the same theme. The last half-minute of the movement is basically closing chords.

In Movement II, Bruckner abandons Italian tempo markings and lapses into German. Sehr langsam translates as molto adagio. Again, it opens with a relatively soft, pizzicato accompaniment. The oboes, joined soon afterward by the bassoons, lay a theme over this whose rhythmic groups of two lie squarely across the accompaniment's groups of three. The tenderly solemn first theme, riddled with rhythmic challenges, dies away to another structural pause around 2:40, where the stronger, more assertive second theme arises in rich, homophonic harmony. This develops into a more contrapuntal passage with two melodic voices, often moving in canon, against a throbbing background. Here Bruckner's genius for large-scale musical architecture is seen to excellent advantage as he deliberately, yet enchantingly, builds this theme to a moving climax, then dies away for the development beginning around 6:00.

In the manner of a sonata-rondo, the second movement's development section takes us through the same material as the exposition, and in the same essential order. It abridges here, expands there, and airs the thematic material in different keys and instrumental combinations. I especially like the sense of weightlessness the second theme attains in this section. The recap, beginning around 13:30, doesn't so much take us back to a literal repeat of the expo as continue the development of the first theme. It strikes me just now that Elgar may have had parts of this first group in mind when he wrote his Enigma Variations. So much for that enigma! A more optimistic, major-key version of the first theme makes its debut around 15:30. Around 17:15 the pizzicato strings return to usher in a coda based on the first theme.

Movement III is a Scherzo and Trio, marked Allegro vivace, whose opening bass line is reminiscent of the pizzicato passage from the slow movement. The almost panicky first theme contrasts richly with the genteel dance that immediately follows it. The second part of the scherzo is rather like a sonata-form development section, elaborating and amplifying these themes. By about 3:45 we're ready for a recap and even a bit of coda. A general pause at 5:30-ish signals the advent of the central Trio, whose sinister opening gives way to a relaxed, easy-going dance tune. The second segment of the Trio revisits the same ideas with even more drama. Within two minutes, we're back in a varied repeat of the Scherzo, with an extended development and extra-thrilling coda.

Movement IV (Allegro molto) also begins with an Adagio introduction very similar to that of the first movement. In fact, the main difference, at first, is a couple of added clarinet "honks." The original intro soon breaks off for a review of the themes of the earlier movements. Then the clarinet proposes a fugue subject, taken up first by the basses, then the other string sections in ascending order. A general pause allows a theme, similar to the second theme of the Scherzo, to take its place in the sonata structure.

After another pause, a little before 6:00, the fugue subject returns, against an accompaniment of unison scalework. This subsides into another pause introducing the third theme, a majestic brass chorale decorated by halo-like echoes in the strings. Like the first movement's chorale theme, it carries a load of tonal instability, inherent in its very shape: its last few notes act as a very simple modulation. This theme serves as the second subject of the friggin' brilliant double fugue that occupies most of the movement. The scherzo-based, second theme reemerges around 15:15, more as a contrasting episode than anything else. We can safely regard this region of the movement as a development section, maintaining a sonata form while miraculously blending it with the fugue which returns in full force at about 17:45.

Listen for upside-down entries of the fugue subjects, as well as further right-side-up and upside-down reminiscences of the first movement's big theme. And try, just try, not to get caught up in the excitement of the accelerating coda with its colossal sonorities and air of unrestrained exultation. The last couple of minutes are so triumphant that you'll look back over the whole symphony and think, "Wow! Is it possible that a 74-minute symphony could go by so fast?" Before the closing chords - really, more like unison exclamation points over a thunderous timpani roll - the last thing you hear is yet another reminder of Movement I, making this whole symphony come across as a single unit and this movement as its triumphant coda.

IMAGES: Vienna University Square; Franz Schalk; Eduard Hanslick; Bruckner; a monument to Bruckner; two more images of Bruckner.

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