The Orchestre de la Francophonie was created in 2001 for the fourth Jeux de la Francophonie in Ottawa-Hull, a major cultural and sporting event that promoted the talent of young classical musicians from [...]
They spoke about it
Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony or Life After Wagner
Today, nobody would contest the fact that Bruckner’s symphonies form one of the most significant bodies of work in the repertoire. And while such recognition was late in coming during his lifetime, the premiere of the Seventh Symphony in Leipzig, on December 30, 1884, marked a turning point for Bruckner. At the age of 60, he was finally enjoying true popular success with one of his symphonies, and international recognition was quick to follow: Munich in 1885; Cologne, Hamburg, Vienna, Graz, Amsterdam, Chicago, and New York in 1886; and Berlin, Budapest, Dresden, and London the following year.
Previously, because of his early and unconditional admiration for the music of Richard Wagner , Bruckner found himself an unwilling participant in an esthetic quarrel between Wagner and the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick. In a series of theoretical essays published between 1849 and 1851, Wagner had outlined his conception of the “music of the future,” a “total artwork” that he would qualify as “absolute music” since it would fuse music, poetry and dance. Hanslick responded in 1854 with a book entitled On the Musically Beautiful, which would remain a highly influential work until the early 20th century. For Hanslick, true “absolute music” could, on the contrary, be none other than pure music—works that could stand on their own without any extra-musical, literary, pictorial or other references.
Hence, even though Bruckner was fundamentally a composer of pure music, as soon as his first symphonies were premiered—and especially the third, which he presented as an homage to Wagner—Hanslick took a strong dislike to the unfortunate composer and did not miss an opportunity to savage his work.
A shy and timid man, but proud of his humble peasant origins, Bruckner always felt a little overwhelmed by these turf wars between the intelligentsia of large cities such as Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, where his mastery of counterpoint and the organ had won him a professorship at the Conservatory and the position of organist at the imperial chapel. No one contested his exceptional talents in these areas; but when, in his forties, he turned his attention to composing symphonies, introducing the new instrumental forces and daring harmony developed by Wagner in his operas, the defenders of pure music were merciless.
A church musician and a very religious man, Bruckner found solace in his faith. And his daily contact with the organ and its repertoire contributed to a personal style that helped transcend what he borrowed from Wagner. Bruckner demonstrates a mastery of counterpoint and textural shading in his orchestral works, the result of long experience at the organ. Conceived as cathedrals of sound, these symphonies propelled the genre to new heights.
Without calling into question the classical plan of the symphony, in which two allegro movements frame a slow movement and a scherzo, Bruckner nevertheless developed an increasingly original conception of the form within these movements. For instance, in the sonata-form movements, he used three themes rather than the usual two on several occasions, including the monumental “Allegro moderato” in E major that opens the Seventh Symphony.
Over a sustained pianissimo tremolo in the violins, the cellos unveil a broad first theme over twenty measures, making it one of the longest opening themes in the symphonic repertoire. After a fortissimo reprise in the upper register by the violins and woodwinds in unison, a second theme arises, delicately ornamented, whispered like a secret by the oboes and clarinets. The cellos repeat this, wrapped in a luxurious counterpoint by the other strings. It is then freely developed until the violins play its inversion over a pedal note in the basses, beginning a huge crescendo that culminates in a dramatic pounding by the brass.
And yet this pounding is suddenly interrupted by the unexpected entry, subito piano, of a third theme in the woodwinds and strings, surprisingly serene and dance-like. This begins another crescendo that leads to another tempestuous sounding of the brass. Out of the echo of their last chord, the theme is repeated by the violins, again subito piano, that unravels into a slow decrescendo leading to a dreamlike echo in the horns that marks the end of the exposition.
The movement’s development and recapitulation alternate these three themes and their inversions in a skillful play of counterpoint. The climax is reached in the coda, where, over a tremolo pedal reinforced by a tympani roll, the beginning of the first theme in the horns and its inversion in the woodwinds are treated in a mirror-like superimposition that builds into a powerful spiral to the final chord.
Of the two years, that it took to compose the work, from the fall of 1881 to the fall of 1883, Bruckner spent the first fourteen months on this first movement. During this period, Wagner’s last opera was premiered in Bayreuth and, as Bruckner began the second movement in February 1883, a magnificent “very slow and solemn” adagio in the relative key of c-sharp minor, he would have learned of the master’s death.
He would tell the conductor Felix Mottl that he had composed the opening theme haunted by the apprehension of this death, which he could feel was near. The opening motif is exposed by a quartet of Wagner “tubas,” instruments that Wagner had conceived of and had built for certain passages of the Ring cycle where he wanted an especially mysterious and ghost-like sound, such as in Die Walküre, where the goddess Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund to announce his impending death. In this way, these curious brass instruments, a sort of hybrid of horn and tuba and which until then had only been heard in Wagner’s late works, made a most solemn and symbolic entry into the world of pure music.
This theme then appears to want to develop endlessly, a moving and somber eulogy to the memory of he who had dreamed of an “infinite melody.” This development is carried out primarily by the strings and is followed first by a strongly supported reference to the Te Deum Bruckner was working on at the same time. As if to conjure up unhappiness, the strings introduce the motif of the last words of the prayer, “non cunfundar in aeternum” (let me never be confounded). The violins eventually emerge into a more lively though melancholy second theme in a radiant f-sharp major, a kind of smile through the tears of someone remembering happy times with someone who is no longer there. From there, the funeral music and the melancholy theme alternate in a series of variations employing contrapuntal and instrumental textures of extraordinary beauty, giving the whole movement a classical large-scale ternary form (ABABA).
In contrast to the two preceding dramatic frescos, the Scherzo is a wonderful harlequinade. In the first section, over the nervous laughter of the strings, a solo trumpet introduces a theme that is a kind of ironic nose-thumbing, which provokes contagious laugher that is gradually communicated to the entire orchestra in waves, culminating in the outburst of the initial fortissimo cadence. The tympani seem to slyly attempt to set the whole thing off again but the woodwinds intervene and compete with a higher bid of poetic juggling. The trumpet eventually takes over to lead the whole ensemble into yet another outburst of laughter. The tympani then return, pianissimo, but the strings follow with the central trio section, a tender ballad that, in a commedia dell’arte, Pierrot might sing to his Colombine. After this more sentimental moment, the comedy returns anew with a complete repetition of the initial eruption of laughter.
The opening theme of the Finale is none other than that of the first movement, but transformed by a lively and nervous dotted rhythm; as if, after the grief of the second movement, it had been cheered by the comedy of the Scherzo; as if the music had discovered that life was still possible after the death of the god Wagner. The serene melody of the second theme, exposed by the violins over pizzicato basses, has all the characteristics of a chorale, seeming to express that the soul has finally achieved peace. The return of the incisive first theme in a huge fortissimo marks the beginning of a vast development section, built essentially around this initial theme. The recapitulation first returns to the chorale theme before the first enlivened theme is again developed until the coda, where, at the end of which, just as in the first movement, Bruckner presents the theme in mirrored counterpoint and in its original first-movement form, magnified into a final apotheosis.
Predictably, Hanslick did not fail to shoot Bruckner’s new symphony down in flames. But, as noted another critic, the public felt quite otherwise: “First there was surprise, then fascination, then admiration, and finally enthusiasm—such was their reaction.”
For this recording, the conductor used the Haas edition, considered today as the reference. But at the high point of the Adagio (rehearsal letter W), he decided to preserve the cymbal crash that Bruckner added on a piece of paper that was glued to the autograph. Haas rejected it because it also says “invalid,” as if the composer had subsequently rejected the late decision that was apparently a concession to some friends. But other Bruckner specialists stress that a similar passage in the adagio of the Eighth Symphony also includes a cymbal crash. Jean-Philippe Tremblay therefore decided to keep it, while respecting the rest of the reference edition.
© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen