Allegro moderato [19'18]
Hyperion is delighted to present Donald Runnicles, chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, in his debut on the label. Runnicles commands his orchestra in Bruckner’s most popular symphony—repertoire that is at the heart of his musical life, and in which he has few living equals. Recent concerts of the works of Bruckner and Wagner have received the highest critical praise, acknowledging the orchestra and their conductor as consummate performers of this music.
‘For an orchestra who hadn’t played Bruckner 7 since 1975, the BBCSSO sounded utterly on home territory. From the sumptuous opening cello theme to the finale’s noble fanfares, this was a spacious, tender and beautifully poised performance … it’s not often you hear cries of “encore” after a Bruckner symphony, but I would gladly have heard this one repeated in full’ (The Guardian)
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For Bruckner, the years leading up to the composition of the Seventh Symphony (1881–3) were a hard lesson in patience, to say nothing of the strain they put on his mental health and religious faith. Writing about the almost exactly contemporary Te Deum (1881–4), Bruckner explained to the conductor Hermann Levi that he had dedicated it ‘to God for having brought me through so much anguish in Vienna’.
It had all started so promisingly. In 1868, at the age of forty-four, Bruckner had left his Upper Austrian homeland (where he’d achieved considerable local success) for Vienna, full of hope. But despite the support of the conductor Johann Herbeck, and despite his growing reputation as an organist, Bruckner experienced incomprehension and savage mockery from the Viennese musical establishment. Herbeck did manage to persuade a reluctant Vienna Philharmonic to premiere Bruckner’s Third Symphony in 1877; but with only weeks to go before the performance, Herbeck died suddenly (he was only forty-five), and Bruckner had to step into his place. It was a catastrophe. The orchestra was unimpressed with both Bruckner’s music and his conducting skills—one can only guess what the performance must have been like. The hall gradually emptied, until at the end only around two-dozen stalwart enthusiasts were left. Bruckner was then subjected to a mauling in the press. The review by the influential critic Eduard Hanslick was a particularly vicious mixture of acid and serpentine compliments:
We do not enjoy upsetting the composer, whom we seriously respect as both a person and an artist, and who is certainly serious about art, however little he may have to do with it. For this reason, instead of criticizing him we would rather make the modest confession that we did not understand his gigantic symphony. His poetic intentions were not clear to us—perhaps a vision of how Beethoven’s Ninth befriends Wagner’s Walküre and ends by being trampled under her horses’ hooves.
Unsurprisingly, Bruckner’s confidence—rocky at the best of times—very nearly collapsed. For over a year he wrote virtually nothing. There was little consolation in his personal life, despite the enthusiasm of a few zealous student friends (including the seventeen-year-old Gustav Mahler). The constant failure of his attempts to marry (Bruckner had a bizarre tendency to fall for unsuitably young women) further depressed him. There are also hints that he experienced religious doubts—as can perhaps be inferred from the curiously unresolved, or at the very least tonally ambiguous ending of the Sixth Symphony (1879–81). Yet the very fact that Bruckner kept going at all—and, moreover, kept writing symphonies—suggests that at the deepest level he must have had great strength of purpose. His sense that composing was for him a ‘vocation’ in the end proved sound. For many listeners that inner strength is evident in his symphonies—the Seventh very much included.
Eventually encouragement did come from other, more influential quarters. In 1881, the year Bruckner began the Seventh Symphony, the belated premiere of the Fourth (originally composed in 1874 but much revised) under Hans Richter actually drew praise from some quarters of the Viennese press. This was by no means universal, but Bruckner was overjoyed to be understood at all. Apparently it was at a rehearsal for that performance that—with typically gauche enthusiasm—Bruckner pressed a silver Thaler into Richter’s hand and told him to ‘drink my health in a glass of beer’. Soon afterwards, Bruckner began work on the Te Deum; and a few months later, on 23 September, he set down his first ideas for the Seventh Symphony. Apparently the symphony’s wonderful opening melody came to Bruckner in a dream: the conductor Ignaz Dorn, a friend from Bruckner’s younger days, appeared to him and played the theme on a viola, with the words ‘this will bring you success’. As it turned out, the first performance of the Seventh Symphony—significantly, not in conservative Vienna, but in the much more progressive city of Leipzig—was one of the greatest successes of Bruckner’s life. One critic wrote: ‘How is it possible that he could remain so long unknown to us?’
It isn’t hard to believe that the Seventh Symphony’s long arching first theme (cellos and violas, with horn at first) could have come straight from the unconscious mind—a gift of nature. One of Bruckner’s pupils and closest friends, Friedrich Eckstein, visited the composer regularly at this time, and he was often able to inspect the sketches for whichever work was then in progress. Eckstein was struck by how unusually the Seventh’s opening theme came into being. His remarks about Bruckner’s normal working habits—and how the opening of the Seventh differed from these—is worth quoting at length:
Almost every time I visited Bruckner at his apartment in the Hessegasse, I found him sitting at his old-fashioned, bulky Bösendorfer grand piano, deep in the sketch of one of his symphonies, laboriously, with shaking hands, coaxing out the harmonies. These musical outlines were in themselves quite remarkable. As a rule only the violin or the top woodwind line was filled in, and in the bottom, the bass; in between was a yawning gap, and it wasn’t until much later that the remaining orchestral voices were added. The harmonic dimension and the arrangement of the orchestral voices were already clearly established in the Master’s inner ear, and here and there, underneath the bass line, would stand a note, usually in the form of a capital letter, to indicate the harmonic ‘fundamental tone’ of the passage in question.
But what a wealth of unimagined beauty was revealed when I saw the very first bars of one newly begun work, the wonderful Seventh Symphony: where the string tremolos launch a deeply moving harmonic sequence that arches through a splendid chain of suspensions, bathing the main theme, on horn and cellos, in shafts of radiant sunlight!
The vision intensifies as the melody is repeated by full orchestra, then it fades poignantly. A melancholy, far more plainly scored second theme (on oboe and clarinet) aspires to recover lost glory, and eventually it sounds as though it might succeed: there is a long crescendo over a repeated bass note, with brass fanfares rising in mounting excitement. But this is suddenly cut off, and a more animated third theme follows: an earthy dance tune (strings in unison, with woodwind and brass support). This too reaches a fanfare-like climax, yet once again it is cut short before everything is fully resolved. Some find this typically Brucknerian strategy frustrating. After conducting the Seventh Symphony Thomas Beecham grumbled: ‘In the first movement alone I took note of six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages.’ But patience brings rewards—just as it did for Bruckner himself. When the great final resolution does come it is all the more telling for being so long—and so expertly—delayed. It is not too fanciful to compare this process with the workings of Providence as described by John Milton at the conclusion of his Samson Agonistes:
All is best, though we oft doubt,
For most of the first movement Bruckner allows us only fleeting memories of his original vision; but then, near the end, comes a sudden hush, and the timpani enter for the first time, holding a pedal E, pianissimo. Above this a motif from the symphony’s opening melody aspires nobly, then turns with magnificent inevitability to the home key. Now the symphony’s opening motif rises steadily through the orchestra, a crescendo over a long-held E major triad. Bruckner almost certainly had the elemental one-chord crescendo the opens Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the back of his mind, but quite apart from the orchestral sound, the effect here is quite different—after all, this is an ending, not a beginning.
It is said that Bruckner composed the Adagio in the knowledge that his idol Wagner hadn’t long to live. There is an unmistakable note of mourning in the noble first theme, in which Bruckner uses—for the first time—a quartet of the so-called ‘Wagner tubas’ (more like tenor and bass horns than the familiar bass tuba): Wagner had had these instruments created to enhance the brass section in his Ring cycle. Bruckner’s idolization of Wagner was so intense that it seems to have embarrassed even Wagner himself. And yet, in contrast to the music of some of Wagner’s other devotees, Bruckner rarely sounds like Wagner. Just before the Adagio’s lovely second theme (strings, 3/4), horn and tubas introduce a quotation from Tristan und Isolde (the chromatic rising figure in bars 2 and 3 of the opera’s Prelude), at its original pitch. But unless this is pointed out, the listener would be unlikely to notice it; the effect is pure Bruckner.
Eventually the Adagio’s first theme builds steadily to one of Bruckner’s grandest climaxes. Here there is special emphasis on the stepwise rising motif that also appears in the final long crescendo of the Te Deum—to the words ‘non confundar in aeternum’ (‘let me never be confounded’). In most performances the climax is crowned by a cymbal clash, with triangle and timpani. But when Robert Haas made his version of the score in 1944 he removed these percussion parts, reproducing them instead in his preface to the score, pointing out that someone has written the words ‘gilt nicht’ (‘not valid’) in the top right-hand corner of the page; Haas says that the handwriting is that of ‘the elderly Bruckner’, though this has been disputed. Haas’s decision would appear to be strengthened by a letter from one of Bruckner’s more controversial champions, Josef Schalk, to his brother Franz. The date of the letter is 10 January 1885—i.e. eleven days after the symphony’s Leipzig premiere:
[Ferdinand] Löwe and I have recently gone through the score of the Seventh with Bruckner, discussing one or two alterations and improvements. You probably don’t know that Nikisch has got him to agree to our cymbal clash in the Adagio (C major 6–4 chord), along with the triangle and the timpani—to our unbounded delight.
‘Our cymbal clash’—surely that clinches the matter! Yet the fact is that we shall almost certainly never know how many ‘alterations and improvements’ Bruckner made at the promptings of enthusiasts like Nikisch, Löwe and the Schalks. Contrary to popular belief, Bruckner was quite capable of putting up resistance when he really didn’t like an idea. And although he could be relatively puritan about instrumentation when it came to symphonies (harps were included in the Eighth only after a month-long struggle, according to his pupil Friedrich Eckstein), if he had doubts about the suitability of cymbals and triangle, why did he include them again in the Adagio of Symphony No 8? From a musicological point of view the issue is hard to resolve. In this recording, Donald Runnicles includes the percussion.
Like many of Bruckner’s earlier scherzos, the Scherzo of the Seventh Symphony reveals its rustic Upper Austrian roots at almost every turn—in his younger days Bruckner had boosted his meagre teacher’s salary by playing in village dance bands. However there is an obsessive, elemental drive here, which is to become still more pronounced in the scherzos of the next two symphonies. The Trio is much gentler, more songful, featuring Bruckner’s signature ONE-two ONE-two-three rhythm.
Then comes the Finale: unusually for Bruckner this is the lightest of the four movements. As in the first movement there are three contrasted main themes: a dancing, dotted-rhythm theme (violins); a not-too-solemn chorale on violins and violas above a ‘walking’ pizzicato bass; and a jagged version of the first theme for full orchestra. Excitement builds towards the coda; then at the last minute Bruckner reveals what many listeners will have guessed already, at least intuitively: that the finale’s dancing first theme is simply another version of the symphony’s opening motif. Thus Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony closes with a splendid confirmation of the first movement’s opening vision—or as T S Eliot put it in his Four Quartets: ‘In my beginning is my end.’
Stephen Johnson © 2012