Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) composed his ever-popular Seventh Symphony between the years 1881-1883. It was then subject to further revisions in 1885. The premiere was given by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of Arthur Nikisch in Lepizig in December 1884. The symphony bought the composer great success, and at the age of sixty, this was the most public fame that Bruckner had experienced. The standing ovations that followed the finale movement of the Seventh Symphony reportedly lasted a whole 15 minutes.
Interestingly, this later in life fame shocked critics who were excited by this ‘mature talent’. One wrote: “How is it possible that he could remain so long unknown to us?” Although admired by his contemporaries, including his close friend Gustav Mahler, Bruckner’s infamous indecisiveness and habit of reworking all of his works, especially his symphonies, made him less in the public light. Known as one of the most insecure of composers, Bruckner often went large periods of time without composing anything due to writer’s block. These inconsistencies also played towards his standing in the classical music sphere at this time.
However, after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, Bruckner never again enjoyed the success like this work. Although, Bruckner’s works were henceforth paid much more attention to, and certainly demanded the attention from critics and audiences alike. Often lurking in the background, Bruckner started to become a household name like his contemporaries Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner.
Once Bruckner had found his successful symphonic voice, his large-scale form and musical content began to knit together much more easily than before. Known to be the first composer to tackle the Wagnerian language into instrumental music, Bruckner’s output into the world remains popular and important today.
Bruckner’s large-scale symphonic structure consisting of a big first movement, a gloriously spacious adagio, a peppy scherzo and a grandiose finale became his namesake. The Seventh Symphony was the most performed symphony of Bruckner’s during his lifetime, with that perhaps also being the case now in the modern day.
The Seventh calls for the largest orchestra Bruckner had ever used. One of the most notable parts of the orchestration is Bruckner’s use of Wagner tubas. Invented by Wagner himself for The Ring of Nibelung, unlike the name suggests, they are not actually tubas. Wagner designed them to bridge the gap between french horns and trombones. Using horn mouthpieces, they are more often than not played by horn players.
Bruckner used the Wagner tubas in the second and fourth movements of the Seventh Symphony, as well as the Adagio of the Eighth Symphony and in the unfinished Ninth Symphony.
The epic first movement begins with a noble melody emerging from the shadows. The idea of a drawn-out opening movement melody became something Bruckner revelled in. The opening theme became one of Bruckner’s most distinctive ideas throughout all of his music. The music develops in unexpected ways, however the underlying E major arpeggio remains at the core of this movement. Bruckner’s shaping of phrases becomes seamless, with variations sounding like natural progressions.
The music slowly builds to a chirpy Allegro section which can be read as three main themes, a developmental section and an extensive coda. The E major tonality rings true throughout most of the work, with the bass end of the orchestra often keeping the music firmly rooted in the key.
The climatic ending of this epic 22 minute opening movement is accentuated by the fanfaring brass and frantic string movement.
Adagio: Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam
The even longer Adagio second movement sees some of Bruckner’s most sensitive and emotionally-driven writing. The composer famously wrote a letter to conductor Felix Mottl saying that he had been troubled by premonitions of Wagner’s death: “One day I came home and felt very sad. The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master would die, and then the C# minor theme of the Adagio came to me.” His thoughts became a reality in 1883 as he was still writing the Adagio when Wagner died on February 13th. After hearing the news, Bruckner wrote the heart-wrenching coda for the second movement, which he always referred to as “the funeral music for the Master”.
The movement is opened by the Wagner tubas and the melodic movement is built up from there. Once the music reaches the first epic climax it is in C major, which is a highly surprising and impressive destination for a movement of music that was firmly planted in C# minor. During the climax the percussion add to the overall drama by utilising instruments such as the cymbal, triangle and snare drum.
The extensive coda written in memory of Wagner, can be likened to some of the later works by Brahms, Wagner and Mahler. This is where Bruckner’s mature style is at its best, with heart-wrenching string writing and highly calculated harmonic movement, the Adagio movement is perhaps the highlight of the whole symphony.
Scherzo: Sehr schnell (A minor) – Trio: Etwas langsamer
With a dramatic change in character to the movement previous, the quirky scherzo and trio movement is brilliantly colourful and full of life. Dominated by an unrelenting string ostinato, the melody is first dominated by a trumpet. The theme is passed around the brass and this bouncy music leads to a contrasting trio section which emphasises Bruckner’s pastoral writing.
Using melodic material from previous movements, the trio goes through different emotions before reaching the recap section. The brass proclaim the melody as the music builds up to the finale movement.
Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht schnell
Back in the home key of E major, the finale movement begins much like that of the opening movement. With a slower beginning that is ever-changing, the music builds to a ‘not too quick’ tempo. The epic sounds later on are led by the brass once more, and the symphony’s first theme is embraced one more in the form of E major fanfares. The symphony ends in true Bruckner style with full forces playing that amounts to a spine-tingling finish.
Just before Bruckner completed his iconic Seventh Symphony, Bruckner visited Bayreuth in August 1883 to visit Wagner’s grave. The composer paid his respects to ‘The Master’, a man whom he owed so much. Bruckner returned home and completed the finale of the Seventh Symphony. The famous premiere of the work fifteen months later was at a benefit concert by request of Bruckner, so that he could raise money for a Wagner monument.
A truly epic masterpiece that is still enjoyed today just as much as when it was premiered, Bruckner’s impressive Seventh Symphony proves that persistence is key in some situations.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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