Moderated discussion on the Orchester-Akademie’s anniversary
Benefit concert in support of the Orchester-Akademie
Musik für die Philharmonie Première of a work commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 version)
The high-point of the day celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Orchester-Akademie is a symphony concert organised exclusively by former and current scholars of the Academy. Since 1972, selected young musicians have been prepared in the Academy for a professional musical life, later finding positions in leading orchestras. For the first time since the institution’s founding, instrumentalists from every Academy generation all over the world will now be gathering to make music in the Philharmonie.
Sir Simon Rattle will conduct an orchestra of former scholars that will exist in this formation only on a single day in order to perform Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. The orchestra’s foundation, Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker, is presenting the Academy with a new work for its birthday by the British composer Benedict Mason, a riveting introduction to the Bruckner whose world premiere the academists are also performing. Dedicated to its founders, the Academy’s concert represents both a sincere token of gratitude for its past and an optimistic glimpse into its future!
Vienna, 1885. Anton Bruckner, who had long been looked down upon in the elitist circles of the Habsburg capital and was known to only a few insiders beyond the city boundaries as it was, had achieved his breakthrough on the international music scene, which he himself must have found almost unbelievable. His Seventh Symphony, premiered by Arthur Nikisch and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig on 30 December 1884 and performed in Munich a short time later, was a brilliant success. The quality of his symphonic works had finally been recognised, and (almost) no one wanted to challenge the position he had attained. Bruckner himself was nearly overwhelmed by the praise that was heaped on him; the honours connected with it and other social obligations were for him – the “shy Cyclops” – too much of a good thing. A letter to his sister, Rosalie Hueber, on 9 February 1885 verifies this: “Afterwards all the correspondence from here and abroad!!! Now there is also Holland, where my Third Symphony was performed with great success on 4 December. The second performance of my Seventh Symphony in Leipzig on 28 January was before the royal couple. The newspapers are full of admiration, also in Dutch. In March I will go to Munich (the performance in Hamburg is also approaching). Unfortunately I need a great deal of money. In The Hague they would like to see me in person.”
Immediately after completing the Te Deum, which he had begun in 1881, before the Seventh, Bruckner set about composing another symphony. Considering the fact that he began the sketches for the Ninth directly after finishing the Eighth (and during the work on the Seventh composed his impressive String Quintet), one can justifiably speak of a powerful creative surge. An important reason for it was the success of the Seventh and the revised Third Symphony mentioned above, which has, incidentally, continued to this day – along with the Fourth, Eighth and Ninth, these two works are Bruckner’s most frequently played symphonies. Bruckner had to pay a price for this fame, however. The Eighth could not really get off the ground. The composition process dragged on for many – at times agonising – years. He polished the Eighth until 1890, but another two years passed before this titanic symphony had its premiere. Yet no matter how arduous and sometimes painful these revisions may have been, the music world thanked the composer for it.
This success can be attributed not least to one of the most original and – in its scale – substantial scherzos of the entire Romantic symphonic literature. Formally, the composer adhered to the traditional schema in this Allegro moderato, the second movement of the symphony, to which he added the programmatic explanation “the German Michel [a figure representing the national character of the German people] musing upon his country”. The Scherzo, whose texture is probably the most rhythmically striking and massive within Bruckner’s symphonic universe, is arranged in three sections and, within these three sections, again divided into three parts. An expansive A-flat major Trio with the heading “Langsam” serves as the middle section, which introduces a soft, gentle cantilena at the opening, so that the overall formal scheme is A-B-A-C-A-B-A. This results in the virtually symmetrical structure found in many of Bruckner’s scherzos, but not as extended as here.
Significant – in addition to the formal solution – is the use of three harps, which in the original version of 1887 were not heard until the Adagio, but after the revision of the symphony were already assigned an important role in this movement. They not only create increased intimacy in the Trio at precisely the point where, according to Bruckner, “Michel briefly pauses in prayer”, they also form the soft, melodious conclusion of this interlude.
Architectural precision does not only prevail in the Scherzo; it is one of the symphony’s essential structural principles. Both in the first movement Allegro moderato – which begins with a wonderfully celestial atmosphere but then introduces the motif that is later used as a threatening gesture in the fourth movement – and in the Finale, headed “Feierlich, nicht zu schnell” [Solemn, not too fast], Bruckner presents three striking thematic complexes, which he then works out during the development section, following all the rules of polyphonic art. The difference between the Eighth and most of the earlier symphonies lies in the duration of this activity. At 75 minutes, the Eighth is (with the Fifth) by far the longest of Bruckner’s symphonies. There is another important contrast to normal symphonic principles: whereas the sections in his earlier works of the genre are clearly separated from each other, that is, the caesuras literally have the character of a break, the entrances of the major sections of the Eighth Symphony are deliberately obscured, especially in the outer movements. In other words, Bruckner “practiced” the art of the transition.
This art is also perceptible in the only movement that deviates from the three-part structure. The nearly half-hour-long D-flat major Adagio, which is marked “Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend” [Solemn and slow, but not dragging], consists of five large sections with rondo-like character and is, if you will, the secret heart of the symphony. The structure is “strophic,” that is, the two thematic groups forming the framework of this movement are repeated several times and rapidly intensified. The principle is a sort of continuous crescendo, as in the other movements. Furthermore, the Adagio, which opens with delicately hovering sounds, displays a few unusual features which should not go unmentioned. One is the style, particularly because of the expansive second theme, with its vast symphonic dimensions (the final restatement of the first theme alone covers 70 bars). In addition, similar to the main themes of the first and fourth movements, the main theme shows a contrast between obscuring and vivid clarification. In the Adagio, however, it is a contrast between rhythmic and harmonic complication on the one hand and chordal simplification on the other.
Although Bruckner provided no extramusical programme for the slow movement, for the monumental Finale – as in the first two movements – he devised a truly peculiar scene: “Finale. At that time our Emperor received the visit of the Czar at Olmütz; therefore, strings: ride of the Cossacks; brass: military music; trumpets: fanfares, as the Majesties meet. In closing, all themes; (odd), as in Tannhäuser in Act 2 when the King arrives, when the German Michel comes home from his journey, everything is already gloriously brilliant. – In the Finale there is also the death march and then (brass) transfiguration.” Thus, it is hardly surprising that this dramatic fragment resulted in confusion already during Bruckner’s lifetime. More recent Bruckner research confronts it calmly, however, as if to say: one should not take the master too seriously in this case but instead regard the Eighth Symphony as what it is – a marvellous work of enormous proportions and enormous genius.