Connections and Transformations in Works of Schumann and Bruckner
A shy kiss in 1835 sealed a union that is one of the most famous in musical history. “We are meant for each other: I have known that for a long time,” the 25-year-old Robert Schumann confessed to his chosen bride Clara, nine years younger and the daughter of the piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, who had groomed the highly gifted girl as an acclaimed child prodigy. Schumann’s courtship, which from then on was conducted in passionate letters, was anathema to Wieck; his daughter deserved better than a poor musician. He sent her to Dresden to put an end to the love affair, but the young composer secretly followed her. Friedrich Wieck strictly forbade Clara from having any further contact with Schumann and forced her to return all his letters. Robert and Clara became secretly engaged in 1837 and continued their written correspondence using codes and symbols.
Dream of Marriage
Anton Bruckner was full of anticipation as he set off on a journey of several weeks in the Alps on 13 August 1880. The enthusiastic hiker wanted to enjoy the mountains, their peaks and precipices, experience the feeling of grandeur in the midst of magnificent nature and finally marvel at the summit of the glacier on Mont Blanc. In addition, he could look back on an extremely satisfactory summer since, after a longer phase of revising earlier works, which was so typical of him, he had written a string quintet and the first movement of his Sixth Symphony. But Bruckner’s travels also took him to a place that was very special to him, as a Catholic who had grown up in a religious environment: the Passion play at Oberammergau. Suddenly he was distracted, however – a different passion was aroused in the 56-year-old bachelor. Bruckner had noticed a young girl among the performers whose charming manner immediately captivated him. It was clear to him: she would become his bride. He managed to accompany the 17-year-old Marie to her home, where she lived with her mother. With his characteristic combination of provincial awkwardness and self-confident pride Bruckner told her that he, the “emperor’s organist”, would like to marry Marie. The mother hesitated but seemed to consider the offer. Bruckner left Oberammergau full of hope.
Clara reminded her secret fiancé several times of her wish that he compose a piano concerto for her. Robert began a draft in D minor but realized: “I see that I cannot write a concerto for virtuosos; I have to think of something else.” He had in mind a work that “lies somewhere between a symphony, concerto and a large sonata”. He had long been preoccupied with the idea of combining generic forms and in that way exploring the orchestral possibilities of the piano, which was continually undergoing further technical development. In 1836 he composed a three-movement sonata entitled Concert sans orchestre, and a year later he published the Etudes symphoniques for piano. After their marriage in September 1840, which finally took place after a long legal battle, Schumann first devoted himself to a year of almost frenzied song composition, then concentrated on the piano again in 1841, after a long break: “Began a Phantasie (with orchestra),” he noted in his household book on 4 May. As the title reveals, the one-movement work, which is divided into the three tempo sections corresponding to the traditional concerto form (fast-slow-fast), fulfils the idea of a piano concerto in a new form in which, as Clara aptly observed after an initial run-through, “the piano is skilfully interwoven with the orchestra”.
Bruckner finished his Sixth Symphony on 3 September 1881. The opening of the first movement, labelled “Maestoso”, a fluttering dotted triplet string figure on C sharp, immediately creates tension. With the entrance of the main theme in the cellos and basses the tonal range expands so much that the melodic structure – consisting of an upbeat descending fifth from E and a stepwise circling motion concluding with a leap back to the E – sounds archaically modal, since the third of the A major triad, the fluttering C sharp, seems too remote. A new dotted motif appears in the oboes and flutes; Bruckner has great plans for it. The listener does not anticipate that yet at this point, because as the movement becomes increasingly intense one is in a fever of excitement until the first great climax, in which the theme presented in the orchestral tutti displays its full force. But this small motivic kernel will mature almost unnoticed into a protagonist from which numerous other melodic figures economically develop – from the solemn, contrapuntally sophisticated Adagio to the light, bouncy, almost Mendelssohnian Scherzo to the Finale, in which Bruckner took particular pains to provide a clear formal structure and contrasting character. Transformations, metamorphoses are the driving forms of development. Not until the very end, as the last theme in the exposition of the Finale, does the small motif achieve the stature of a full-fledged theme, thus revealing in retrospect its structural significance.
In 1845 Schumann took the piano fantasy, which no publisher had been interested in, out of the drawer and decided to turn it into a three-movement concerto. The fantasy, with its middle section, an Andante espressivo, was to become the first movement. Since Schumann had already conceived the work as a self-contained entity, he first composed a conclusion interspersed with several brilliantly virtuosic passages which drew on the motifs of the fantasy. So as not to compete with the centrepiece of the work, he did not add another slow section but an intermezzo, followed attacca by the finale after an exciting transition. Clara Schumann played the work more than 100 times between 1845 and 1887; to this day it is regarded as the perfect example of the Romantic piano concerto and is still one of the most popular works of the genre.
Consequences and Successes
Perhaps they were not meant for each other after all? Bruckner could not understand why Marie, who had written to him regularly for weeks, did not answer his last letter. He waited, prayed, tried to be patient. What he did not know was that Marie was experiencing the same doubts, since her increasingly sceptical mother had intercepted Bruckner’s letter. Marie later married a sculptor. She kept the photo and prayer book of her former admirer till the day she died. Bruckner had to endure the loss of the bride he had dreamed of – he would never experience marital bliss.
Initially, the A major Symphony had to occupy the role of a half-forgotten stepsister between its great neighbours – the heroic Fifth and the Seventh Symphony, which Bruckner composed immediately after the Sixth, bringing him the long hoped-for breakthrough as a symphonic composer in 1884. Only gradually has there been a growing body of research with more frequent performances of this work, which is unique in Bruckner’s oeuvre because of its compositional intensity. One can only hope that it will become a full-fledged sister of Bruckner’s other great symphonies.