Bruckner’s Fourth, plus a MacMillan U.S. premiere

Anton Bruckner, one of those guys who was born very old in certain ways while remaining eternally youthful in others. A man of many facets, you might say!

I realized that I never posted the notes I wrote for a concert that happened last November, in 2022. This was one of those cases when I wrote the notes so far in advance of the concert that I sort of forgot about it until after the fact. At any rate, it was a splendid performance by all accounts, and here are the notes I wrote for the concerts at the Meyerson.

But before I do that, I wanted to post a link to a fantastic performance of the Bruckner so that you could listen to it first. In my experience, Bruckner is underappreciated, at least in this country, and despite the occasional longueurs, his music offers many Wagnerian thrills, minus all of that Gesamtkunstwerk showbiz and twincest. (Don’t get me wrong: Like Brahms, I am the best of the Wagnerians, and also a lover of camp, as in early John Waters, but I have deduced that many other listeners prefer the werk minus the Gesamtkunst, if that even makes sense in German, in which case they might find that they actually prefer Bruckner to the composer he worshiped so obsequiously.)

Here’s Gunter Wänd leading the NDR Elbphilharmonie, since the Luisi performance for which I wrote these program notes is, alas, not currently YouTubeable:

Luisi Conducts MacMillan and Bruckner

by René Spencer Saller

James MacMillan (b. 1959): Violin Concerto No. 2

The Scottish composer and conductor Sir James Loy MacMillan first attracted international attention in 1990, after the rapturous response at the BBC Proms to his large symphonic work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Subsequent successes range from his extraordinary (and unusually popular) percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel to his Fourth Symphony, which was first performed on August 3, 2015, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conducted by his fellow countryman Donald Runnicles. MacMillan’s recording with Britten Sinfonia of his Oboe Concerto, for the Harmonia Mundi label, won the 2016 BBC Music Magazine Award. In 2019 The Guardian deemed his Stabat Mater the 23rd greatest work of art music since 2000. MacMillan completed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 2021, and the world premiere—performed by the work’s dedicatee, the Scottish virtuoso Nicola Benedetti—took place on September 28, 2022, at Perth Concert Hall, Perth, Australia. This is its U.S. premiere. 

The Composer Speaks

“My Second Violin Concerto is written in one through-composed movement and is scored for a medium-sized orchestra. It opens with three chords, and the notes which the soloist plays in these (pizzicato) outline a simple theme which is the core ingredient for much of the music. This three-note theme incorporates a couple of wide intervals which provide much of the expressive shape to a lot of the subsequent melodic development throughout the concerto.

“When the soloist eventually plays with the bow, the character of the material sets the mood for much of the free-flowing, yearning quality of the music throughout. The prevailing slow pulse is punctuated by some faster transitional ideas, and after a metric modulation the second main idea is established on brass and timpani, marked alla marcia. The wide-intervallic leaps in the solo violin part continue to dominate in a passage marked soaring, even as the music becomes more rhythmic and dancelike.

“An obsessive repetitiveness enters the soloist’s material just before the first main climax of the work, where the wind blare out the wide-intervalled theme. The central section of the work is reflective, restrained and melancholic, where the soloist’s part is marked dolcedesolato and eventually misterioso, hovering over an unsettled, low shimmering in the cellos and basses.

“The martial music returns and paves the way for an energetic section based on a series of duets which the violin soloist has with a procession of different instruments in the orchestra—double bass, cello, bassoon, horn, viola, clarinet, trumpet, oboe, flute, and violin. After this we hear the three notes/chords again developed in the wind over a pulsating timpani beat, which sets up the final climax marked braying, intense and feroce.

“The final recapitulation of the original material provides a soft cushion and backdrop to the soloist’s closing melodic material, marked cantabile, before the work ends quietly and serenely.

“My Second Violin Concerto is dedicated to Nicola Benedetti and in memoriam Krzysztof Penderecki, the great Polish composer who died in 2020.” —Sir James MacMillan, 2022

Anton Bruckner (1824–1896): Symphony No 4

Trained by his schoolmaster father and the Augustinian monks of St. Florian, the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner worked as a cathedral organist for 13 years, earning a strong regional reputation for his virtuosic playing and brilliant improvisations. A late bloomer, he didn’t enter his maturity as a composer until midlife. Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was his first major composition to earn acclaim almost from its debut. 

The Hissing and Laughing Multitude

The enthusiastic response to his revised Fourth came as a huge relief to its 57-year-old creator at the 1881 premiere. Four years earlier, his Third Symphony, which was inscribed with an unctuous dedication to Richard Wagner, went nightmarishly awry at its Vienna premiere. Bruckner, an anxious and inexperienced conductor, was leading—or attempting to lead—openly hostile musicians who seemed determined to humiliate him. Before he even lifted his baton, he was losing audience members; each successive movement sent more patrons scuttling out of the concert hall. 

As his publisher Theodor Rättig later recalled, “the applause of a handful of some 10 or 20 generally very young people was countered by the hissing and laughing multitude…. When the audience had fled the hall and the players had left the platform, the little group of pupils and admirers stood around the grieving composer, attempting to console him, but all he could say was, ‘Oh, leave me alone; people want nothing to do with me.'”

Bruckner revised the “Wagner” Symphony at least six times, an exacting and time-consuming process to which he subjected all nine of his symphonies save the last, whose finale he left unfinished when he died, a little over a month after he turned 72. 

As Bruckner’s first real success (and his last popular triumph until the groundbreaking Seventh Symphony), the Fourth brought much-needed validation—perhaps even vindication. He would work it over numerous times, sketching out a fanciful “Romantic” program only to disavow most of the extramusical content just a few years later. Despite many attempts (some of them likely unsanctioned “corrections” by ambitious disciples and associates), Bruckner never improved on the 1878–1880 version of the Fourth Symphony, which is performed for this concert.

Paradox and Perfection

For most of his life, Bruckner was badly underestimated. His worldly Viennese contemporaries ridiculed him as a pious dolt, a rural church organist with no redeeming cleverness. But despite his unfashionable accent and gauche manners, Bruckner was no country bumpkin. His music, which reflects his dual roles as church organist and composer of symphonies, revels in paradox: it’s massive and nuanced, dense and subtle, ancient and modern. Intricate polyphony is draped in sumptuous Wagnerian orchestration. An expansive tone poem morphs into an elaborate fugue. Before our very ears, musical forms adapt and evolve in a state of transcendent flux. 

There’s nothing simple about Bruckner’s Fourth, including its date of completion. For Bruckner, a self-doubting perfectionist, no composition was ever truly finished. All told, there are approximately three dozen different versions of Bruckner’s nine symphonies. Maybe these multiple versions exist not because the composer was indecisive but rather because he saw his music as mutable, subject to change over time. Musicologists argue about the authenticity of various editions of Bruckner’s nine symphonies and speak of “the Bruckner Problem” —shorthand for the vexed debates about authorial intention and the relative virtues and drawbacks of the various revisions. Some editions include “corrections” that Bruckner never saw, much less sanctioned; other editions reflect changes that he made because he was insecure and possibly too receptive to suggestions from others.

Bruckner composed the first version of his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major between January and November 1874, but that original iteration was never performed or published during his lifetime. He continued to tinker with his Fourth Symphony, along with most of the others, for another 14 years. Bruckner researchers have identified at least seven authentic versions and revisions of the Fourth Symphony. For this concert the 1878–1880 version (ed. Nowak), which is the version of the Fourth most commonly performed and recorded today, was selected. Bruckner scored the Fourth for one pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Starting with the 1878 revision, a single bass tuba is included in the instrumentation.

Romantic Revisions

The nickname Romantic was used by Bruckner, who also created, and eventually abandoned, a program for the symphony. Bruckner marked the autograph of the Scherzo and Finale of the 1878 version of the symphony with brief descriptions such as Jagdthema (hunting theme), Tanzweise während der Mahlzeit auf der Jagd (dance tune during the lunch break while hunting), and Volksfest (people’s festival).

Also for this revision, Bruckner replaced the original scherzo with a new movement that’s commonly known as the “Hunt” Scherzo (JagdScherzo). The new movement, Bruckner explained in a letter, “represents the hunt, whereas the Trio (Tanzweise während…) is a dance melody which is played to the hunters during their meal.” In 1880 Bruckner replaced the Volksfest finale with a new one based on an earlier melodic idea.

After one especially productive rehearsal of the Fourth, Bruckner gave the conductor, Hans Richter, a coin and urged him to buy himself a beer to celebrate. (Richter was charmed by the gesture and kept the money as a keepsake.) On February 20, 1881, Richter presided over the first performance, in Vienna. It was the first premiere of a Bruckner symphony not to be conducted by Bruckner himself, and it was also his first unqualified success. After years of enduring hisses and insults, the composer finally heard real applause and basked in the unfamiliar warmth. To his delight and astonishment, he was summoned for a bow after each movement. 

The Composer Speaks

In a letter to the conductor Hermann Levi dated December 8, 1884, Bruckner supplied a vivid, if abbreviated, program: “In the first movement, after a full night’s sleep, the day is announced by the horn, 2nd movement song, 3rd movement hunting trio, musical entertainment of the hunters in the wood.” 

Six years later, in another letter, he expanded on the program somewhat: “In the first movement of the ‘Romantic’ Fourth Symphony the intention is to depict the horn that proclaims the day from the town hall! Then life goes on; in the Gesangsperiode [the second motif] the theme is the song of the great tit [a bird] Zizipe. 2nd movement: song, prayer, serenade. 3rd: hunt, and in the Trio how a barrel-organ plays during the midday meal in the forest.”

Yet when asked years later to elaborate on the meaning of the finale, Bruckner confessed, “I’ve quite forgotten what image I had in mind.” 

Bruckner and Wagner

At the age of 41, when he attended the Munich premiere of Tristan und Isolde, Bruckner became a committed Wagnerian. In 1873 he made his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth, uninvited and barely tolerated, so that he could show his idol the score to his Third Symphony, dedicated “in deepest veneration to the honorable Herr Richard Wagner, the unattainable, world-famous, and exalted Master of Poetry and Music, by Anton Bruckner.” Upon meeting his hero, Bruckner allegedly fell to the ground, yelping, “Master, I worship you!” Despite or because of his strenuous enthusiasm, he made a dismal impression on his hosts. In her diary, Wagner’s wife, Cosima, speaks disparagingly of the visitor as “the poor Viennese organist.” 

In summer 1876, Bruckner made his second trip to Bayreuth, where he attended the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. He was so profoundly affected by the experience that he immediately began major revisions of several earlier works, including his Fourth Symphony. 

A Closer Listen

Bruckner’s 1878–80 revision of the Fourth has the following tempo markings and key signatures: 

Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (With motion, not too fast), in the home key of E-flat major

Andante, quasi allegretto, in C minor

Scherzo. Bewegt (with motion)—Trio: Nicht zu schnell (Not too fast), in B-flat major

Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (With motion, but not too fast), in E-flat major

Copyright 2022 by René Spencer Saller