Mr Bruckner’s Happy Ending

Mr Bruckner’s Happy Ending
The Czech Philharmonic’s Symphony No 4 by Bruckner

On Nov 30 in the final of three Prague performances of the piece, The Czech Philharmonic led us through Anton Bruckner’s fascinating landscape, Symphony No 4, the “Romantic.” The German conductor Ingo Metzmacher guided the Philharmonic with the reliance and vehemence of an enthusiast for uneasy projects, evident in the first part of the programme, the one-movement violin concerto Coll’arco by Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). Mr Metzmacher, in his book Keine Angst vor neuen Tönen (No Fear of New Tones), writes: “Any great work of music is an avowal. It commits itself unreservedly. …It does not fear being misunderstood. Once it sees its path, it follows it regardless and unabashedly.”

Anton Bruckner is a perfect example. His work missed all the main aesthetic trends of his day, his music met with incomprehension and awoke controversy, but he refused to compromise his artistic point of view in the slightest.

The 1870s were particularly difficult and full of setbacks as he worked on, among others, his fourth symphony. In 1874 he was finally expelled from St. Anna’s teacher-training college for women. As an organist of the Hoffkapelle he frequently fell into trouble, because he was probably more interested in improvising than in playing the prescribed pieces, and he often found himself demoted from High Mass to afternoon Benediction.

Anton Bruckner

His unabashed admiration for Wagner incensed the influential critical circle around music critic Eduard Hanslick, who vituperatively condemned what they described as the uncontrolled Wagnerism and decadence of Bruckner’s “music of the future.” The situation was sharpened even more by the disastrous premiere of Symphony No 3 (dedicated to Wagner) in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal on 16 December 1877, when Bruckner, never a successful orchestral conductor, was forced to take the podium (the conductor had recently died). The orchestra was rebellious; the audience streamed out of the hall during the finale; and Hanslick wrote a blistering review.

Nevertheless, Bruckner worked tirelessly in this unfortunate period, especially on his symphonies. He completed a remarkable series of four symphonies (No 2 – No 5) in a little over four years, from October 1871 to May 1876.

The original score of the Fourth Symphony was finished in November 1874. The disaster in the Musikvereinssaal in 1877 prompted a dramatic series of alterations to symphonies No 3 and 4, including the replacement of the third movement with the “Hunt Scherzo” in 1878 and composition of a new finale for the Fourth in 1879.

In this form the symphony was premiered on 20 February 1881 under Hans Richter. It was the first sign of a turn for the better in his life: the hitherto disdainful Viennese audience demanded Bruckner take a bow after each movement and the ovation was endless.

In spite of Bruckner’s repeated revisions, the Fourth Symphony seems like it was written smoothly, all at once. The nickname “Romantic” refers to Bruckner’s source of inspiration, a medieval romance evoking images of knights, castles, hunting and deep forests, an obvious feature of Wagnerian enthusiasm. However, Wagner focuses on a dramatic and pathetic story; Bruckner’s music is interpreted rather as a glorification of nature.

With Wagner’s music it shares a massiveness and eerie orchestral colors and changeability; but it bears the burden of uneasy orientation in musical substance, at the same time.

Simply, we can say that listening to Bruckner’s symphony is like a journey through a deep forest, during which we come across more and more giant trees, or maybe even other beings of unknown beauty. We may not fully comprehend it the first time, but we will never forget the amazement we first felt. — oo

– Lucie Rohanová

Photo Credits: Top: Petra Setničková; bottom, Wikipedia

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