Symphony No. 7

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Symphony No. 7 in E Major

Anton Bruckner
Born September 4, 1824 in Ansfelden, Austria
 Died October 11, 1896 in Vienna, Austria

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


 Compositional fame came late to Anton Bruckner, and it was not until his sixties that he was truly appreciated as a composer. Throughout his lifetime, he had often been considered a social joke: a boor who spoke with a countrified accent, presented a consistently disheveled in appearance with baggy pants and sagging jackets, had a terrible time with women (there were nine marriage proposals, none accepted), drank heavily (Pilsner beer) and lived in an apartment which cleaning women often refused to clean up. For years, his loving sister “Nani” did most of the cleaning. August Stradal recalled visiting one of Bruckner’s’ apartments and he reported; “in the middle of the first room there was a very old Boesendorfer grand piano, and its white keys could scarcely be distinguished from its black keys as a consequence of dust and snuff. “ He had only two books: the Bible and a biography of Napoleon which he reread constantly. Manuscripts of his symphonies and masses lay mixed with newspaper articles and correspondence. The composer was a devout Catholic, mired in fanatical Catholicism, encapsulated in psychological isolation and his fascination with death. Sadly, Bruckner wrote;s “I always sit poor and forsaken and deeply melancholy in my little room.” (Bruckner and Mahler, JM Dent) His only constant companions were his music, his organ, and his religion. 

To some, the composer was also a professional joke, writing strange, meandering, indulgent music which was incomprehensible. The nine symphonies lay at the heart of his instrumental compositions. He revised numbers 1–6 endlessly and compulsively, “always hoping that his own conceptions would be favored by posterity” not the many versions with cuts and changes added by well meaning friends. Or so-called “experts.”

Extensive promotion by Mahler and Furtwängler was critical in securing his symphonies’ eventual credit and acclaim. During Bruckner’s lifetime, the prominent Viennese critic Arthur Hanslick was a constant burr under the saddle, with vitriolic pen handy, at all times ready to humiliate and criticize anything Bruckner wrote. Some of Hanslick’s favorite adjectives for Bruckner’s music were “decayed, naïve, insane, inflated, and unnatural.” Music that resembled Wagner always set Hanslick into a frenzy. Bruckner was an easy mark. However: Buckner was not about to change. “They want me to write differently. Certainly I could do, but I must not. God has given me, of all people, this talent. It is to Him that I must give account” (quoted in A. Giollerich,. Anton Bruckner) In his sixties, he worked on his Seventh Symphony between 1881–1883, and was not so susceptible to the opinions of others—he finally had confidence. Number Seven was only revised once, in 1885. 

For Bruckner, Wagner was a second deity. His expansive thinking, vision, and colorful, gigantic musical structures were deeply influential, if not controlling models. David Ewen explained that Bruckner sought to “carry over into his symphonic writing some of the grandeur, sublimity, symbolism epical designs of the Wagnerian music drama.”  When Bruckner finally met his idol in 1873 in Bayreuth (an event celebrating Bruckner’s Third Symphony), Wagner was amused at this adulation and coaxed the simple but talented musikant into a wildly drunken state. Bruckner was so drunk that he forgot which symphony was being honored and had to ask for clarification about the repertoire being honored! 

The Seventh Symphony premiered in Leipzig on December 30, 1884, conducted by Arthur Nikisch who insisted (after hearing a piano version); “from this moment, I regard it as my duty to work for Bruckner’s recognition.”  Symphony Seven was destined for a Viennese premiere shortly thereafter, but the composer asked that this plan be withdrawn or at least deferred, “because of the influential critics (like Hanslick), who would be likely to damage my dawning success.” The Leipzig performance had been great, and the following premiere in Munich, March 10 1885, was fantastic. 

This acclaim constituted a major turning point in his career. The Seventh totally turned his previous sorry fate around, casting him, at last onto the international stage. Vienna finally heard the work on March 21, 1886, where Bruckner’s premonitions proved correct. Hanslick wrote, “the music is antipathetic to me and appears to be exaggerated, sick, and perverted.” Gustav Dompke (another critic) added, “We recoil with horror before this rotting odor which rushes into our nostrils from the disharmonies of this decomposing counterpoint.”  Audiences around the world, including those in Vienna, did not agree with the spiteful opinions, and the symphony became a decided, unassailable triumph. Jonathan Kramer summarized: “Bruckner’s special world of slow moving intensity, overpowering climaxes, and intimate lyricism nowhere found a more coherent or beautiful statement than in the Seventh Symphony.” 

The Seventh Symphony is built on a huge scale, requiring approximately 70 minutes for its presentation. In the first movement, there are three themes presented: the first by celli and solo horn (said to have come to him in a dream in which the Kapellmeister of Linz told him, “with this theme you will make your fortune.”) It begins quietly and moves for 21 measures through two octaves into a high register and then is repeated by winds and strings. Approximately two minutes are required for this presentation (Jonathan Kramer). A second lyrical subject played by oboe and clarinet, supported by brass chords, is also ascending, and moves to a large fortissimo. The third subject, prefaced by brass climaxes, is a peasant-style dance (presented softly) displayed by winds and strings and travels a descending course. A large development begins quietly with a clarinet inversion of the opening idea, and statements of the other two. This area restlessly takes the themes through many modulations before finally arriving at the last section.  The recapitulation recalls the opening ideas and leads to a enormous coda for fifty-three measures. 

The Adagio, which was played at Bruckner’s funeral, is a mournful elegy to Wagner. In a letter of January 1883 Bruckner wrote, “One day I came home and felt very sad. The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master would die, and just then the C sharp minor theme of the Adagio came to me.” Wagner was dead a month later. 

The first section presents a Wagner tuba quartet in a serious chorale in a minor key presenting the first idea. Expanding the depth of the brass timbre, the Wagner tuba has a conical bore (like a horn) and a horn mouthpiece and rotary valves yielding a warm mellow tone. For this work, Bruckner added two pairs of Wagner tubas: tenor tubas in B-flat, two bass tubas in F, and a contrabass tuba. A contrasting theme emerges in triple meter. After these introductions, strings move into the spotlight steadily moving upward and building to an enormous climax. Eventually, another enormous climax occurs in C major, capped by cymbals, triangle and a roll of the drums. (An addition by Nikisch who told the composer that this idea “delights us wildly.”) The close is quiet and resigned. 

The Scherzo, composed first, is vast and stunning. For this, Bruckner provides a heavy boot style peasant dance. First, a trumpet presents a jolly idea which Bruckner called “the crowing of a cock” over an ostinato rhythm in the strings. This is answered by clarinet. From this point forward, the trumpet leads the band. Momentum is steady, until there is a complete astonishing stop, prefacing a lyrical trio of long held notes, which is to be played gesangvoll (songful.) Timpani lurk in the background, intoning the fanfare rhythm from the opening.  The first section is repeated at the close.

The finale opens with several important ideas: a distinguished dotted motif coming from the violins, a main theme similar to the opening, and a chorale style theme (far simpler) again coming from the strings. Sonata-allegro format is used, once again proving its elasticity, to embrace multiple climaxes and a huge drama. At the end, a truncated version of the symphony’s first theme returns before an assertive, and optimistic conclusion ends the work in a blaze of E major. Bruckner, in high spirits, at last supported by a dedicated fan club, immediately began working on the Eighth Symphony which would emerge in three years. Like Beethoven, he would eventually produce nine symphonies, the last completed in 1896. 

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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