Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bruckner: Symphony #7 and How Beethoven Ruined It For Everyone After Him

Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, unlike most everything else he composed, was actually met with acclaim and enthusiasm when it was premiered.

We've already discussed how Bruckner was a misfit in his world and suffered during his life. Today, I'd like to talk about Bruckner's personal self-doubt.
Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony #7
Teldec Classics, 1993
Classical music is rife with composers with enormous egos (e.g. Beethoven, whose enormous ego was thoroughly justified) as well as composers with enormous insecurities (e.g. Brahms, whose enormous self-doubts were thoroughly unjustified).

Many 19th Century composers suffered the bad luck of living in the shadow of Beethoven, who wrote music so nearly perfect and with such gravity that people during this era thought his works were the ultimate last word in symphonic music.

Composers like Bruckner had it worse still: they labored under Beethoven's shadow and under their own insecurities. Recall how Brahms burned many of his early works? Bruckner had attacks of insecurity late in his life such that he massively rewrote and rearranged most of his great symphonies (one of the few symphonies that he did not rewrite was his Seventh). These attacks of insecurity didn't help his creations one bit, as modern orchestras almost invariably perform the original versions, not the revised versions, of his works.

It's hard to believe that composers as gifted as these could be just as insecure and self-conscious as the rest of us.

The closest modern analogy I can come to is playing professional golf during the era of Tiger Woods or playing tennis during the era of Roger Federer. You could be an absolutely amazing golfer, but you'll always be cursed by comparison to these giants of their era.

As my wife will say (in a passable Homer Simpson imitation), "Dumb Beethoven!"

The irony of Bruckner's Seventh is that this symphony was widely appreciated at its premiere. It was more typical of concert-goers to walk out in the middle of performances of his other works.

I have just a two listener notes for you this time. What I really encourage you to do is to listen to this symphony and just let it wash over you. It's filled with beautiful melodies and rich with emotion.

1) Listen to the opening theme at the very beginning of the first movement and tell me you don't love this composer. Just as with the opening french horn theme in his Fourth Symphony, you can always count on Bruckner for recognizable and memorable themes.

2) Notice how the second movement's primary theme is again memorable, simple and elegant. Listen for the rising three-note melody (stated for the first time at about the 40-second mark, again at the 8:50 mark, and several other times later in the movement). Listen from the 12:30 mark when the brass section performs several variations on this melody, and from the 17:00 mark when the strings play their own layers of variations over this same melody.

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