Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bruckner: Symphony #8

The Eighth Symphony was the last symphony Bruckner completed, and it will be the final Bruckner symphony covered in this blog. We've already written about his First, Fourth and Seventh Symphonies.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1824-1896)
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No.8

Deutsche Grammophon, 1989
Bruckner was 59 when he began work on this symphony, but rather than being at the height of his powers at this stage of his life, he was in many ways at the height of his personal insecurity.

Unsure of himself, he was prone to accept the suggestions of his fellow musicians, some of them made in less than admiring spirit, some well-intentioned but not always perceptive... which a more self-confident man might have rejected.
--John Warrack, in an unusually well-written CD liner note.

In 1887, Bruckner thought he had finished this symphony after roughly three years of work, but when he sent the score to the conductor Hermann Levi, the reaction from the famous German conductor was decidedly negative.

The criticism was unexpected to say the least. Levi had considered Bruckner's prior symphony, his Seventh, to be on the level of Schubert or even Beethoven, and thus his opinion of the Eighth Symphony nearly destroyed Bruckner, who suffered a near-nervous breakdown. It took him three years, but over that time he recovered enough to rewrite a new version of the symphony, completed in 1890. Bruckner then completed a third rewrite of the symphony in 1892.

Needless to say, this leaves some confusion as to which version of this symphony is the "real" one, although most classical music experts have settled on the 1890 version--the second one--as the primary text.

I've said this before: it's hard to believe that a composer as gifted as this could be more insecure and self-conscious on his best day than the rest of us are on our worst day. But what's even harder to believe is how often Bruckner's works were mocked, vilified or (worst of all) ignored by audiences at the time:

Once, when [Bruckner] was conducting, nearly the entire audience left in the middle of the piece. Bruckner, rapt in his music, heard neither the footsteps nor the snickering. When he turned to the audience at the conclusion to receive his due applause, he found fewer than ten people remaining. Bruckner left the hall alone and in tears.
--David Dubal, The Essential Canon of Classical Music

Listener notes for Bruckner's Eighth Symphony:
1) One thing I always love about Bruckner is his ability to build suspense and tension very early on in his symphonies. It really makes you want to stick around and find out what's going to happen.

2) The trumpets get a little bit out of control in the unison notes they play at around 15:30 in the first movement. An "E" for enthusiasm though.

3) The second movement consists of three parts--the key theme at the beginning, then a second part that begins after a pause at the 6:04 mark, and then at 10:20 another pause and a return to the original theme. It's somewhat strange to hear a movement with a seemingly unrelated interlude.

4) Many classical music critics consider the third movement of this symphony, the Adagio, to be Bruckner's most beautiful composition. Even Bruckner considered it his single greatest work. In my view, however, the first movement of Bruckner's Fourth is at least equally beautiful. But after listening to the beautiful sweeping and swelling chords from 2:10 to 2:40 and from 4:00 to 4:20, it's clear why this movement is so loved.

5) And then we launch right into the suspense and thrills of the final movement. The introductory few measures remind me of Mars from Gustav Holst's The Planets.

6) And--true to form!--Bruckner's brass parts are, quite literally, a blast to play: they sound showy, yet they aren't at all technically difficult, and the musicians get to play them really loudly. How can you be a brass player and not be a Bruckner fan?

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