“The Bruckner Problem” or “A Huge Pain in My Student Backside”

In my student years, there were clear obstacles to my efforts to learn the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.  These works are giant symphonies, in the post-Wagner musical world, made with large, loud orchestras in mind.  I’ve always loved hearing recordings and performances of the works.  They are long symphonies, dramatic in nature, and containing loud climactic passages that employ an army of brass.  The large symphonies of Bruckner stand at the height of Austro-German Romanticism, and I have long been a fan.

Younger Bruckner
Anton Bruckner

Trying to study the same symphonies is a completely different story.  The sources of the “Bruckner Problem” are Anton’s propensity to revise his scores, to consider other musician’s advice in revising his music, and at times, the habit of well meaning supporters to further change his works with or without his knowledge.  Whether you attribute this to an inner insecurity, or an artistic perfectionism, it created a nightmare for me as a student.  Let’s take the Symphony Number 8 in c minor as an example.  The first version was completed in 1887, and Anton had sent the score to the conductor Hermann Levi, a man who had conducted other works of Bruckner.  Levi had a negative reaction to the work, and did not believe it was playable.  He was sympathetic to Bruckner, but asked him to release Levi from his promise to perform the work, and consider revisions to the score.

Some people think this response shattered Bruckner’s confidence, while other musicologists don’t believe Anton was as despondent as has been depicted.  In any case, in 1890 Bruckner did revise the work with some help/input/interference by a friend, Josef Schalk.  There were cuts made, changes in orchestration, and some compositional modifications.  Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be any simplification, i.e. nothing to make the piece more “playable” than the earlier version.

Title PageNeither of those versions were initially published or performed.  The first published edition of Symphony No. 8 came in 1892, in a score that was significantly edited by Josef Schalk and Max von Oberleithner.  A few cuts were made, and quite a few markings changed in this edition.  These changes were not made in Bruckner’s hand, but some assume they had to have been done by Schalk with Bruckner’s approval.  Most people reject this version now as “inauthentic”, but it was the only one available for almost five decades and was performed by some of the greatest conductors of the early twentieth century.

Bruckner revised many of his symphonies, and the variety of versions in existence led to the formation of the Internationale Bruckner-Gesellschaft (International Bruckner Society) in 1927.  The goal of this organization was to sort out the mess, and come up with a definitive set of Bruckner scores, a goal that was met with limited success.  In the case of the Eighth, it only added to the confusion when Robert Haas created a sort of hybrid version by keeping the revisions of the 1890 edition, but restoring some of the passages cut from the 1887 version.  This Haas edited version was published in 1939, and has some great supporters in musicologists Deryck Cooke and Robert Simpson.  This version has been recorded by the great Herbert von Karajan and the supremely musical Daniel Barenboim, to name just two.

You would think that enough is enough already, but the versions just keep on being published.  The next General Editor of the International Bruckner Society was Leopold Nowak, who predictably, did not agree with his predecessor’s decision making.  Nowak published a clean version of Bruckner’s 1890 score in 1955, and a copy of the 1887 score years after that.

Now, if you have survived reading this far, imagine my student experience.  I hear the Bruckner Symphony No. 8, am smitten by the work, and go out to look for a score to study.  I wade into this musicological mess of scores, and have to decide where to start.  What version did I just hear?  I didn’t know at the time there were at least four from which to choose.  There is now a lovely public domain copy of the score published by Dover, and it is very affordable.  Dover, however,  failed in the mission to label exactly which version of the symphony they published.  ARRRGH!!  This symphony is about 80 minutes long in performance.  It would take hours and hours to compare versions and listen multiple times to each.   I currently own three different recordings of this work, and all three use a different version of the score.

Anton BrucknerNeedless to say, this all was a huge obstacle in my efforts to study the Bruckner Symphonies in detail.  As a student, I eventually decided to skip it altogether and go listen to Mahler.  Later in life, after I was more comfortable in coping with large-scale forms, I revisited Bruckner for closer inspection.  In the coming posts, I will try to share some of what I have learned about the Symphony Number 8 in c minor.  Let me start by pointing out that the work is sometimes subtitled “The Apocalyptic”.  As a brash young music student, a musical apocalypse was exactly what I was hungry for.  I’m sure this is one of the things that drew me to the work in the first place, but in true fashion it was not a name Bruckner gave to the symphony himself.  One story is that Bruckner inscribed the final movement with the words “An Apocalyptic Vision of the Cosmos at the Last Day” (presumably in German).  I don’t know which copy of which version this was written in, but the “Apocalyptic” part was used as a nickname later on for the entire symphony.

Here is an early recording of the work, in the 1892 edition that was the first publication of the symphony.  This was the only version available for almost fifty years. It is a mono recording conducted by Bruno Walter in 1941.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 (1892 version)


5 thoughts on ““The Bruckner Problem” or “A Huge Pain in My Student Backside”

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  1. When I was studying classical music, we briefly touched on Bruckner, also because our university orchestra was playing his 4th symphony. I remember doing an assignment on it, and for the life of me – I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate it as much, so I too probably would’ve skipped over to Mahler 🙂

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