From Darkness Into the Light

anton-bruckner-1-sizedI often think there should be some pause in the middle of a Bruckner symphony, to let the audience stand and move a bit.  Something similar to the seventh inning stretch in baseball, but without singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”.  The slow movement of Symphony No. 8 is a good example of why this is needed.  This is one of the longest slow movements in the entire orchestral repertoire.  The only thing that comes to  mind, that would compete with the girth of this Adagio, is the finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony.  A performance of the Bruckner Adagio usually lasts about 25 minutes.  For comparison, the entire Haydn “Surprise” Symphony No. 94 is only 25 minutes,and Beethoven’s Eighth or Mozart’s No. 40 are only a touch longer at 27 minutes each!

The vast expanses of Bruckner’s slow movements all follow a similar form, an overgrown ABABA arrangement of two contrasting sections of music.  The first section “A”is alternated with a second thematic “B” section, usually in a brighter tempo and new key.  In spite of its hefty size, the musical meaning of this movement reveals itself in the first minute and a half.  The “A” section starts out with a dark, chromatic melody in D flat that builds in intensity until measure 15, where a bright glowing A major triad bursts in at 1:16 in the recording below.  All of the dissonance and tension is gloriously released with this sudden appearance of a shiny triad with its third in the bass.  This A major chord is arpeggiated and hovered on for a good 15 seconds.  This musical gesture from darkness, to clarity and light, is repeated on a variety of levels throughout the movement, with increasing contrast and tension.

The first “B” section of music comes in at bar 47, 4:28 in the video.  It is a bit more flowing, and starts in the glowing brightness of E major.  The key of E major was first introduced as our shining ray of light in the Trio section of the second movement, and its reappearance here helps form another connection between movements.  The rich sonorous cellos play the main melody of this “B” section, teamed up with the violas and a violin countermelody the second time through.

tubenAn unexpected thing happens in the middle of all this lush, flowing, expressive string melody.  The momentum sort of comes to a stop, and a new idea interrupts briefly.  This new musical idea is a brass chorale sounded out by a group of Wagner tubas.  These brass instruments are probably poorly named as a sort of “tuba” as they are really more of a modification of a horn.  The sound is something between a French horn and trombone, and the instrument uses a conical mouthpiece  similar to a French horn.  It is normally the horn players of the orchestra that double on the Wagner tubas, sometimes called Wagner horns or Bayreuth tubas.  Richard Wagner had the first ones built for use in his Ring cycle of operas (Der Ring des Nibelungen), and a few other composers have used them since.

This chorale happens at bar 67, exactly the 6:00 mark in the video.  The string melody returns shortly with the full orchestra playing loudly.  This “B” section winds down and transitions back to a return of the “A” section music at bar 95, the 8:09 mark in our performance.  This time around the “A” section reaches a bigger, louder, more vehement high point.  It eventually winds down and softens to a return of the “B” section music at bar 141 (11:47 in the video).  This time the “B” section is set in the key of E flat, down a half step from its original appearance of E major.  E flat is significant because it is the relative major key to c minor, which is the main key of the other three movements of the symphony.  All of the motivic, rhythmic and key center connections help hold this giant multi-movement work together as one organic whole.

AustriaANK1465The “A” section music returns at bar 185 (15:09), embellished with a moving figure in the violas.  The musical idea of the “A” theme dominates the final ten minutes of the movement, and it winds and modulates through several keys, finally ending up in D flat where it started.  Once you can recognize the two main melodies of the movement (A and B), you can immediately know where you are in the form, in spite of its length.  If you are following along with a score, I will warn you that this final “A” section is one of the places that underwent the most revision.  If your recording isn’t exactly following the music you have in hand, you are using two different versions.

In many Romantic era symphonies, the middle movements are shorter and lighter than the outer movements (take the Brahms symphonies as an example).  Bruckner gives us middle movements that have all the weight and drama of the opening and the finale.  The Adagio of the Eighth is the longest movement of the work, usually 2-3 minutes longer in performance than the final movement.  In the words of Benjamin Korstvedt, “The Adagio of the Eighth apotheosizes the genre.”  After the three and four hour music dramas by Wagner in the opera house, I suppose a symphony that lasts an hour and twenty minutes doesn’t seem like too much.  Still, don’t leave home without your attention span, as every Bruckner symphony is a long ride.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Third Movement, Adagio

Up next, the fourth movement Finale, which Bruckner labored so hard over.

A Ruggedly Vigorous Musical Joke

A Ruggedly Vigorous Musical Joke

Bruckner’s Scherzi are outstanding for their freshness and rugged vigor, and this one is no exception.

  • Benjamin Korstvedt

In most of Bruckner’s Symphonies, the second movement is a slow movement.  Here in the Eighth, he has reversed his normal ordering and made the second movement a Scherzo.  As I alluded to in the previous post, this movement is connected to the first movement by being in the same tonic key of c minor.  Anton can convincingly do this because the first movement didn’t exactly beat us over the head with c minor.  It was full of chromatic, roving harmonies that keep the sound of c minor fresh enough to use in the second movement.

Minuet“Scherzo” is an Italian word, roughly translated as “joke”.  Beethoven wrote some of the most influential Scherzi as the “dance” movement of his Symphonies, and many composers in the following generations took the Beethoven concept of a Scherzo as their example.  For the longest time as a student, I couldn’t make the connection of “joke” to the Beethoven Scherzo.  My best understanding came when I thought back to the Minuet and Trio, which the Scherzo replaces in most cases.  A minuet is social ballroom dance of French origin, danced in triple meter like the waltz.  Old Ludwig had little use for this society dance, and had aspirations to expand the individual expression of the “classical” forms.  Beethoven kept the triple meter of the minuet, but sped things up and intensified the music from the polite, light dance.  In my mind, the “joke” of the Scherzo  is imagining eighteenth century nobles in their powdered wigs trying to dance a society minuet  to the galloping music of Beethoven.  Here is the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.  Try to envision the powdered wigs flying about.

Beethoven Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”, Movement III, Scherzo

Bruckner is certainly taking Beethoven’s lead, and making it his own in the second movement Scherzo of Symphony No. 8.  For all of its length, Bruckner’s Scherzo follows a pretty typical classical form.  The large chunk of music that is the Scherzo is contrasted with a Trio section, then followed by a reprise of the Scherzo music.  This isn’t even a “double Scherzo” that has a second Trio section. (Scherzo – Trio I – Scherzo – Trio II – Scherzo)  Again, as in the first movement, the phrasing and form are pretty regular.  Bruckner builds the Scherzo section of music from two motives.  The first motive is heard in the first two bars, and consists of the violins playing a string of descending, chromatic chords.  This is followed in bar three with the second main motive, an arpeggiated tonic c-minor chord in the cellos and violas.  The second motive drives home c-minor more effectively than almost anything that took place in the opening movement.  The Scherzo music unfolds in a large rounded binary form that takes up the first six minutes of the recording below.

sunshineThe Trio section is contrasting music that starts at 6:05 in the recording.  Mr. Korsvedt calls it a “miniature slow movement tucked into the Scherzo”, and I think that is a pretty spot-on description.  The score is marked Langsam (fairly slow), and starts in the key of A flat major (the relative major to c minor).  One notable feature to listen for is Bruckner’s use of the harp in this Trio section. This is  first time Anton used harps in one of his symphonies.  They arrive at 7:41 in the video below, and provide a tranquil, peaceful moment that has not been felt before in the Eighth symphony.  Also at this same moment, we land in E Major, in a root position triad that has a bright and shimmering sound.  This moment is worth the price of admission.  It is the simplest of chords, a major triad with the root in the bottom, but sounds like a ray of sunshine from a far off star.  This is in part because E Major is so far away harmonically from c minor, where the Scherzo started.  This shiny key of E Major also becomes important in the next movement, the Adagio, adding a further element binding the symphony together.

The Scherzo music returns at 10:19, and is played as an exact repeat of the first time we heard it.  In fact, Bruckner doesn’t even write it out in the score.  He follows classical conventions and simply writes “Scherzo D.C.” meaning Scherzo da capo.  It encompasses the final six minutes of the recording below.  This is the same performance that we heard for the first movement in the last post, with Herbert von Karajan conducting.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Second Movement, Scherzo

Herbert von Karajan was a brilliant conductor who left a huge body of recordings for us to listen to.  I think that his recording of Symphony No.8, on the whole, is a great version to hear.  I do have to quibble a small point here in the Scherzo, however.  Given my notion that a Scherzo is an intensification of the minuet, I prefer the Scherzo music of this second movement at a quicker tempo than Karajan takes it.  I like the Trio slower than the Scherzo, providing even more contrast between the sections.  Here is an alternate version, with a conductor flapping his arms in a vigorous fashion, that is closer to my preferred tempo. Admittedly, it is a matter of taste.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Second Movement, Scherzo

Next up, the big, grand, gorgeous slow movement Adagio.


Regular Irregularity, or Round Pegs in Square Holes

Regular Irregularity, or Round Pegs in Square Holes

The last post delved into some of the issues surrounding the multiple editions of Bruckner’s Symphonies, and the obstacles they imposed on me as a student.  It’s high time we got a bit more into the music.  There are things that should make a Bruckner score easier to follow.  All of his (finished) symphonies are in four movements, with the first and last being in sonata form.  The two middle movements always are a Scherzo and a slow movement Adagio in ABABA form.  Bruckner usually places the Adagio as the second movement followed by the Scherzo, but as we will see in coming posts, that ordering is reversed in the Eighth.  His musical phrases are often very regular four bar phrases, creating nice neat square holes.   We will hear some very round pegs being hammered into those square holes as the music goes on.

AustriaANK953I think one other issue demands comment before we go too much further.  Buckner was an Austrian composer, and died in 1896.  It would be somewhat surprising if Anton didn’t have some anti-semitic leanings, given the time and place where he lived.  There is no excusing that, but he died decades before the world ever knew what a Nazi was.  More than a generation after his death, the German Nazi party championed Bruckner as good German music and culture.  Anton’s music was on the “good” list, as many other things were on a “bad” list in the Nazi attempt to “purify” German culture in music and the arts.  Still, Bruckner was an Austrian, died over 40 years before the Anschluss, and should not be blamed for the posthumous, political uses of his music by the German Nationalist Socialists.  I propose we take Symphony No. 8 on it’s own terms.

The terms of the Eighth are those of a work of art that is intended to be monumental.  This is a big musical statement, of considerable weight and length.  I am not kidding about length, there is a pathological numbness of the gluteus maximus that occurs during a performance of one of these symphonies that I refer to as “Bruckner Buns”.  These are massive musical works of solidity and grandeur.  The first movement is in sonata form, but I would contend it is not a very “well behaved” sonata form.  A model sonata form is usually about key areas, thematic development, and resolution of key area tension in a recapitulation.  Bruckner’s use of a highly “Wagnerian” harmonic language creates problems in politely establishing a key area.  Richard Wagner may have advanced music in a number of ways, but he wrote almost exclusively operas (or music dramas as he liked to call them). He used a high level of chromaticism in his harmonic language, used motives (leitmotifs) to identify characters and ideas, and wove all of this into a sort of “endless melody”.  All the while, there is a story and plot to hold the action together and give it structure.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Bruckner is often seen as one of the composers who took some of Wagner’s musical language and adapted it to a symphonic form.  This is a particular challenge, using a highly chromatic language of roving harmonies that rarely establish a clear key, in a sonata form that is (on one level) all about establishing key centers.  Anton’s themes and thematic groups eventually wander around to the key they are supposed to be in, but sometimes only finding the dominant seventh chord, and not the actual home tonic chord.  This is a habit directly borrowed from Wagner.  These themes of roving harmonies are the round pegs hammered into four bar square holes.

The truth of the matter is, Bruckner’s forms are more held together by the motives of the themes.  Many times it is the rhythmic aspect of these motives that is the glue, more so than the actual pitches.  The pitches and direction of the themes are sometimes inverted, elongated, augmented.   Through all of these mutations, it is their rhythmic DNA that defines their relationship.  These relationships connect parts within a single movement, as well as across all four movements of the symphony.


The first movement is a sonata form with three thematic groups in the exposition.  The first group starts at bar 1 (the beginning of the recording below) and eventually (not immediately) establishes the tonic key of c minor.  The shimmering opening of a single pitch, with the soft entrance of a chromatic motive after a couple of bars, is a signature Bruckner device.  The second thematic group starts at bar 51, about 2:09 in the recording, and is in the dominant key of G.  This second group gives us the characteristic “Bruckner rhythm” , a 2 + 3 (duplet + triplet) grouping that Anton loves to use. The third thematic group, the closing section of the exposition, begins at bar 97 (4:12) and is the key of E flat (the relative major).

A long development section starts at bar 153 (6:22 in the recording) and runs for about  six minutes.  The recapitulation, something that is usually a big landmark, happens at bar 311 (12:14)  is really “artfully blurred” (to use Benjamin Korstvedt’s words).  Anton really only brings back the second and third sections of the exposition, and that’s all he really needed since the end of the development section relies heavily on material from the first section of the exposition.  Anton has taken that big seam, between the development and the recapitulation, and just spackled right over it.

A short coda section ends the movement quietly on c as it is supposed to.  Looking forward to the next movement, we see that it is the Scherzo (in the place Bruckner would usually have the slow Adagio).  We also notice that it is in the tonic key of c minor, also something unusual for Bruckner.  The fact is, because of all the roving, chromatic ambiguity in the first movement, our ears are not worn out on c minor yet.  Anton can provide us with some more of the tonic key, but that story is for the next post.

I don’t think it is necessary to paste in pieces of the score here showing each of the rhythmic motives so you can listen and wait for each to occur.  Listening just a bit at each of the landmarks I pointed out above, is plenty enough to find them.  They are not hidden in the least, in fact, often they are blasted out by an army of brass players.  These are the things that form a web of connections that hold the movement together, and they let the harmonies push tonality to its limit throughout the work.

For now, enjoy Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in c minor.  Karajan uses the score edited by Robert Haas, published in 1939 by the International Bruckner Society.  We know from the last post that this is a bit of a hybrid of the 1887 and 1890 versions.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, First Movement