Blazing With Calm, Splendorous Lux Sancta

Blazing With Calm, Splendorous Lux Sancta

The Finale is “the most significant movement of my life”

  • Anton Bruckner, on the Finale of Symphony No. 8

bruckner1Bruckner worked very hard on the Finale of his Eighth, and was very proud of the results.  Unfortunately, not everyone at the time saw it the same as Anton.  Very unfortunately, one of the first persons puzzled by this closing movement was Hermann Levi, the conductor who was going to lead the premiere of the original version.  That is, before he backed out of his promise to conduct the work.  Part of the challenge of composing a convincing Finale in a big Romantic symphony like Bruckner’s is bringing some of the issues raised, in earlier movements, to a satisfactory resolution.  This is a monumental work, with big musical ideas taking up 55 minutes of music before the final movement even starts.  That is a great deal of musical weight to counterbalance, and it is no wonder Anton put a lot of effort into his solution to the “Finale problem”.

The fourth movement is a Sonata form. It is a bit freer than the first movement and loosely governed by the key relationships of a sonata structure.  There is an exposition that spans the first 253 bars of the score and 8:30 seconds of the recording below.  This exposition has the three thematic areas that is customary for Bruckner in sonata forms.  The connection and contrast between these theme groups and their motives is what holds the sonata for together for Mr. Bruckner.  The development section starts out lyrically at the 8:30 mark, and lasts until 14:02 (bars 253-437 in my score).  The raucous motives that started the movement announce the recapitulation at bar 437, or 14:03 in the video.  You can’t miss the timpani and trumpets pounding out the music that opened the movement at this point.  These large sections of the sonata form contain drama, struggle and contrast to equal all that has gone on in the three preceding movements.

BrucknerSymNr8DGCD4191962small500The last two and a half minutes of the symphony is worth the price of admission, all by itself.  A glorious coda section starts at bar 679 (21:28).  This is a musical transfiguration, ever rising, building and steadily growing to its ultimate culmination in C major.  This sunny, bright cadence in the parallel major key is the final movement from darkness to light.   Amazingly enough, if your ears have enough memory, you can hear motives/thematic snippets from all four movements of the symphony come together in these last two minutes of music.  Most importantly, I think you have to resist the temptation to fast forward to the last two minutes and just listen to the end.  It doesn’t sound the same if you haven’t experienced the darkness and struggle of the preceding hour and a quarter of music.  We have traveled a great deal of emotional ground in the first three movements, some of it pounded into us very loudly, and the ending isn’t quite the same emotional release without living through those struggles.

Another important feature of the coda section is the manner in which we reach the sunny C major tonality.  Normally, the strongest way to establish a key area is with the dominant to tonic harmonic motion of a perfect authentic cadence.  Here, Bruckner leads us where he wants using a plagal progression, one which goes through the subdominant area to get to the tonic.  This is very significant, especially remembering Bruckner’s career as a church organist.  The plagal cadence is the sound of the “amen” sung at the end of church hymns.  Anton is using this in a very specific way.  To quote Mr. Korstvedt one last time, “the tonic major is not wrested from the darkness with Beethovenian might, but granted to us with awesome ease”.  This is not victory won over the forces of evil, but salvation granted to us with mercy.  It is the musical sound of lux sancta, the holy light.  I think this is one of the things that escaped Levi when he first studied the score.  If you are looking for heroic victory, you miss the point and the Finale doesn’t seem as convincing.  Understanding it as grace granted from a greater power, the ending very satisfactorily wraps up this monumental work.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Fourth Movement, Finale


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.