When tonight’s two works appeared in the 1870s, Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) and Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) were seen as polar opposites. Brahms, whose career had been launched by Robert and Clara Schumann, was viewed as the heir to Beethoven, the conservative bearer of the great Austro-German tradition. Bruckner, in contrast, was associated with the radical wing represented by Liszt and Wagner, a group advocating “the music of the future.” Looking back a century and a half later, the quarrels seem increasingly petty—and, indeed, Brahms and Bruckner have a great deal in common. Both were intellectuals nourished by pre-classical music. Both eschewed opera and program music, preferring—in their orchestral works, at least—to compose “absolute” music in which form took priority, and in which the arresting color of the radicals was absent. Both were perfectionists, although, as we’ll see, that perfectionism manifested in different ways.
The Brahms Violin Concerto, written in 1878, stands with the Beethoven and the Tchaikovsky at the peak of 19th-century violin concertos, and in terms of sheer craggy grandeur, it tops them both. The first movement is especially monumental: as tonight’s soloist, Rachel Barton Pine, puts it, “I am continually awed by the majestic and inexorable qualities of such sections as the opening solo and the broken octaves in the development. If the Beethoven Concerto captures the beauty of God’s creation, the Brahms Concerto conveys its magnitude and power.” It’s followed by a lyrical Adagio that took early listeners by surprise, since the gorgeous main theme is introduced by the oboist even before the soloist enters (a technique mirrored in the Barber Violin Concerto, a Symphoria favorite). After two extremely serious movements, Brahms lightens up (in spirit, if not in weight) with a rollicking rondo in what was then called “Hungarian” style—based not on Hungarian folk tunes, but on Romani music.
The first performance was by Brahms’s close friend and mentor, violinist Josef Joachim, who gave Brahms invaluable advice while he was composing the work. Oddly, it was not a success. In fact, it was sufficiently disastrous that Brahms, in despair (as he often was), burned the early draft of a follow-up. Clearly a mistake—for within a few years, the Concerto was widely recognized as a masterpiece, and it has been a concert staple ever since.
Bruckner’s music is less common on orchestral concerts than Brahms’s is, especially in the United States; in fact, this is Symphoria’s first foray into his symphonies. Why is that? Whatever the reasons, they probably stem more from an outdated reputation than from his actual music—as we believe will be clear after tonight’s performance of the Fourth. If you’re looking for uplift, you’ll find it here.
It’s hard to date Bruckner symphonies, because most of them exist in multiple versions. If Brahms was the kind of perfectionist who threw manuscripts into the fire, Bruckner was the kind who constantly revised his scores, in some cases decades after he’d composed them. To add to the editorial issues, he was an extremely modest man, and he often allowed the intervention of others, who sometimes made massive changes in the music to make it more palatable to 19th-century tastes. As a result, there are at least seven different editions of the Fourth circulating—and while some of the differences are minimal, many are substantial. Indeed, the first version had an entirely different Scherzo from the one we normally encounter. The most commonly performed version nowadays is the so-called “First Definitive Edition” from 1880, and that is the one we’ll be hearing tonight.
The Fourth stands with the Seventh as the most popular of Bruckner symphonies, and it offers many of Bruckner’s recurrent characteristics: mysterious string tremolos, cataclysmic brass climaxes, intricate counterpoint, chorale-based passages, a wide dynamic range, and frequent use of what’s known as the “Bruckner rhythm” (a measure consisting of a duplet followed by a triplet or vice-versa). Bruckner was an organist, famous for his improvisations; and as conductor Larry Loh points out, “What is incredible about his music is that it has this improvisatory nature to it. There are things that are unexpected, but at the same time there are things that you can count on, like phrasing and a certain harmonic language.” Bruckner’s experience as an organist also shows up in his orchestration, which tends to favor stark alternations of orchestral groups rather than a shifting blend of colors. It’s a cliché to compare Bruckner’s symphonies to cathedrals. Still, the comparison has merit, not so much because his symphonies are on the vast side (although not longer, on the whole, than Mahler’s), but even more because of their sonic solidity (grounded, in the climaxes, by crushing brass), their profound sense of meditation in the slow movements, and, most of all, their sense of awe. An extremely devout Catholic, Bruckner no doubt saw his music in religious terms; you don’t have to be a believer, however, to share in its sense of the sublime.
Bruckner’s music is especially gratifying for brass players—and the Fourth gives special opportunities to the first horn. “I love the mystical start of this symphony and the way it builds,” says principal horn Julie Bridge. And well she might: That mystical start features a serene horn solo (far harder than it sounds, says Julie, because of its wide slurs) over tremolo strings, a passage that leads to what might seem a musical equivalent of a sunrise. That opening gesture is readily recognizable, and Bruckner returns to it often in the movement as a marker of important formal junctures. The movement as a whole is strenuous one, building to a stupendous coda.
The contemplative Andante, which also features plenty of opportunities for the first horn, is less titanic in spirit; while it too builds to a massive climax, it ends softly. The mood shifts dramatically yet again for the third movement Scherzo, which begins (as the first movement does) with tremolos and horn—although here the first horn is quickly joined by its partners in spirited hunting calls. As for the finale: the finale in Brahms’s Violin Concerto is a complete departure from the first two movements, but Bruckner’s symphonies aim for a more consistent kind of unity, and the last movement here takes up much of the grandeur—and some of the specific gestures—of the first movement. Indeed, it too opens with a horn over tremolo strings. But the movement is a culmination, not a repetition; and however grand the coda of the first movement is, the one in the finale outdoes it—a patient but increasingly intense crescendo that will knock you out.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org