Classical Conversations: Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

A pre-concert talk given by Rosemary Stimson on Friday 18 and Saturday 19 May 2012.

The performance of the ASO that followed included Bruckner’s Symphony No 3

Wagner’s Influence on Bruckner and the Wagner Symphony.

Good evening, I’m Rosemary Stimson and tonight, because we are going to listen to what’s known as Bruckner’s Wagner Symphony, I’m going to tell you about the influence that Wagner had on Bruckner and his music. It all results from a talk called “My Life and Wagner” given by the renowned conductor Simone Young last year to the Richard Wagner Society of SA. She suggested this topic to our President, Geoff Seidel, and I ended up volunteering to do it – I know a bit about Wagner, and I thought I knew a bit about Bruckner. But when I came to researching the topic! Well it was like herding cats!! It appears musicology has gone through all sorts of convulsions with regard to Bruckner, with the most amazing political and social implications. And all accompanied by the most vitriolic and intemperate academic language. Bruckner certainly stirs up some passions.

A lot of this lack of definition is a result of the adoring but undisciplined output of his early biographers, and often the biographies are politically slanted to suit various agendas. Bruckner himself, with his tendency to revise his work over and over throughout his life, also makes it difficult to be precise. There are 5 versions of the Wagner Symphony plus an extra Scherzo. It is the Third of his numbered symphonies, and the printed versions date from 1873, 1877 and 1889. Tonight we’ll hear the 1889 version. It’s called the Wagner Symphony, mostly because it is dedicated to Wagner:

This is the title page:

“The Symphony in D minor,  dedicated to the Most Revered Richard Wagner Esquire, the unrivalled, world-famous and illustrious master of poetry and music,   in deepest reverence,  by Anton Bruckner.”: a flowery title – but in the case of Anton Bruckner – deeply heartfelt.

Bruckner made the journey from Vienna to Bayreuth where Wagner lived, with the MSS of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, to ask Wagner to choose which one he would like  as a dedicated work. Bruckner idolised Wagner as a god on earth,  as he did Beethoven; and for a shy person, this undertaking would have taken some nerve. Imagine knocking on the door of Wahnfried! Wagner invites him in and he presents his two MSS – which one will Wagner choose, if in fact one is chosen at all? The music is scanned carefully and Wagner plumps for “The one with the trumpet call towards the beginning of the first movement”. It’s Number 3!

The two men then talked until well into the night, drinking beer and indulging in snuff – there is an appealing silhouette picture in the New Groves by Otto Böhler of the two of them sharing the snuff-box.  Well, when Bruckner woke up next morning, he couldn’t remember which symphony had been chosen and so he sent a message to Wahnfried – back came the answer “The one with the trumpet”.

At this stage the 3rd Symphony wasn’t quite finished, and some think this is when Bruckner inserted the half-dozen or so music references to Wagner as an act of homage. But others think the quotes were already in the text, and this swayed Wagner – all this is very unclear.

This original version of 1873 had its very first performance here in Adelaide, in the Festival Theatre, during the Festival of 1978.    I attended this performance, and was eager to pick out these references: some to Tristan and Isolde, some to Valkyrie and Lohengrin; and some people think they can even hear a reference to the Prize Song in The Mastersingers. These motivs were not terribly easy to pick out, because Bruckner put his own harmonic gloss on them; and of course Wagner had strong reasons for the harmony that he was employing, and Bruckner had equally strong reasons for using HIS harmonies. Bruckner removed most of these references in the later editions, and though the original is impressive, they are not really missed.

Like any two people, there were things that they had in common, and things that separated them widely, all of which had an effect on their music. Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813 , which is why of course next year, we celebrate his Bi-Centenary; Anton Bruckner was born in 1824, eleven years later, in the tiny Upper Austrian  village of Ansfelden. Bruckner was the first child of a country schoolmaster and organist, Wagner the 9th child of Karl Friedrich Wagner, a town official with a great interest in amateur dramatics. Both fathers died when their sons were young, and Richard’s mother remarried. His stepfather, Ludwig Geyer, had a great influence on young Richard. He was an actor and poet, and had artistic talent too. The house was always full of theatrical people, and Richard’s Uncle Adolf was an expert on Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists, and was a friend of ETA Hoffmann.

So Bruckner came from the country and Wagner was definitely urban. Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and Wagner was a humanist from the Protestant line. Bruckner was a conservative. When Europe erupted in revolution in 1848, he joined the National Guard. Wagner was a revolutionary: he manned the barricades, and eventually had to flee the country with a price on his head. Bruckner was confident in his religion and never wavered, devoting a great deal of his life to its music and its observance: Wagner was always questioning his belief-system, even delving into neo-Buddhism at the end of his life.

Bruckner was hesitant, lived modestly, and has a reputation for servility, but even at an early age, he refused to work in the fields when a young teacher: he knew his worth.  He was always seeking financial security. Wagner, on the other hand, was egotistic; and he lived spectacularly, if in debt; he disliked authority, but was able to get Ludwig II to bankroll his music and his lifestyle. He was known for the luxuriousness of his dress, always wanting money and nice things; he had a vital interest in everything, and wrote about most. Bruckner had no interest in literature, poetry, philosophy, science or politics, nor did he worry about his appearance (the wide trousers you see in photos were necessary for organ playing!) He was a virtuosic improviser on the organ, travelling around Europe to display his talent; whereas Richard was not an executant, just playing the piano to check on his musical ideas and to display his work to his circle of friends.

Bruckner had no luck with the girls: he was attracted to young ones, and was still trying to get married quite late in life. Richard, as we know, was a knife through butter!

Bruckner basically wrote symphonies and church music, and towards the end of his life toyed with the idea of writing an opera, whereas Wagner wrote operas and toyed with the idea of becoming a symphony composer. He actually wrote one in early life but it has never been a success. Bruckner died before he completed his Ninth Symphony but even if he’d lived to finish it, there was no way he would have written a 10th – like Wagner, he was in awe of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and he could not contemplate going past it.

Incidentally, one source to whom I’m truly indebted for information and insight is Dr John Phillips, the Adelaide musicologist, who recently returned from New York, where he heard his reconstruction of the Finale of Bruckner’s 9th being played to a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. A most remarkable achievement – in the sporting arena, it would have been headline news all over Australia.

Now, how did this young man Bruckner get from a tiny village in Upper Austria to be one of the greatest composers of the 19th century, honoured by Emperors, respected by his fellow composers and adored by his students? And incidentally, after death to be appropriated by the Wilhelmine and Nazi propaganda machines?

His father gave him his first music lessons on organ and spinet, and at the age of 11 he went to live with his godfather-cousin Johann Weiss, who introduced him to the music of Mozart, and gave him thoroughbass lessons as well as more advanced organ lessons. For those of you who studied Theory when young, you’ll remember thoroughbass is that bass line with numbers underneath to indicate what harmonies to use above each bass note. You probably called it figured bass.

After the death of his father, and at Weiss’s suggestion, young Anton was sent to the school at the famous monastery of St Florian near Linz, to be a chorister, and eventually to become a schoolmaster like his father. St Florian’s was architecturally magnificent, was extremely wealthy, had a famous library and a great organ built by the famous Krismann. A magnificent instrument, with thousands of pipes, 94 stops, 4 manuals and a pedalboard of 30 keys, it inspired the young boy with its beauty and grandeur – and it is now the place where he is buried.

He studied hard and passed exams to become a schoolteacher, at the same time continuing his lessons in music. He became a country teacher, composing in his spare time, and playing the fiddle in country bands. At 19 he also got a job as an organist, and now he started to study the works of JS Bach in minute detail. At the age of 31 he was appointed chief organist at St Florian’s, and also at the Cathedral in Linz. In the meantime, he had been travelling to Vienna for more musical training, and was finally accepted as a pupil by the famous organist and theorist Simon Sechter. Sechter subscribed to the theoretical ideas of Rameau, the French baroque composer. These strict lessons in theory and counterpoint continued for 6 years, mainly by post, during which time, Bruckner was forbidden to compose.

Not content with this, at the end of this self-imposed task, he started lessons in Linz with Otto Kitzler in orchestration and musical form, including sonata form. Kitzler was the conductor of the Linz Theatre Orchestra and a life-long Wagner enthusiast ever since at the age of 11 he attended the Dresden Premiere of Tännhäuser.

Kitzler introduced Bruckner to the music of Wagner, and was able to get permission to produce Tännhäuser in Linz in 1863. Bruckner was totally smitten with what he heard.

Can you imagine the effect the Overture would have had on him? The sublime Pilgrims’ Chorus with its intriguing harmonies followed by the Venusberg music, which is lightyears away from anything Bruckner would have met in all his long years of study.

This contact with Wagner’s music led to a sudden flowering of composition, producing the works now seen to be the first of his masterpieces. In 1865, he heard Tristan and Isolde in Munich, where he met Wagner for the first time. That year he also met Liszt and Berlioz, and began Symphony no 1 which was finished in 1866. Incidentally he liked to try and finish his compositions on his birthday! though the Wagner Symphony was finished on New Year’s Eve. In Vienna that year he also heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which was to have such a huge effect on his method of composition.

But in 1867, he suffered a serious mental breakdown probably brought on by overwork, and was admitted to a sanatorium. One of the symptoms was numeromania, the obsessive counting of things – one lady at the Sanatorium was asked not to wear her spotted dress, because he spent all his time counting the spots.

Well, he recovered; He made the decision at the age of 40 to become a composer rather than a schoolteacher   and eventually moved to Vienna, where he succeeded Sechter at the Conservatory. His life in Vienna became a round of teaching theory and counterpoint, playing the organ, and composing symphonies that would change the standard for the future of the form. He found it difficult to break into musical society, being a fairly unsophisticated middle-aged man from the backblocks, and this drawback was compounded by his being a Wagnerphile. The critic Hanslick, who was Wagner’s nemesis, was at first complimentary, but then adopted the same sort of attitude towards Bruckner’s music as he did to Wagner’s: “incomprehensible! why can’t he write in a balanced, sane way like Brahms?”

However Bruckner’s students were his champions – they were devoted to him and supported his music through all vicissitudes. After theory classes, they would all go off with him to a cafe where they would talk over beer and coffee about music. One of these devotees was the young Gustav Mahler, and we would not have the Mahler symphonies we love today without Bruckner.

So, what will we hear tonight that illustrates this emergence from well-constructed and worthy composer to someone whose works have influenced the development of music in the 20th century and beyond? From the merely competent, to the ecstatic, the mysterious, the solemn and the romantic? And will we hear any echoes of Wagner?

As in all of Bruckner’s symphonies, there are the usual 4 movements, but the first and last are not fast movements as such. They are extended, weighty structures with myriad moods and feelings juxtaposed without preparation of any kind;    in fact they are separated by many momentary silences. When you get one of these pauses, you know something significant is going to happen.

Instead of the usual 2 themes explored in the classical sonata movement, Bruckner writes 3, and the first of these in our  symphony is that descending trumpet motiv that so took Wagner’s fancy. It is a direct link to the similar trumpet motivs in both Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Like Wagner, he uses thematic transformation to get unity in a long single movement. This is a sort of variation technique in which a theme is changed, not into a related or a subsidiary one, but into something quite independent of the original: Beethoven does this in the 9th Symphony when he changes the “Ode to Joy” into a Turkish March.

Wagner uses constant symphonic development of themes through his operas to achieve large formal structures with their own unity, and likewise Bruckner uses his three themes in intricate counterpoint, over a firmly conceived harmonic structure: the thoroughbass, if you like.. The first and the last movements have this idiosyncratic sonata form.

The slow movement follows the pattern set in Beethoven’s 9th with an Adagio in 4/4 time alternating with an Andante in 3/4. If you listen hard, you may still hear an echo or two of the Wagner quotes from 1873:

a “footprint in the snow” of the Tristan chord towards the beginning;

a slight reminiscence of Brunnhilde before she sinks onto the fire-encircled rock;

and a full orchestral expression of a theme from  the Bridal Procession to the Minster  in Lohengrin.

Some slowly descending chromatic scales can be associated with the sleep motiv in Valkyrie. Notice too the so-called Marian cadences, derived from the Austrian Catholic service, at the other end of the spectrum.

The Scherzo is charming and the first Landler dance is very Dvořak – you expect it to go into a Furiant rhythm! But the 2nd Landler is a foretaste of Mahler

In the last movement, we’ll hear a short restatement of themes from the preceding three movements that gives us cyclic unity. This is what Beethoven does in the last movement of Symphony No 9. Plus there is a new set of 3 themes that belong only to this movement.

If Brahms was writing this, it would have been like a castle – in Bruckner’s hands, it is more like Stonehenge: great masses of musical blocks separated by air. The Symphony ends on a triumphal note with an inspiring restatement of the trumpet motiv that Wagner loved.

It’s very interesting to listen to and compare the three versions of the Wagner Symphony: the first version of 1873 is much more rough-hewn, but also more Schubertian in a way. This reminds us that Bruckner used to play Schubert duets on the piano, with a woman who, when she was young, had played them with Schubert himself.

The second version of 1877 is slightly shorter, and some of the rough edges have been smoothed away – the third of 1889 has a more mature gloss to it. Some wind scoring has been given to the brass, and Bruckner has completed his juggling of bars to give 8-bar phrasing throughout, resulting in a smoother ride. There are two schools of thought as to why he tightened up the texture and structure, and why he reduced the length :    it was either to make his music more appealing to audiences, and he was always encouraged to do this by his supporters; or it was because he wanted to make his music more theoretically secure. It’s probably a mixture of both – certainly you can hear the influence of the composer of the Eighth Symphony on the 1889 version of the Third.

So where do we end up on this question of Wagner’s influence on Bruckner and his 3rd Symphony? Well, you won’t hear long Wagner tunes or Wagner’s especially colourful instrumentation, but you will hear his influence in the harmonic audacity,

the epic and ambitious handling of musical form and the generally forward-sounding nature of Bruckner’s work.

He has been called a Janus-like figure: looking backwards to Schubert, and Beethoven in particular, through the baroque era in his contrasting of instrumental textures, and his sure footing on thoroughbass foundations; back through Bach even to Palestrina. So many of these composers he would have encountered in his days as a chorister and organist, quite apart from in his theoretical studies. He also shows the way forward  through Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg and beyond. And all the time he loved Wagner.

I’d like to finish by telling you a story about one of the MSS of the Third Symphony. The original 1873 MS was sent to Wagner at Bayreuth as we know, where it was kept safely at Wahnfried. Bruckner directed in his will that all the rest of his MSS should go to the Austrian State Library, and with some notable exceptions, this is what happened. However, earlier on, Bruckner had given the first three movements of the 1877 version to Mahler, to be transcribed for piano duet, and what with one thing and another,  it stayed in a trunk till well after Mahler’s death, and this is where the redoubtable Alma Mahler discovered it much later.

At this stage she had married – and left – Walter Gropius, the architect; had broken the painter Oskar Kokoschka’s heart; and was now with Franz Werfel the author. They had the MS on display in a cabinet in their Vienna house. When the German annexation of Austria took place, Alma and Werfel fled to Paris. Their faithful retainer realised the MS should be rescued, wrapped it up in brown paper and sent it with a Viennese music critic also escaping to Paris. He didn’t realise what it was till he got there “My God, this is Bruckner’s 3rd!”

War was declared, and again Alma and Werfel fled, this time to Marseilles. To get an exit visa, they bribed a taxi driver to drive them to Bordeaux where the government was temporarily housed. However they were stopped by a roadblock at Carcassonne at 2 in the morning. They put most of their luggage including the MSS on the train for Bordeaux, intending to catch it in the morning. But by the time morning came, the station was so full of refugees they could neither catch the train nor get their luggage off. So there they were, with only 2 overnight bags. They made their way to Lourdes where a friendly hotelier wrote to his mate in the railway station at Bordeaux to get their stuff sent back. Arriving back in Marseilles, still without the exit visa, they packed a few things including the last of their money, some jewellery and the MSS of Bruckner’s 3rd and Mahler’s Song of the Earth and set off by train for the extreme eastern end of the French/Spanish border. These are two of the longest works ever written – can you imagine the weight? Alma at this stage was 61 and Werfel 50, and they Walked Over the Pyrenees into Spain. They were nearly sent back because of the lack of exit visa, but the border guard took pity on them, and they were eventually able to make their way to Lisbon, where they caught the last Greek ship to cross the Atlantic to NY.

They travelled by train across the USA and joined the colony of artistic exiles in Los Angeles, which included Schoenberg, Klemperer and Thomas Mann.

Now why she did this at such an extreme time and why they hung onto it is beyond me, but whilst in Lourdes, Alma had picked up a brochure on St Bernadette. In LA Werfel glanced through it and realised the story had “legs”. And he wrote The Song of Bernadette which became the bestselling novel, and then a hit film. This all restored Alma’s fortunes and they bought a house in Beverly Hills, where Bruckner’s 3rd again went on display. After Werfel’s death, Alma sold the MS to the Austrian State Library and so the parts of the Symphony no3 were reunited.

What a film this would make – with music by Bruckner and Wagner!