By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Bruckner and 20th –Century Politics performed on Jan 13, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Amidst all the discussion of politics, a few words should be said about the music in the major work on this program, the Bruckner Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat.
The work, which is in four movements, was written in 1875 and 1876. Bruckner revised it again in 1878 but never heard the work performed by an orchestra. It was published in 1896 with the help of Franz Schalk, who conducted the first performance. For the published version, large sections were reorchestrated, the last movement was cut extensively, and a brass choir was added at the end to strengthen the closing bars. At the first performance the added brass were offstage, but the score explicitly calls for the new brass choir to be “behind the orchestra on a raised platform.” Either the offstage placement did not work or there was no room. Some Bruckner devotees may wince at this version, but I believe it makes a fantastic case for the work. In this version, the work should be heard more often and recorded.
The first movement is nominally in B-flat major. This can be said because the first movement may be one of the most interesting and powerful experiments in the relationship of harmony to the conventions of symphonic first-movement sonata form. The work has a slow introduction (the only one of its kind in Bruckner), which resists a firm tonality and drifts through G-flat into A until the Allegro. But even in the Allegro, tonality always seems to shift, together with wonderful new thematic and rhythmic materials and periodic breaks in the surface continuity. C major, F minor, E major, G minor, B-flat minor, E-flat major-among others-all are explored as this grand, nearly improvisatory harmonic journey makes its way to its massive end, which asserts the B-flat major. This movement is one of the most innovative in the nineteenth-century literature and bears the marks of Bruckner’s genius in using harmonic color and unexpected relationships to frame the emotionally powerful but intricate and subtle musical structure, in which the matter of a defining tonality is challenged.
The second movement is in D minor and is marked by a lyrical clarity achieved, In part, by simple cross rhythms. The second subject is in C major. Bruckner’s melodic genius is evident throughout. The closing bars are particularly notable with the D pedal in the timpani and the quiet close in D major. The third movement Scherzo is in D minor and is typical Bruckner. There is a slower second theme, reminiscent of the Austrian Ländler dance. The transition to the trio, which is not In 3/4 time, is an example of Bruckner’s harmonic usage. The F sharp of a D-major triad becomes used as a G-flat. The audience hears the same sustained note from one context immediately become the basis of another unrelated context without warning. in this movement, particularly the Trio, Bruckner’s humor and his relationship to Schubert and the eighteenth century are audible.
The last movement, after the introduction, is built around the writing of fugues. There is also a stunning chorale. Throughout this massive, multi-subject contrapuntal movement-even in this shorter form- Bruckner’s dramatic sense and sonic imagination are breathtaking. For the listener there will always be two outstanding aspects: the constant influence of the sound of the pipe organ on Bruckner’s use of the orchestra and the utterly original attitude to the creation of musical continuities. A majestic structure is built around blocks of sound, closely interrelated musical ideas, and carefully organized counterpoint–all placed in discrete and harmonically unexpected sequences. Bruckner creates his own sense of time and therefore the inner journey for the listener, it is likely that the essence of that journey, for Bruckner, was the celebration of faith and a sense of awe; and the expression of the variety and majesty of God’s creation through sound.