Bruckner’s colourful Wagner memorial

Sommervakanz 2016 CT1 53
On the top. © Charles Thibo

Majestic. This symphony is majestic in many respects. Firstly through the impressive use of melodies as structural elements. Secondly through its sophisticated and still balanced instrumentation. Thirdly through its dedication to the Bavarian King Ludwig II. And finally through the background of its creation. Richard Wagner, or more precisely the death of Richard Wagner, is looming large behind this piece. In the first movement, the composer Anton Bruckner quotes a duet from Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde”, in the second and fourth movement, the tubas and horns play a thrill lamentation that can also be interpreted as Bruckner’s pledge of loyalty to his idol.

Peace and serenity

Majestic then. The last time I felt majestic was in August after I had climbed a summit in the Alps. Arriving at the top of the mountain, breathing deeply, exhausted but extremely satisfied, contemplating the panoramic view, listening to the wind, feeling the sun burning my face, enjoying the peace and the serenity. I thought of that moment while I listened to the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg (OPL) yesterday night performing Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major. What a beautiful piece of music! It is hardly surprising that this symphony is the most popular of all of Bruckner’s symphonic works.

Enter the Wagner tubas

Yesterday I heard for the first time the “Wagner tubas” in action. The OPL had them made specifically for this concert. Their design goes back to Albert Sax, the inventor of the saxophone (see the post Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto ), who built the first of their kind to the specifications of Richard Wagner. Of course, Bruckner used the “Wagner tubas” as a reference to his idol. Speaking about the OPL – I deeply enjoyed their performance. They excelled when they played the mournful parts. The full-bodied sound that has become their hallmark was well suited to express Bruckner’s feelings. And I loved to watch and hear the very disciplined first violins from seating row 3.

Adolf Hitler’s last greeting

The conductor Arthur Nikisch, who led the Gewandhaus Orchestra through the premiere in Leipzig on December 30, 1884, was enthusiastic when he saw parts of the partition in March 1884: “Since Beethoven, nothing that comes close [to Beethoven] has been written. Schumann is nothing [compared to this].” There is another interesting historic twist to it. Adolf Hitler, a great admirer of Wagner’s operas, had given the order that the adagio of Bruckner’s 7th symphony was to be broadcasted at the news of his suicide in a bunker in Berlin, assailed by the ed Army. The waning Third Reich was to mourn the Führer with Bruckner’s lamentation over Wagner’s death – the last (symbolic) greeting of a megalomaniac politician.

Philosophical breadcrumbs

I prefer the association of Bruckner’s composition with the peace and serenity I experience when I arrive at the top of a mountain, my reward being a deep inner satisfaction. It is similar to the exhilarating moment when I succeed for the first time to play a new piece on the piano in a way that satisfies my own ambitions. Studying and practising a piece is an effort similar to climbing a mountain, so the analogy is not too far-fetched.

And if you start to wonder what this has to do with a music blog, this blog is not about music only. It is my conviction that each of us is responsible for bringing about his own moments of personal satisfaction through hard work. The remembrance of these moments of satisfaction are a resource that each of us can use in the darker moments of our lives to get back on track.

Bruckner’s piece has been recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.

© Charles Thibo

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