Bruckner delights with a vibrant first symphony

Into the night with Bruckner. © Charles Thibo

“Never again have I been that daring and perky”, Anton Bruckner confided many years after he had written and rewritten what today is called Symphony No. 1 in C minor (WAB 101). The first movement starts on a few calm bars, but then the eight bars long main theme forcefully breaks free and this fervent, powerful element characterizes very much the entire work. The finale too is pushed forward by a radiant and majestic theme. Nevertheless the piece also has several song-like, melodious parts, a slow, solemn second movement, and a furious tutti at the end of the third movement – elements that would define all of Bruckner’s later symphonies.

A careful architect

Bruckner was a methodical man and a careful, disciplined architect. He had a clear blue-print of each movement in his mind before he would put the different elements together in writing. Nevertheless there are two versions of this symphonic work, that he judged himself as training material rather than accomplished compositions. The “Linz version” was composed in 1865/66 while he worked as an organist in the cathedral of the Austrian town of Linz. In 1891, he edited the score and published what is known as the “Vienna version”, since by 1868 Bruckner lived in Vienna.

The earlier version is judged a little more daring and perky than the “Vienna version” and seems to be the more popular version nowadays. I have a wonderful recording of the “Linz version” by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim. Bruckner gave it the nickname “a perky brat” (a keckes Beserl) and he certainly preferred the earlier version.

Mezmerized by Wagner’s language

Much has been said about Richard Wagner’s influence upon Bruckner and some have said that Bruckner’s first published symphony breezes the spirit of Wagner’s opera music. In 1863 Bruckner heard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” in Linz, two years later he attended a performance of “Tristan und Isolde” in Munich (one of my favourite operas!) and yes, he was deeply impressed my Wagner’s musical language in general and by “Tristan und Isolde” more specifically. But he started to write the symphony before he traveled to Munich and finished it much later. But of course his admiration for Wagner inspired him to use compositional techniques that became Wagner’s hallmark.

I very much encourage you to listen to this wonderful symphonic works. In The morning the vibrant parts propel me energetically into the day, the solemn parts give me a certain serenity in the evening and the mix of these elements delight me between sunrise and sunset.

© Charles Thibo

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One thought on “Bruckner delights with a vibrant first symphony”

  1. I’m glad to read your optimism about this symphony. I find the scherzo wonderful, but the rest of it somewhat unmemorable. The Fm study symphony also is a bit… underwhelming, but it seems I’m far more positive about the second than most other people.

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