A symphony for a society in a state of denial

Bruckner_Symphony6
Is this the end? © Charles Thibo

Is this fin de siècle already? Or is it just the last wave of Romantic music rolling over the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before World War I would bring the European order down? Hard to say. This symphony remains a mystery to me, full of hidden meanings. I know they are there, but I can’t really grasp them. Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 in A major (WAB 106) occupies a special place among the composer’s nine symphonic works. It is very  different from those Bruckner wrote before and after. Bruckner composed it in a very short time – between September 24, 1879 and September 3, 1881, and the time gap between his fifth and sixth symphony is huge, compared to those that separate his other symphonies, the musicologist Peter Gülke writes.

Bruckner was a strange man who wrote strange music, at least in his time, his contemporaries often found it strange. He was marked by the legacy of Ludwig van Beethoven, who had elevated the art of the symphony to an almost superhuman level, and by his own history as a church musician. And he had fully embraced the staggering colourful works that Richard Wagner produced on the opera stage. At the same time Bruckner fled the Viennese high-society and its intellectuals. It is unknown whether he was interested in any other form of art – painting, literature, architecture – and he was adulated by a circle of very young people, 19th century groupies, adhering to the fin de siècle literature scene.

“Energetic dynamics” seems to be a key word to understand Bruckner’s symphonies. The researcher Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen uses it when he analyzes what Bruckner’s biographers had to say about his music. Ernst Kurth (1886-1946), author of such a biography, emphasized that the form of Bruckner’s symphonies, that irritated so many, was not relevant for the appreciation of the music. He highlighted the dynamics of the music, the “symphonic stream” inside the form. If the basic form did not change much from symphony to symphony, the flow of the music inside made each symphony a distinct work.

The first movement of Symphony No. 6 illustrates this perfectly: the music quickly moves from inaudible to a climax, a bit like a mushroom cloud after a nuclear explosion, and falters again. Towards the middle of the movement, the tension builds up again, takes up the previous theme, sets the tone for the next movement but before moving to the adagio, the music makes another final leap, a faint echo of the first two culmination points.

What I find admirable, is the vitality of Bruckner’s symphony as it is expressed in the first, third and the last movements, coupled to the sensitivity Bruckner expresses in the adagio. I don’t quite know what the audience in Vienna and elsewhere expected at the end of the 19th century in terms of harmony, but Bruckner aptly caught the mood of a society that seemed to be on the verge of decadence with frozen political structures and a generally pessimistic outlook on the one hand and young people willing to rebel against the established order, something new budding out of the decay of earlier generations. And perhaps the audience ambivalent reactions to Bruckner’s music illustrated the state of denial of a society not willing to look in a mirror.

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 has been recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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