A Symphony for a Society in Denial

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.

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Gold veins or glowing columns of smoke?

Bruckner Sym8 2
Gold on grey. © Charles Thibo

“It remains a psychological mystery how the most gentle and peace-loving of all men […] becomes an anarchist while he is composing, throwing over board logic, clarity of development, formal unity and tonality. His music changes its shape like an unwieldy, glowing column of smoke.” This is the harsh judgement of Eduard Hanslick, a Viennese music critic, over Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor. Hanslick himself did not exactly have a reputation as a gentle critic. His measuring stick was the Vienna School, i.e. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Anyone daring to deviate from that line would face instant and complete annihilation in the press.

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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.

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