The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major ("Romantic") (1874 original version, ed. Novak)

About the Work

Anton Bruckner Composer: Anton Bruckner
© Richard Freed

Bruckner composed his Fourth Symphony in 1874, but in that original version the work was not performed in his lifetime. He submitted the score to two revisions, eventually producing a second version, usually labeled ?1878/1880,? with a totally new scherzo and a substantially rewritten finale; in this form the Fourth was introduced to the world by Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on February 20, 1881. There were further revisions on a smaller scale, the last in 1887-88, and the score was finally published in 1889. That version, first performed in Munich on December 10, 1890, under Hermann Levi, was probably used in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the work, on January 18, 1942, under Hans Kindler. In the orchestra's most recent presentation of the Fourth Symphony, on November 20, 21 and 22, 1997, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducted, using the critical edition by Leopold Nowak published by the International Bruckner Society in 1953. The discarded scherzo of the original 1874 version was performed in Linz under August Göllerich in 1909, but that version in its entirety was neither published nor performed until thirty years ago. Nowak's edition of the original version was published in 1875, and on September 20 of that year it was used for the first time in an actual performance, given by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra under Kurt Wöss. It is this version that enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Duration, 65 minutes.


Bruckner died without completing his final symphony, and it might be said that he seldom felt he had finished any of his earlier ones: he revised Nos. 1 2, 3, 4 and 8 substantially, and some of them more than once. Sir Roger Norrington, who brings us this little-known early version of the Fourth, tells us, ?I am always fascinated to work on and perform first versions of Bruckner symphonies, those he composed before he started fearfully changing his mind.?

It is, of course, not at all unusual for composers to revise their scores, particularly after hearing the music actually performed, but Bruckner was an extreme case in this respect, and some of his revisions were made before a performance had taken place. Through a combination of factors?the composer's own self-doubt, the hostility whipped up by certain elements of the musical community, the well-intentioned advice of his own disciples and admirers who somehow missed the point of his great originality and overall personal style?he characteristically submitted his big symphonies to more exhaustive revisions, and a greater number of them, than we are likely to find among the works of any other major symphonist. His Third actually exists in no fewer than nine versions; for his Fourth, the most enduringly popular of the lot, there are essentially three versions.

?Version 1,? the one performed in the present concerts, is the original one, unheard and unpublished for more than a hundred years. ?Version 2,? the standard form of the work, represents a drastic overhauling of the composer's original thoughts, not merely in respect to details of scoring but with changes in the essential character of the music and a good deal of outright replacement. ?Version 3,? which served for the first publication of the score, is essentially a generously cut revision of Version 2; Bruckner may have agreed to the cuts reluctantly, in order to get the score published.

Four years passed between Bruckner's completion of the 1874 version and his initial revision. That revision, undertaken in 1878, consisted of thorough alterations to the first and second movements, and the replacement of the entire scherzo with a new one that was to become the best-known single movement in any of his symphonies. In 1880 the original finale was rewritten to such a degree that we might call it a new movement based on materials in the original one. .

Perhaps Bruckner would have made fewer changes, or different ones, or none at all, if his original version had been performed when he finished it. The delay in getting the work performed was not a consequence of his own dissatisfaction, but was caused by the effective opposition to his works led by the influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904). Bruckner's veneration of Wagner?and Wagner's enthusiastic acceptance of his tributes in the form of quotations and the dedication of the Third Symphony?made him a prime target for Hanslick, who detested Wagner and his follows, and who idolized Brahms as the savior of music. Wagner had no kinder regard for Hanslick: he actually called the least attractive character in Die Meistersinger ?Hans Lick? in his first draft, and only later changed the name to ?Sixtus Beckmesser? (the surname meaning ?back-stabber?). But Wagner never expressed contempt for Brahms, nor Brahms for Wagner. The whole absurd Brahms-vs.-Wagner ?rivalry? was a gratuitous irrelevancy evidently concocted by Hanslick himself, about whom the reliable Donald Francis Tovey wrote, in his long and compassionate essay on this very symphony:

I have read Hanslick's collected works patiently, without discovering either in his patronage of Brahms or in his attacks on Wagner, Verdi, Bruckner, the early works of Beethoven, Palestrina's Stabat Mater , or any other work a little off the average Viennese concert-goer's track in 1880, any knowledge of anything whatever.

More recently, in 1951, Virgil Thomson wrote a long piece on Hanslick, headed ?Reactionary Critic,? in which he noted that ?the truth was not in him [and] he never stuck his neck out.? Eloquent in his plain-spokenness, as always, Thomson summed up:

He invented nothing but the style and attitude of the modern newspaper review. That, with all its false profundity and absurd pretensions to ?sound? judgment, he will probably have to defent at everybody's Last Judgment. He was second-rate clean through, and he had no heart.

In any event, there was indeed such a situation and everyone was aware of it. It is significant that the conductor who showed the courage to introduce the Bruckner Fourth in Vienna in 1881 was one whose greatness Hanslick acknowledged, and who was himself no less than Hanslick a champion of Brahms, though he was identified with Wagner as well. Hans Richter was a musician whose artistic sympathies were as broad as Hanslick's were narrow, and he was the only Viennese conductor of sufficient stature to undertake a Bruckner premiere in the face of Hanslick's blasts.

Bruckner himself was quite aware of the significance of Richter's commitment, and he was more awed than anyone else by that conductor's eminence. During one of the rehearsals for the premiere of the Fourth, Richter turned to him with a question about a note in the score, to which Bruckner responded eagerly, ?Why, any note you choose; any note at all, quite as you like it.? The composer's notorious naïveté came out in a further incident at the end of the final rehearsal, when, according to Richter, Bruckner approached him ?radiant with enthusiasm and happiness? and pressed something into his hand, saying, ?Take it and drink a mug of beer to my health.? On discovering the Bruckner had given him a Taler (a coin of small denomination), the great conductor broke down and wept; he later had the coin attached to his watch chain.

Immediately after the premiere Bruckner made some revisions to the score, including a substantial cut in the slow movement and substantial tweaking of the final one. This version was used in the work's second performance, given December 10, 1881, under Felix Mottl in Karlsruhe. Five years later, when Anton Seidl was preparing to perform the Fourth in New York, Bruckner made a few minor alterations before sending him the score. Finally, in 1887-88 there were some further minor alterations, and it was in this version that the score at last saw publication in 1889.

There was widespread belief that the cuts in that first published score had not been made by Bruckner himself, but by Ferdinand Löwe, one of the composer's devoted but misguided disciples. Löwe and his fellow disciples the brothers Franz and Joseph Schalk, were indeed responsible for rounding off the corners and smoothing out the alleged rough spots in several of Bruckner's scores, and may indeed have influenced him in this case. It was to rectify this situation, as it affected all of the composer's works, that the International Bruckner Society undertook the preparation and publication of critical editions some 75 years ago. Robert Haas prepared such editions between 1931 and 1944 (Alfred Orel, however, was responsible for the Ninth Symphony), and following World War II a new series was edited by Leopold Nowak. (Haas's first edition of the Fourth Symphony, based on the 1881 version, was published as early as 1936, and might have been available for Kindler's 1942 performance with the NSO, but wartime conditions would have made the 1889 score more likely at that time.) Eventually these editions came to include the two early and unnumbered symphonies as well as the nine with numbers, and in 1975 the original version of the Fourth finally came to light in publication and performance.

Musical historians have generally agreed that Bruckner showed good judgment in holding back his Fourth Symphony until he had reshaped it. When it was finally given its premiere, in the ?1878/1880 version,? in February 1881, its huge success amounted to a breakthrough for him, both in professional circles and among the listening public. (Even Hanslick had to express grudging admiration for it.) It may be said that the Fourth is the one work of Bruckner's that has enjoyed a hold on the public's affection even when all his other symphonies were regarded as mere novelties or curiosities in much of the world. Perhaps more than any other single work, the Fourth reflects all the characteristic elements of Bruckner's symphonic pilgrimage?the easygoing rusticity of the earlier symphonies, the lofty grandeur of the final three, the highly personal concept of span, color and momentum that make the authorship of these works unmistakable.

But the 1874 version offers a somewhat different perspective, and an intriguing one. While the familiar Version 2 projects the image of a matured, confident creative thinker and accomplished craftsman, there is much in the original version that demands attention with its fearless (if occasionally rough-edged) spontaneity and its unself-conscious exposure of the struggle involved in the creative process. One senses a resistance here to the idea of any reining-in of an instinct for all-out exuberance and expressiveness on the most demonstrative level. There are grand gestures here that have an ?angular? edge to them, in sharp contrast to the confident flow in Version 2. There is also an impression of a darker element as well, rather at odds with the idyllic ?Romantic? context Bruckner himself specified?and eventually a more brilliant apotheosis.

It was probably early in 1877, before he thought of revising the score, that Bruckner decided on the label ?Romantic,? the only descriptive title he affixed to any of his symphonies. He devised a program to fit the music, with this outline for the first movement:

A medieval city?Sunrise?Reveille is sounded from the towers?The gates open?The knights sally forth into the countryside on their spirited horses, surrounded by the magic of Nature?Forest murmurs?Bird songs?And so the ?Romantic? picture develops further.

Several years after the premiere Bruckner sought to sum up or reconstruct his program for the Fourth Symphony by describing the first movement as a scene from the days of chivalry, the second as a rustic love scene, and the third as a hunt broken by a dance interlude; but when pressed for details on the finale he could only say, ?I'm sorry, but I have forgotten what it was about.? Since the music came before the program, it is just as well that Bruckner forgot parts of his after-the-fact scenario and thereby relieved listeners from being concerned with it. The title ?Romantic? is program enough, and it suits the spirit of the work in both its original form and its subsequent ones.

How well it fits is apparent at once in the characteristic opening, with the falling-and-rising horn calls over rustlings in the strings, an idealization of the very concept of Romantic expressiveness. Both of the two movements retained in later versions were set down rather more expansively in1874. All the material is familiar to anyone acquainted with the work in its ?standard? form?there is just a bit more of it here. In the first movement, one might say, there is more insistence on the grandeur of the sunrise and the fanfares from the towers. If the slow movement, as pared down in the standard version seems a bit on the solemn side for Bruckner's description of it in his forgotten scenario as ?a rustic love scene,? in its broader original form it is more ceremonial in feeling and more intense in its expressiveness, and has been likened to a funeral rite.

The abandoned scherzo, too, turns out to be more extended than the movement that eventually replaced it, and one may understand its having been performed on its own back in 1909, when it may have been regarded as dramatic symphonic poem on an unidentified subject. This music has none of its successor's ingratiating tunefulness or rhythmic gaiety; it is a wholly different sort of piece: darker, more inward, and with a decidedly sinister edge. Far from a revel in Nature, it might be regarded as a reminder of Nature's awesome and not always benevolent power. Outbursts of restless energy bordering on violence are punctuated by horn calls that are sobering rather than jubilant, and by brief but poignant silences. Along the way there are fragmentary ?pre-echoes? of the more genial scherzo to come in Version 2?but they are only fragments, and hardly conspicuous.

The finale, which Bruckner labeled Volksfest (?Public Festival?) is the one section of Version 1 that is a bit more concise than the corresponding movement of Version 2, and, as already noted, it is not as thoroughly new as the scherzo. As in Version 2, the opening and closing pages are built on material from earlier in the work?the opening gestures of the first movement in particular. The radiant lyric theme that propels much of the Version 2 finale, however, is neither as radiant nor as lyrical here, but is more offhand: an incidental ?aside? to the more dramatic goings-on around it, with no thought of taking center stage itself. The closing fanfares, though (characteristically on the first-movement theme), make for a more stunning conclusion than the end of Version 2: richer, more unrestrainedly driven, more brilliantly ornamented, altogether wilder in their exultation here than in the later version: in a word, one of the most unrestrainedly jubilant of Bruckner's grand affirmative gestures.