The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, WAB 101

About the Work

Anton Bruckner Composer: Anton Bruckner
© Peter Laki

Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann both died prematurely (in 1847 an 1856, respectively), leaving an enormous void in symphonic composition, with no immediate successors to fill it.  Brahms, whose great future had been prophesied by Schumann back in 1853, did not finish his first symphony until 1876.  In the years previous, two subjects of Emperor Franz Joseph I—two devout Catholics unaware of each other’s existence—were laboring in the symphonic field with perseverance but, for the time being, without any official recognition.  They were:  the first violist of the Czech theatre in Prague, Antonín Dvorák, and his namesake, the organist of Linz Cathedral, Anton Bruckner.

Bruckner’s First Symphony was premiered in Linz on May 9, 1868, but the first performance was followed by no others.  Later the same year, Bruckner moved to Vienna to become a professor of music theory at the Conservatory there.  Afterwards, he was occupied by new symphony projects, and the First Symphony remained locked up in his drawer—even though the composer had a soft spot for this work, which he called by the affectionate nickname das kecke Beserl (?the cheeky brat,” perhaps).  Bruckner dusted off the symphony in 1877 and again in 1879, making a number of small revisions.  Finally, in 1890/91, he decided to subject the work, now a quarter of a century old, to a thorough revision.  The formal outline and the thematic material remained unchanged, but the myriad changes of detail ended up giving the symphony a whole new physiognomy.  The audience encountered the work in this new form, conducted by Hans Richter at the Vienna Musikverein on December 13, 1891.  Tonight’s performances of the symphony will also follow this revision.


In his first symphony to be performed in public (at 45 minutes the shortest of the nine), Bruckner’s unmistakable personal style is clearly in evidence.  As in his later symphonies, structural thinking is paramount:  the themes don’t exist primarily for their own sake but rather for their potential for development.


The odd march tune with which the first movement opens and the lyrical second subject seem to be but preparations for the great fortissimo of the closing theme, where the trombones, silent until that point, enter with a typically Brucknerian fanfare.  The string figurations in the accompaniment reveal the great discovery Bruckner had made shortly before composing this symphony:  Wagner’s Tannhäuser had been performed in Linz in 1863.  Echoing one of the memorable moments in the overture was only a superficial sign of the profound influence Wagner exerted on Bruckner—an influence that lasted for a lifetime.  Of course, the way Bruckner handled those string figurations, especially the way he transformed them into a soft and mysterious flute solo in the development section, bears witness to his unique genius and innovative use of tone colors.  Similarly, Bruckner re-created classical sonata form in his own image by treating the recapitulation with extreme freedom.  For instance, the above-mentioned trombone fanfare never returns at all; instead, the movement closes with brand-new material that will reappear in the finale.


The second-movement Adagio in A-flat major, which was the last of the symphony’s movements to be written, follows a traditional ternary design:  its solemn and austere opening is followed by a faster, more freely flowing middle section.  Here, too, the recapitulation is strongly modified, as the solemn theme is complemented by some new, extremely ornate violin figurations.  We hear a brief fortissimo outburst, but the storm passes as quickly as it came.


At first, Bruckner planned a completely different scherzo for this symphony than the one we hear today (this discarded scherzlo was first published in 1995).  The new movement, in G minor, opens with a fortissimo gesture, preceding the lilting principal theme.  The trio section, which was transferred here from the discarded scherzo, combines the naïve innocence of the dance rhythm with the sophistication of a chromatic harmonic language.


The finale, likewise, starts on a dynamic high point (in his later works, Bruckner would tend to avoid such in medias res openings).  In spite of the lyrical episodes, the bewegt, feurig (?lively, fiery”) tempo character prevails to the end.  After a protracted dynamic surge, the key changes from C minor to C major, and Bruckner’s first symphonic masterpiece concludes on a grandiose and triumphant note.