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Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Anton Bruckner
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducts Daniel Foster, viola Nov. 1 - 3, 2001
© Richard Freed

Bruckner began work on his Seventh Symphony on September 23, 1881, and completed the score a bit less than two years later, on the day after his 59 th birthday. The first performance was given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Arthur Nikisch on December 30, 1884. Antal Doráti conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on November 7, 8, and 9, 1972; the most recent ones were conducted by James Conlon on November 7, 8, 9, and 12, 1991.

The score, dedicated to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals and strings. Approximate duration, 68 minutes.

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Bruckner was at his most energetic and most confident when he composed this symphony, less than three months after completing his Sixth. Although he worked on his Mass in E minor and outlined the Te Deum during the same period, he was able to maintain a clear and steady course in bringing the Seventh to completion. Six months after he completed the score his disciples Ferdinand Löwe and Josef Schalk played a piano duet reduction for Arthur Nikisch in Leipzig, and the legendary conductor (then only 28 years old, but already well established) decided then and there to give the Symphony's premiere in that city. His first thought was to present the work on June 27, 1884, in a concert to raise funds for the erection of a monument to Wagner (who was born in Leipzig). For one reason or another, the premiere was delayed for six months, and it was a rather mixed success in that bastion of conservatism, despite Nikisch's enthusiastic commitment. Ten weeks later, however, Hermann Levi conducted the Seventh in Munich, and that occasion was an undisputed triumph, bringing Bruckner approval and acceptance on a scale he had not known before; it was immediately following that happy event that he dedicated the score to King Ludwig, who had been Wagner's patron, and he thereafter referred to Levi as “my artistic father” (though the conductor was his junior by 15 years). Within three years the Seventh Symphony had been received warmly in Vienna, Chicago, New York, London, Amsterdam and Berlin. In the 1920s the Seventh became the first of Bruckner's symphonies to be recorded; it was recorded three times, in fact, before any of his others was recorded in full. It continues to be the most favored of Bruckner's works, both in recordings and in concert performances.

Even more significantly, perhaps, the Seventh achieved this level of success on Bruckner's own terms from the outset. Bruckner never revised it, as he did his others, but produced a single version and stood by it. Together with the aforementioned Schalk and Löwe, he did make changes in tempo markings and orchestration in a few passages before the premiere, but these were for the most part minimal and did not affect the character or proportions of the work. After the premiere, at Nikisch's suggestion, there was some more polishing, but nothing beyond the norm in making adjustments to a big score between its first actual performance and its publication.

The Seventh remains the one Bruckner symphony that has undergone the fewest changes from one edition to the next, either on the composer's part or by his various editors. His own autograph score, with the emendations just noted, was used as the basis for the first publication in 1885, and the differences between that version and the two “Original Editions” published by the International Bruckner Society are again minimal, having to do mainly with octave doublings, expression marks and other such details. In essence, Robert Haas, in the 1944 edition, preserved the score as Bruckner first set it down, while Leopold Nowak, ten years later, incorporated the alterations made at Nikisch's request. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, one of the most respected Brucknerians of our time, conducts a version based mainly on the Haas edition, but with a few passages from the Nowak and some touches of his own.

The single point of major significance that has been less than fully clear since the Bruckner Society undertook its critical editions has been the question of the cymbal clash at the climax of the Adagio —actually a cymbal clash with a triangle roll. This touch was not in Bruckner's original score; it was apparently a suggestion from Löwe and Schalk, not only accepted by Nikisch but, according to Löwe, “insisted upon” by the conductor, who as late as two weeks before the delayed premiere more or less demanded that several sections be reorchestrated. Such a demand, too, is hardly an unusual occurrence in the process of bringing so big a work to the public, especially when so powerful a conductor as Nikisch is involved.

Haas cited the cymbal clash as inauthentic because the words “Gilt nicht” (“Doesn't count,” or “May be ignored”) were added to the notation for inserting these percussion instruments on the strip of paper fastened to the affected page of the score. But those words are not in Bruckner's handwriting, and surely if he had intended to delete the cymbals and triangle he would simply have removed the addendum on which he had inserted them--rather than leave it in place with a note that it should be disregarded! He did unequivocally include just such a treatment at the corresponding point in the Adagio of his next symphony, the last one he brought to completion (and it is of interest in this respect that the Eighth also contains an outright quotation from the Seventh in its finale), but this pesky question remains the most conspicuous textual decision to be made by a conductor performing the Seventh Symphony. Mr. Skrowaczewski does include the cymbals and triangle, citing the overall logic of the score as pointing to something quite different from the cuts and other changes he had felt obliged to accept in order to get his earlier symphonies performed: in this case, an omission on his part which he was only too happy to correct once it was brought to his attention and its validity demonstrated in performance.

Bruckner's nine numbered symphonies (there are two earlier ones without numbers) divide neatly into groups of three to mark off significant stages or levels in his progress as a symphonist. The Seventh, which initiated the glorious final trilogy, was not only presented on Bruckner's own terms, but was also the first one he completed without some level of concern for approval from his idol, Richard Wagner. Wagner died while Bruckner was composing this work, and its exalted slow movement is at least in part an elegy for him.

The first meeting between Bruckner and Wagner took place in Munich in June 1865, at the time of the premiere of Tristan und Isolde. On that occasion Bruckner was too timid to show Wagner the three movements he had completed of his Symphony No. 1, but in 1873 “the Master” allowed Bruckner to visit him at Bayreuth with the scores of his Second and Third symphonies, and accepted the dedication of the latter, which was originally filled with quotations from Wagner's operas. Two years later Wagner embraced Bruckner publicly in Vienna. Their last meeting was at Bayreuth in July 1882, when Bruckner attended the premiere of Parsifal (conducted by the same Levi who was destined to realize the full grandeur of the symphony Bruckner had begun some ten months earlier). Wagner declared then that among symphonists he knew “of only one composer who measures up to Beethoven, and that is Bruckner.” [As both Wagner and Bruckner were well aware, Brahms had by then introduced two of his four symphonies.] He went on to promise Bruckner that he would personally perform all of his symphonies; but Bruckner sensed that “the Master” would not be able to keep that promise, and this premonition dwelt in him as he worked on the first movement and scherzo of his Seventh.

The scherzo was to be in its usual position as third movement—it was only in his two final symphonies that Bruckner reversed the traditional order of the inner movements—but it was actually the first of the four movements to be completed. After finishing the first movement, Bruckner began work on the Adagio, and had it fully sketched by January 22, 1883. When he began to turn the sketch into the actual score he felt a strong presentiment of Wagner's death, which occurred on February 13; when the news reached him he extended the original design of the Adagio, ending the movement with a noble elegy which he labeled, so as to leave no doubt about his intentions, “In memory of the immortal and dearly beloved Master who has departed this life.” The Adagio was brought to completion on April 21, leaving the rest of the spring and the entire summer for the composition and orchestration of the finale.

The composer's identity is established unmistakably in the soaring phrase that opens the first movement (Allegro moderato), which is laid out according to Bruckner's own comfortable modification of sonata form. The first subject is related to a motif in the Mass in D minor which he composed in 1864, while the second is pervasively Wagnerian in character. The course of the music is more serene than proclamative, but by no means deficient in characteristic Brucknerian drama. Brass chorales are heard at transitional points, and the final pages blaze with pealing brass and sweeping strings.

In the Adagio Bruckner met the self-imposed challenge of creating an elegy worthy of Wagner by producing one of the most eloquent utterances in his entire catalogue of works. It is was this movement that he used the quartet of Wagner tubas for the first time, and it is in this great Adagio that he set the seal on the Seventh as the first in the magnificent final trilogy of symphonies in which the rustic character of his earlier works is almost entirely replaced by a consciously loftier concept. The music is marked Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam —“Very solemn and very slow,” the term “solemn,” as so often in musical parlance, carrying a connotation of a solemnizing ritual or ceremony. The opening (Wagner tubas and lower strings) is somewhat reminiscent of the episode “Siegfried's Death” in Götterdämmrung; by way of contrast, it is followed at length by an almost waltzlike section (violins) which from our vantage of hindsight might be said to hint at what Mahler was to do with similar material in his symphonies. The general structure of this vast movement, however, suggests neither Wagner nor Mahler so much as the sublime Adagio of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Since Bruckner's Adagio is in the nature of a dirge, though, it is a good deal more impassioned (as well as more extended), rising in intensity through restatements of the simple opening theme until the peak is reached. The effect of this climax, achieved with the simplest of means, is a great release of tension, leaving the tonal landscape hushed as backdrop for the final benediction, in which fragments from Wagner's Ring may be discerned. At the end is a trombone chorale whose theme Bruckner was to use again in the concluding “Non confundar” of his Te Deum , the first major work he completed after this symphony (also in 1884).

The lusty “cock's crow” scherzo brings us back to earth with its brilliant trumpet tune against an insistent four-note figure in the strings. The trio, though, is not the bucolic idyll Bruckner had given us in his earlier scherzos, but, in the words of Hans F. Redlich (who prepared his own edition of the Seventh Symphony, seeking a middle ground between Nowak and Haas), “music of a nostalgia for the lost golden age,” music that “gazes longingly beyond the confines of this pastoral world.”

The finale is a concise (for Bruckner) résumé of what has gone before. Its opening theme is derived from that of the first movement, and what proceeds is in the nature of a review of the work's emotional sequence. The exultant, affirmative conclusion represents both fulfillment in itself and a promise to be kept again in Bruckner's two remaining symphonies.