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Symphony No. 6

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Anton Bruckner
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Christian Tetzlaff, violin, plays Beethoven Oct. 7 - 9, 2010
© Paul Horsley

Bruckner's life was filled with dichotomies. He was a bumpkin from a village in rural Upper Austria, yet his musical training and craft were of the utmost refinement and sophistication. In the polarized aesthetic camps of 19th-century Vienna he walked a careful line down the middle of the Wagner-versus-Brahms debate, assimilating the liquid, restless harmonies of the former but remaining a formal "Classicist" in the tradition of the latter. And he was a true genius who, on some level, grasped the full nature of his gifts yet continually listened to the misguided and not-always-well-meaning opinions of those around him — and who during fits of insecurity went running to his composing-desk to revise his symphonies accordingly.

One of the symphonies that remained virtually unscathed by such doubts was the Sixth, which to the end of his life Bruckner said was a favorite among his works. The others went through multiple revisions, as he responded to criticisms of both friends and foes. One of the latter was the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, whose tirades in the press made it clear that 19th-century Vienna was not ready for Bruckner's out-of-scale symphonic essays. "In Vienna it is the old story all over again," Bruckner wrote in the late 1870s to Hermann Levi. "I almost prefer them not to perform my works here. Old friends have become hostile again, etc. In a word: the same old atmosphere and treatment. Without Hanslick's approval nothing is possible in Vienna." Yet the acerbic Hanslick, whose criticisms of Wagner and Richard Strauss have today made him the quintessential example of resistance to the new, was right about one thing: that the nature of Bruckner's art lay in "applying Wagner's dramatic style to the symphony," in the critic's words. If anyone was prepared to make a case for this synthesis, it was Bruckner.

Bruckner was perhaps the last of the line of major Austro-Germanic composers who received training in the manner of the ancients: He began his musical life as a choirboy at the cathedral at St. Florian, learned music theory in the old way of strict counterpoint and "figured bass," and studied organ and composition with the St. Florian choirmaster. His first career, then, was as church organist and schoolmaster. Through assiduous private lessons with Simon Sechter in Vienna and Otto Kitzler in Linz he gained an astonishing mastery of learned polyphony and instrumental craft. But the event that activated Bruckner's imagination, after he had become fully versed in techniques of the past, was his first exposure to the brand-new music of Richard Wagner. In 1862 he heard Tannhäuser in Linz for the first time, and its effect on him was immediate and profound. It was his subsequent acquaintance with Wagner's other operas that set him off on an almost spiritual quest that led him to compose 11 symphonies (nine with numbers, two without) as well as masses and other sacred works — which tried to assimilate Wagner's innovations in harmony. 

By the time that Bruckner took up the Sixth Symphony in 1879, he was already a semi-established part of Viennese musical life: His first four symphonies had been both praised and damned. The 1870s were decisive years. In 1875 he was appointed instructor of harmony at the University of Vienna, which placed him on the court chapel payroll. The following year he heard the premiere of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth, and it affected him deeply. Most important, during the years 1877-79 he was occupied almost solely with revisions of his first symphonies. The Sixth Symphony, begun shortly after this period of revision, is one of the composer's most economical, clearly-defined symphonic structures. It is the work in which we always have a sense of where we are in the formal design. And yet the Sixth, which the composer finished in 1881, did not attain a complete performance during Bruckner's lifetime — though the middle two movements were performed in 1883 in Vienna — and the work has remained the least accepted of his mature symphonies. Mahler conducted a trimmed version after Bruckner's death, and an uncut version of the work was not performed until 1901.

Instead of the string tremolos with which Bruckner usually begins his symphonies, he begins the first movement (Maestoso) with a rhythmic triplet in the strings, providing a dynamic texture for the vaulting first theme in the cellos and basses. Bruckner follows the example of Brahms (and indeed of Beethoven and Haydn), employing three themes rather than the usual two. The second subject is heard as a haunting, urgent violin melody. The themes are developed in an unusually concise middle section, followed by a straightforward recapitulation.

The slow movement Adagio:Sehr feierlich, flows between F major and minor, developing its somber first subject with some of Bruckner's most richly complex orchestral polyphony. At the movement's climax, as many as six real melodic lines can be perceived, a real challenge to aural perception. The Scherzo:Nicht schnell dispenses both with the liveliness and with the humor that is usually associated with scherzos. The dominant pedal in the cellos and basses that opens the movement recalls another great scherzo from the period, that of Brahms's F-minor Piano Quintet, Op. 34.

The Finale:Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell again presents three themes, which are articulated at a leisurely pace. Bruckner ties the final bars of the work to the opening of the first movement, returning to the rhythmic triplets of the first measures and quoting the first theme in the finale's closing measures.