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Symphony No. 8

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Anton Bruckner
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 Jun. 12 - 14, 2014
© Peter Laki

The lights are dimmed, the conductor steps on the podium, raises his baton after a moment of suspenseful silence, and we hear an almost inaudibly soft tremolo in the strings. Very gradually and with some hesitation, a theme emerges from this background. The mood is awe-inspiring and festive. The slow pace at which the music unfolds is a clear indication that time has to be measured in unusually long units. We are listening to a symphony by Anton Bruckner.
      In order to enjoy Bruckner, we must be able to place ourselves on his wavelength, and accept him for the maverick composer he was. He is often accused of having written the same symphony nine times over, and this is a grossly unfair judgment, or at least an extremely superficial one. However, it cannot be denied that there is a single idea underlying all the mature symphonies, although it is expressed differently in each case. Each symphony is a new solution to the same compositional problem, a new manifestation of the same fascinating personality.
      To understand that personality, commentators have time and again drawn attention to the many peculiarities in Bruckner's biography: his seemingly endless years of study, his awkward country-bumpkin demeanor which became the butt of so many jokes in cosmopolitan Vienna, and his devout Catholicism. It follows from these personal characteristics that symphony-writing did not mean the same thing to Bruckner as it did to Brahms (his great rival) or any of his contemporaries. To Bruckner, composition was nothing less than a re-enactment of the Divine Creation. He did not waste his time on "trifles" like songs or short piano pieces. Almost all of his compositions are large-scale symphonies or sacred works, grandiose and solemn in tone, and symbolically reaching out to the Deity.
      Nowhere is this artistic intent more apparent than in the Eighth, the last symphony Bruckner was able to complete. As Robert Simpson, one of the best writers on Bruckner, observed:

The sweeping dramatic force of the Eighth is almost new in Bruckner. No whole work anticipates its character, not even the Third, the most dramatically inclined of the earlier symphonies. The Fifth has an immense inner tension resembling that of Gothic architecture, and is dramatic as a totality rather than as a process; there is nothing in it that quite suggests the dark sense of crisis that fills the first movement of No. 8. The Eighth is the first full upshot of matters hitherto hidden in undercurrents and only intermittently allowed to erupt. But it eventually reveals its true background in the Finale, the background, in a sense, of Bruckner's life-work, a contemplative magnificence of mind beyond the battle. This Finale is not so much a victory over tribulation as a state that had to be found behind it, slowly and somewhat painfully uncovered by the Adagio.


The slow uncovering of hidden magnificence starts right at the very beginning. Bruckner was nothing if not a master of Steigerung, a German term whose connotations include intensification, gradual increase in pitch, dynamics, harmonic activity, and/or tempo. Bruckner's themes are simple and relatively unremarkable in themselves: short scales and other melodic fragments that usually don't add up to full-fledged Classical periodic structures. Yet they are particularly susceptible to treatment by Steigerung, as in the first movement of the Eighth, where the music goes from pianissimo to fortissimo so gradually that the change is almost imperceptible. The same technique is also used in the opposite direction, so that our first impression of the movement's form is a series of mighty surges alternating with moments of relaxation, a kind of musical ebb and flow on a monumental scale. That is just the first impression, however; the movement in fact observes traditional sonata form, with exposition, development, and recapitulation, although it is hard to say exactly where the recapitulation begins. That moment is concealed behind one of Bruckner's most dramatic transitions, in the course of which he presents both main themes of the movement simultaneously in triple forte, and then repeats this statement two more times, each time raising the pitch by a third. What a contrast, after this tremendous climax, to hear a single flute accompanied by a soft timpani roll. The rest of the orchestra gradually joins in, and when we finally hear the second theme played by the strings, we realize that we have been in the recapitulation for some time. But in this reprise nothing is repeated literally. The exposition is only hinted at (and strongly abridged), rather than brought back unchanged.
      The ending of the first movement was completely rewritten in 1890. Originally there was a powerful fortissimo coda, which Bruckner discarded, and wrote a new ending in which the main theme fades away-the only time Bruckner ended a first movement softly. The composer described this ending to his pupil and biographer August Göllerich as the Totenuhr ("the clock of death"): "It is as when one lies dying and opposite hangs a clock that goes to the end while he is alive-always ticking regularly: tick, tock, tick, tock." This was almost certainly an after-the-fact description and was not necessarily on Bruckner's mind at the time of composition; yet it illustrates the extraordinary evocative power of the music.
      For the first time in a symphony, Bruckner placed the scherzo second, as Beethoven had done in his Ninth. As nearly always in Bruckner (and more than once in Beethoven as well), the word "scherzo" doesn't necessarily imply playfulness or humor but rather the stubborn insistence on a single motif or rhythmic pattern. The Scherzo of Bruckner's Eighth is a rather sinister affair. The key is the same tragic C minor as in the first movement, unequivocally proclaimed at the very beginning by the "stubborn" main theme. Bruckner himself called this theme "der deutsche Michel," meaning an archetypal German peasant lad, simple, naïve, and idealistic. Of one passage in the middle section Bruckner said, "Michel would like to sleep, but he is being bugged and bothered from all sides, until he jumps to his feet and lashes out at his opponents."
      Even though the "Michel" theme consists of only a few notes, Bruckner avoids monotony by employing an extremely varied instrumentation. While Bruckner is universally recognized as an architect of musical structures of unprecedented complexity, he is not often acknowledged as the great orchestral colorist that he was. In my view, the effect of this movement depends primarily on the orchestration, especially the contrast between lyrical woodwind passages and powerful tutti moments. In the latter, the use of the eight horns and the tuba is particularly noteworthy, as is the timpani part, with drums tuned in six different pitches.
      The Trio is almost a separate movement with its slow tempo and 2/4 meter, which was completely rewritten in 1890. It is a constantly modulating melody, starting and ending in A-flat major, and containing its own Steigerung and its reverse. Also, it is here that the harp appears for the first time in the symphony. (Incidentally, the Eighth is the only Bruckner symphony to use harp at all.) After the Trio, the Scherzo is repeated in its entirety.
      The third movement (in D-flat major) is one of Bruckner's most magnificent Adagios (and also one of his longest: it takes close to half an hour to perform). In a tempo marked "solemn and slow but not dragging," the violins start with a theme that is really a single repeated tone alternating with its upper and lower neighbors. Out of this simple material Bruckner constructed a movement running the emotional gamut from the subdued beginning to a first climax, approximately half-way through the movement, and then to the earth-shaking high point near the end. The halting first theme is complemented by a second idea with a much broader melodic range, first introduced by the cellos. As in the first movement, the music is carried by a logic of ebb and flow, culminating in the two measures the cymbals and the triangle have been waiting for all evening.
      The final recapitulation of the theme follows, played by the horns, with a doleful counter-melody in the first violins. The harmony, so volatile throughout much of the movement, no longer leaves D-flat major in the last 32 Adagio measures. As Michael Steinberg commented in his program note for the San Francisco Symphony, "this is music of disintegration, of crumbling into ever smaller components, but...tempered by acceptance and serenity."
      The fourth movement is one of those Brucknerian finales that, as Robert Simpson has pointed out, "we must not expect to develop speed." Simpson further observed that "pauses and inaction have their rightful place in its massive deliberations, and it is a grave mistake to suppose that the structure is weakened by them; they are the open spaces in the cathedral."
      In most traditional symphonic finales, composers would tend to resolve the tensions that accumulated over the earlier movements, and provide some kind of relief. Not so Bruckner. His finale is filled with the same contrasts we heard in the earlier movements, between powerful brass fanfares and contrapuntal string melodies, tutti climaxes and pensive solo passages. The resolution does not arrive until the very end; until then, the conflicts are as serious as ever. The finale is even more disjointed than the other movements, owing to the pauses mentioned by Simpson. But it effectively crowns the symphony by bringing back the first movement's opening idea at the moment of the greatest climax, and the themes of the Scherzo and the Adagio just before the end. These reminiscences create a strong sense of unity for the entire symphony, which ends with a forceful unison figure derived from the opening theme of the first movement.
      As soon as Bruckner had finished the first version of his Eighth Symphony, he sent it off to Hermann Levi, the Munich court conductor who had premiered Wagner's Parsifal, with the words: "Hallelujah! At long last, the Eighth is finished, and my artistic father must be the first to know...May it find grace!" Levi had earlier led successful performances of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony and the Te Deum, and was one of the moving forces behind Bruckner's growing recognition in Germany. (With characteristic childlike naïveté, Bruckner called Levi his "artistic father," even though the conductor, born in 1839, was his junior by 15 years.)
      Bruckner suffered the greatest disappointment of his life when Levi declared that the new work, especially the finale, was a "closed book" to him, and that he was therefore unable to perform it. This rejection, coming from someone so highly respected, plunged Bruckner into a state of deep depression. For the next four years he started no new works, but embarked instead on a painstaking revision of four of his symphonies (Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 8). One can only wonder whether Bruckner would have been able to finish his Ninth Symphony had he not fallen prey to what has been called his "revision mania." The last decade of his life would certainly have been very different without Levi's verdict about the Eighth Symphony.
      How can we explain that a conductor who had been so enthusiastic about Bruckner's Seventh had so little understanding for the Eighth? Certainly, the Seventh has a "sweep" and a directness that the Eighth lacks. But this does not mean that the later work is in any way inferior; although Bruckner was often criticized for alleged compositional weaknesses, even by his own pupils, the truth is that he always knew what he wanted and how to achieve it. In the Eighth, he simply wanted something different. It is a work where the final resolution comes with more difficulty because the struggle is harder and the obstacles greater. It probably takes more time to get close to the Eighth than to the Seventh, which (with the Fourth) is Bruckner's most popular symphony.
      Bruckner himself, no doubt, felt this to be the case, and therefore he made a series of programmatic statements concerning the Eighth that were intended to help the symphony's reception. (He made no such statements about his other symphonies.) I have already mentioned two such instances, the "death-clock" image for the first movement and the "German Michel" for the second. A third story may be found in a letter Bruckner wrote to the conductor Felix Weingartner, according to which the last movement had to do with the meeting of the three emperors (Austria, Germany, Russia) in Olmütz ("strings: ride of the Cossacks; brass: military music; trumpets: fanfare"). These explanations are probably best interpreted as somewhat simplistic concessions to the aesthetic of program music; their information value is doubtful. The revision of the symphony itself was arguably a concession on Bruckner's part to the expectations of others. In any case, it was only in its revised form that the Eighth was accepted as Bruckner's crowning masterpiece.
      When the Eighth Symphony was finally premiered by Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1892, it was, in the words of editor-musicologist Leopold Nowak, "a triumph the like of which Bruckner had never enjoyed before." As the composer Hugo Wolf, an enthusiastic admirer of Bruckner's, put it in a letter written a few days after the premiere:

This Symphony is the creation of a Titan, and in spiritual vastness, fertility of ideas and grandeur even surpasses his other symphonies.... Its success was almost without precedent, It was the absolute victory of light over darkness, and the storm of applause at the end of each movement [!] was like some elemental manifestation of Nature. In short, even a Roman Emperor would not have wished for a more superb triumph.