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The Path to the “Homeric Seas”:  On an Overlooked Aspect of Bruckner's Stylistic Evolution, ca. 1880


Benjamin Korstvedt, Ph.D.

Professor of Music, Clark University - Worcester, MA

President, Bruckner Society of America


Preface   This article originates from a presentation I made at the 2017 Bruckner Journal Readers Conference at Hertford College in Oxford, which I derived in turn from a talk I gave at a symposium on the Sixth Symphony during the Bruckner-Tage in St. Florian in 2016.   Klaus Laczika, the organizer of the festival, invited me to participate, and I was really thrilled to do so.  Not only do I love the Sixth Symphony, but it is always a special pleasure to be able to share new perspectives that arise from my research with an audience of music lovers, rather than academics and scholars.  I also wanted to take the opportunity to explore some aspects of Bruckner’s stylistic development in the mid-1870s that I was formulating as a result of my work on the Fourth Symphony during this time.   The creation of the 1880 version of the Finale of the Fourth and the composition of the Sixth occurred close to each other in time, at a time of stylistic breakthrough for Bruckner, so it is perhaps not surprising that juxtaposing these two works can shed light on a vital period in his compositional evolution.



We begin with the truly splendid coda of the first movement of the Sixth:

This music was described famously by Donald Francis Tovey:

"The whole coda is one of the greatest passages Bruckner ever wrote...The first theme mounts slowly in Bruckner’s favourite simultaneous direct-inverted combination, passing from key to key beneath a tumultuous surface sparkling like the Homeric seas.  The trumpets join in a long-drawn cantabile, swelling and diminishing; until at last the rhythmic figure of the opening is heard, and the theme comes together in a fanfare."

Tovey points directly to musical attributes that help make this passage exceptionally effective.   His reference to Homer is justified by the epic sureness of motion and sound with which this coda unfolds, and, as will become clear, he was quite correct to emphasize the importance of Bruckner’s “simultaneous direct-inverted” treatment of the theme.  Tovey’s comments do not, however, situate this music in the context of Bruckner’s stylistic development in the years around 1880.  Nevertheless, this context is vital; as one of the first two symphonic movements he composed following a pivotal time of stylistic evolution, the entire first movement of the Sixth occupies a crucial position in Bruckner’s symphonic career—and its musical character expresses the new compositional maturity that he had achieved in the process.

To begin to understand the place of the Sixth in Bruckner’s development as a symphonist, it is necessary to start with an overview of his symphonic outputAt its simplest a sequential list of these works looks like this:

Bruckner’s Eleven Symphonies

“Study” Symphony in F-minor 

Symphony no. 1 in C minor

Symphony in D minor, “Die Nullte” 

Symphony no. 2 in C minor

Symphony no. 3 in D minor

Symphony no. 4 in E-flat major

Symphony no. 5 in B-flat major

Symphony no. 6 in A major

Symphony no. 7 in E major

Symphony no. 8 in C minor

Symphony no. 9 in D minor

Upon closer examination, things begin to appear more complicated and more interesting—as they always do with this composer.  For example, this list from a well-known set of recordings tries to indicate when Bruckner composed and revised each of the nine numbered symphonies.  The series of dates listed, most notably for the earlier symphonies and the Eighth, reflect, albeit imperfectly, the multiple versions of these works.

Bruckner: Nine Symphonies*

Symphony no. 1 (1865/66; rev. 1890/91)

Symphony no. 2 (1871/72; rev. 1875/76)

Symphony no. 3 (1873-77; rev, 1888/89)

Symphony no. 4 (1874, 1880, rev. 1887/88)

Symphony no. 5 (1875/76)

Symphony no. 6 (1879-81)

Symphony no. 7 (1881-83)

Symphony no. 8 (1884-87; rev. 1887-90)

Symphony no. 9 (1887-96)

*from Bruckner: 9 Symphonies, Berlin Phil., conducted by Herbert von Karajan

Trying to account more precisely for these versions and revisions produces a more intricate series.  Juan Cahis, a Chilean Bruckner expert, for example has shown that if we include all of the versions Bruckner composed, the number of his “essays,” as Cahis calls them, quickly rises to more than twenty and breaks up the direct sequence of the symphonies.  It is no longer a neat succession of the First followed by the Second and so on, but rather an overlapping pattern in which earlier symphonies are revised even after newer ones have been composed. 

Bruckner’s “Symphonic Essays”*

1.            1863        “Study” Symphony in F-minor 

2.            1865        Symphony no. 1, Linz  version

3.            1869        D-minor Symphony, “Die Nullte”

4.            1872-73   Symphony no. 2, first version

5.            1873        Symphony no. 3, first version

6.            1874        Symphony no. 4, first version

7.            1875        Symphony no. 3, 1875 variant

8.            1875-76   Symphony no. 4, 1875/76 variant

9.            1875-78   Symphony no. 5

10.         1875        Symphony no. 1, 1877 variant 

11.         1877        Symphony no. 2, second version

12.         1877        Symphony no. 3, second version

13.         1877-78   Symphony no. 4, second version with the “Volksfest” Finale

14.         1878-79   String Quintet

15.         1879-81   Symphony no. 4, second version with the 1880 Finale

16.         1879-81   Symphony no. 6

17.         1881-83   Symphony no. 7

18.         1884-87   Symphony no. 8, 1887 version

19.         1887-88   Symphony no. 4, third version

20.         1888-89   Symphony no. 3, third version

21.         1887-90   Symphony no. 8, 1890 version

22.         1890-91   Symphony no. 1, Vienna version

23.         1887-96   Symphony no. 9

*after Juan Cahis, “Is the Traditional Approach to the Problem of the Printed Versions of Bruckner’s Symphonies Valid Today?”

Not everyone has been willing to try to understand Bruckner’s output in such detail, or even with much clarity.  The German composer Hans Pfitzner, for example, once said with shallow sarcasm that “Bruckner composed only one symphony, but did it nine times.”       Although some observers may prefer to emphasize how similar the symphonies are, this is a claim that anyone who knows Bruckner’s music even slightly will immediately see is absurd.  Each of Bruckner’s symphonies is, despite natural family resemblances, a unique work with its own particular character.  In fact, Bruckner’s style developed distinctly and at times profoundly over the course of his career, and it is precisely this process of stylistic change that I am interested in understanding.

            The Sixth is especially noteworthy in this regard because, as mentioned, it is the first symphony that Bruckner composed after a crucial turning point in his stylistic evolution.    During the years 1872-75 Bruckner was extremely productive and composed four new symphonies, his Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth, one after another. Over the next three years he did not compose any new symphonies, but instead entered what Leopold Nowak called his “first reworking period” in which he revised five of his earlier symphonies, the First through the Fifth.

Bruckner’s compositional periods, 1871-1896*

1871-76        First Creation Period (1. Schaffensperiode)

         First versions of the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies composed

1875-80        First Reworking Period (1. Umarbeitungsperiode)

         First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies all revised 

1879-87        Second Creation Period (2. Schaffensperiode)

         New Finale of the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, Quintet, and Te Deum composed

1887-91        Second reworking period (2. Umarbeitungsperiode)

         First, Third, Fourth and Eighth Symphonies revised

1891-96        Third Creation  Period (3. Schaffensperiode)

         Ninth Symphony, Psalm 150, and Helgoland composed

*after Leopold Nowak, “’Urfassung’ und ‘Endfassung’ bei Anton Bruckner”

With other composers, such a halt in new composition appears related to a “compositional crisis”—as, for example, Beethoven’s partial retreat from composition in 1815-17 or Giuseppe Verdi’s after Aida.        We don’t usually think of Bruckner experiencing a compositional crisis, but in certain ways that is exactly what he underwent in 1876-79, and like Beethoven and Verdi, Bruckner emerged from this process with significant changes in his style.

            During these years, some of Bruckner’s reworkings were fairly modest, as in the First and Second Symphonies.  With the Fifth it is not quite possible to separate the process of revision from its composition, as the composition and revision of this symphony formed a fairly unbroken process from 1875 to 1877—and thus it was completed after Bruckner had mastered the new paradigms that had stimulated him to revise his previous symphonies, which is why the Fifth was the first of the symphonies that Bruckner revised but little in later years.  With the Third and especially the Fourth, however, Bruckner’s reworkings were both intense and somewhat conflicted.   I have come to recognize that his struggle to perfect these symphonies, and the Fourth above all, played a crucial part in the new maturity that first finds full expression in the Sixth Symphony.

Bruckner’s revisions during this period had several primary goals.  One of these involved what he called “metrical regulation”—a process by which he went back to his symphonies and adjusted the length of various phrases and formal units to ensure that they followed his new conception of metrical organization.  The most obvious result of this is that from this time onwards, Bruckner’s symphonies contain very few phrases with an odd number of bars, hence almost no three- or five- or seven-bar phrases appear.  Instead we encounter a great preponderance of units of two, four, eight, or twelve bars. The Sixth Symphony, which was composed after this process was established, is a paragon of his new metrical conception; in fact, the entire work contains not a single three- or five-bar unit: everything is a perfectly “regulated.”  This aspect of Bruckner’s revision process has been studied and explained effectively, most notably by the German music theorist Wolfgang Grandjean.

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