Wolfgang Sawallisch has received wide critical acclaim as an interpreter of the music of Anton Bruckner. This recording certainly stands out in his recorded catalog of Bruckner, with Sawallisch at the peak of his relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Recorded live January 8, 2004, Verizon Hall, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
The firmly entrenched popular image of Anton Bruckner is that of a pious, provincial, pedantic composer who nevertheless somehow managed to create magnificent symphonies, but who was so unsure of himself that he would allow his work to be mangled—altered, adapted, abridged—by admiring followers. Bruckner is often portrayed, in short, as the idiot savant of the great composers. The celebrated violinist Fritz Kreisler, who studied with him in Vienna, remarked that he was a “combination of genius and simpleton. He had two coordinates—music and religion. Beyond that he knew almost nothing.” Yet tonight we hear one of the least simple of all symphonies. The program note for its first public performance (in an arrangement for two pianos), compared it to Mozart’s last symphony, the so-called “Jupiter,” the last movement of which has long been regarded as an unsurpassable contrapuntal miracle. Simple and Interesting Lives The simplistic image of Bruckner is hard to refute because this most unglamorous of Romantic composers did indeed lead an unassuming life devoted principally to God and music, passions that he combined in astounding ways. (His unfinished final symphony, the Ninth, is “Dedicated to my dear God.”) It is because of the fruits of their creativity that posterity wants to know about the lives of great composers and so biographers are at pains to construct some kind of engaging story. They often exaggerate and are strongly tempted to make their subjects lead fascinating lives and have fascinating stories be told about them. Yet with relatively rare exceptions, this is a stretch. Composers spend most of their time composing, which leaves little time to do much else. In Bruckner’s case, almost the opposite is true: Casting his life as personally uneventful and intellectually vacant has its own sort of perverse appeal. His struggles were with common depression, not the hearing loss or madness that made the lives of Beethoven and Schumann captivating. Bruckner did not have a notorious wife like his younger colleague Mahler. (Indeed it appears he at no time enjoyed a successful romantic relationship and was forever pining over young girls completely inappropriate for him. His other notable obsession was with murders and dead bodies.) Bruckner never shed his provincial upper-Austrian roots, and retained the regional dialect and dress even after moving to Vienna and becoming an increasingly prominent presence. He rarely traveled, although trips to France and England, in 1869 and 1871 respectively, helped to convince some that he was the greatest organist and improviser of his day. Mastering His Art Bruckner dedicated most of the first half of his life to learning his craft. He started slowly and for a long time thought he needed to acquire ever more skills. In the 1850s, when he was already in his 30s, he meticulously studied counterpoint with the noted Viennese theorist Simon Sechter (with whom Schubert sought council in the last weeks of his life). Sechter forbade free composition and thus for some six years Bruckner ceased his own serious work and honed his contrapuntal technique, magnificently in evidence in the Fifth Symphony. Sechter remarked that he never had a more diligent student and worried that Bruckner pressed his studies too hard. In 1868 Bruckner finally moved to Vienna, where he lived, taught, and composed for the rest of his life. He spent most days teaching at the Conservatory and the University of Vienna, as well as privately, and he also played the organ at the Court Chapel. Although a respected professor, continuing Sechter’s tradition of training, his compositional achievement took longer to be recognized. This was due in part to the musical politics of the time and the perception, advocated by the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick, that Bruckner was moving music in the wrong direction. Hanslick, a supporter of Brahms and Dvořák, opposed what he felt was the Wagnerian agenda at work in Bruckner’s symphonies. He wrote of the Seventh: I found this newest one, as I have found the other Bruckner symphonies, interesting in detail, but strange as a whole, indeed repellent. The peculiarity of this work consists, to put it briefly, of importing Wagner’s dramatic style into the symphony. … It is not impossible that the future belongs to this nightmarish hangover style—a future we therefore do not envy! Of course, exactly these same qualities were applauded by others, such as the young composer Hugo Wolf. There is something of a paradox in the fact that the provincial, unfashionable, believing, and politically reactionary Bruckner was supported by the musical avant-garde and perceived as a more musically progressive figure than Brahms, who was more cosmopolitan, cultivated, unreligious, and politically liberal. Gothic Cathedrals of Sound Bruckner’s compositional legacy consists primarily of masses and symphonies, although he wrote a variety of smaller works, both sacred and secular, including a fine String Quintet that is roughly contemporaneous with the Fifth Symphony. His three great masses came relatively early, but when he turned to symphonies many of the spiritual aspects were transferred as well. A flowing cello line in a Bruckner slow movement may seem as if it set words from the Mass—a Benedictus, for example. (And indeed, Bruckner did on various occasions quote his sacred music within symphonies.) When we consider as well that he was a master organist, another crucial element can be identified in his deployment of the instrumental choirs of the orchestra. The cliché about his symphonies—that they are “cathedrals of sound”—is just as understandable as those about his personal life. They simplify, but nevertheless capture essential elements of the man and his art. In many respects, Bruckner transferred his desires for sacred expression and his organ- inspired sonorities to the genre of the secular symphony, fashioning gigantic works that remind some listeners of great gothic cathedrals. Bruckner wrote his First Symphony at age 41, although it was preceded two years earlier by a “study” symphony. He dedicated his Third Symphony to Wagner, whom he worshipped. While the Fourth has enjoyed considerable popularity for decades, the Seventh was the first one that scored a popular success in the composer’s own lifetime. But despite its glories, especially the moving adagio written partly in memory of Wagner, the finale of the Seventh does not sustain the level of the earlier movements. The Eighth Symphony, the longest, caused Bruckner considerable pains, as its two versions demonstrate. He struggled for the last years of his life over the Ninth, but left that masterpiece unfinished. The “Great and Glorious Fifth” The Fifth Symphony is perhaps Bruckner’s most impressive testament to his complete artistic mastery and shows him at the highest sustained level of inspiration: an imposing opening movement, profoundly moving adagio, brilliant scherzo and trio, and perhaps his most compelling finale, a compositional tour-de-force. When he began composing the Fifth in February 1875 he was particularly discouraged about the state of his financial affairs, confiding to a friend, “I will keep on piling up debts until I end up enjoying the fruits of my labors in prison where I will be ruminating on the lunacy of my ever having moved to Vienna in the first place.” He started with the second movement, and the next month wrote to the same confidant: “All the joy and pleasure have gone out of my life; it seems utterly pointless and futile.” He pressed forward and finished the original version of the Symphony in May 1876. Later that summer he went to Bayreuth to see Wagner and attend the first complete performances of the Ring cycle. After some time spent revising earlier symphonies, he returned in May 1877 for a fresh look at the Fifth, which he worked on sporadically during the next eight months, finishing it on January 4, 1878. He then waited for its premiere. And he waited. In fact, Bruckner never heard the Symphony performed, except in April 1887, arranged for two pianos and played by Joseph Schalk and Franz Zottmann. That performance kept on being delayed as Bruckner tyrannically supervised the rehearsals. Although the event received a mixed critical review, Schalk wrote to his brother Franz that “the applause—such an important factor for Bruckner, as you know— was really enormous, and so he was extremely satisfied with the whole undertaking.” It was Franz Schalk who conducted the orchestral premiere in Graz, on April 8, 1894. Bruckner’s health was poor in his last years (he received last rites on a number of occasions only to bounce back.) As he was too ill to travel to Graz, Schalk informed him of the effect two days after the premiere: “Most honored Master, no doubt you have already heard of the tremendous impression made by your great and glorious Fifth. I can only add that for the rest of my life I will always remember that evening as one of the greatest experiences I ever participated in. Profoundly moved, I felt as if I were being transported into realms of eternal greatness. Unless one was there, one can not have any idea of the overwhelming power of the Finale.” The “Schalk Version” The Fifth Symphony was published two years later, not long before Bruckner’s death. For more than a century there has been considerable debate about various changes made to this score, which were quite extensively undertaken by Schalk. Self-doubt hounded Bruckner until the end. Throughout his career it had caused him to devote enormous amounts of energy to revising his symphonies again and again, largely in response to criticisms from well- meaning colleagues like the Schalk brothers. Even in his final decade, when one would have thought that the public and critical accolades of the 1880s would have sufficiently reassured him of the worthiness of his musical contributions, uncertainty and perfectionism still prevented him from completing his Ninth Symphony, the fourth movement of which he left in a sketch form. While for most symphonies Bruckner made the revisions himself (sometimes incorporating specific suggestions from others), in the case of the Fifth Franz Schalk apparently made most of the changes, large and small, on his own, including reorchestrating much of the Symphony (and strategically adding cymbals and triangle), specifying tempos, phrasing, dynamics, and other expressive details, and making extensive cuts, particularly in the last movement. The effect (as can still be heard on recordings) is a more obviously Wagnerian sound, culminating in the final brass chorale being played by additional players placed above the orchestra. It remains unclear how much of this was done with the ailing composer’s knowledge, let alone consent. In any case, for decades only the “Schalk” version was available and performed. However in the 1930s, Bruckner’s original was published and has since become standard. A Closer Look Most of Bruckner’s symphonies begin the same way: from nothingness, with a striking initial theme emerging gradually as from an inchoate void, creating an effect that clearly recalls the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth. The Fifth is unusual in dispensing with the tremolo strings and having instead a slow introduction (Adagio) commencing with plucked descending and ascending scales in the cellos and basses. Against this the violas, followed by violins, enter with a soft lament. After a brief silence the full orchestra explodes in unison. More silence (time for the music to reverberate in the gothic cathedral of Bruckner’s mind?), is followed by a noble brass chorale. These diverse, fragmentary, and harmonically unstable elements provide musical ideas that will return not only in the main body of the movement, a lively Allegro, but also elsewhere in the Symphony. Robert Simpson remarks that the introduction is organic rather than decorative: It “is made to spread its influence over the whole symphony, tonally and thematically.” Indeed, the first movement is in some ways introductory to the entire Symphony, which builds continually to its monumental conclusion. As in the first movement, lower strings playing pizzicato open the second (Adagio—Sehr langsam), but here presenting a disjointed melody in triplets. Against this enters a plaintive theme in the oboe (the slow movements of so many great symphonies open with a string melody upon which the oboe enters—for example, Beethoven’s “Eroica,” Schubert’s Ninth, and Mahler’s First). Bruckner pursues a formal design he would use in other, even greater slow movements, in which the opening material is contrasted with a lush string melody, played forte and marked “very powerful.” These musical ideas alternate and the movement ends with a fragmentation of the opening, not unlike the way Beethoven concludes the funeral march of the “Eroica.” The Scherzo: Molto vivace—Trio begins with the same string figuration that opened the second movement, also in D minor, but much faster and bowed rather than pizzicato. The movement is in the traditional ABA form, with a brief contrasting middle trio section in B-flat major. Beethoven shifted the center of weight in the symphony to the end and made the entire process goal oriented. His Fifth Symphony builds from the struggles of the first movement to the triumphs of the coda of the finale. In his own Fifth, Bruckner follows Beethoven’s model, particularly the procedure of the Ninth Symphony in which the finale begins with a review of the earlier movements. But as Simpson notes, Beethoven rejects the themes of the earlier movements for some “philosophical purpose,” while Bruckner recalls themes for other reasons and allows them to continue to play a prominent role. Bruckner’s Finale (Adagio—Allegro) commences with references to the first and second movements (the third is not reviewed, perhaps for harmonic reasons or because of its shared melodic content with the second). An abbreviated version of the slow introduction is presented first (with the subtle addition of a clarinet), to which the clarinet responds with a fragmentary theme also derived from the first movement. Next the principal theme of the first movement returns, to which the clarinet again responds. After the review of the second movement opening, the clarinet theme is presented once more and provides the material for the start of extraordinary contrapuntal adventures. The rhythm is often that of a march, which harkens back to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, for string quartet. A chorale melody in the brass is taken up by the strings in a more restrained manner and becomes the starting point for a second fugue. Bruckner combines both themes together and eventually brings in the principal theme of the first movement as well in a grand display of counterpoint. The great brass chorale brings final resolution to this monumental symphony. —Christopher H. Gibbs Program note © 2004. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. ABOUT THE ARTIST Wolfgang Sawallisch became conductor laureate of The Philadelphia Orchestra in September 2003, following the culmination of his decade-long tenure as the Orchestra’s sixth music director. Acclaimed as one of the greatest living exponents of the Germanic musical tradition, Mr. Sawallisch enriched and expanded upon the Orchestra’s century-old tradition of excellence, leaving an enduring legacy of artistic achievements with the ensemble. He was an outspoken advocate for the Orchestra’s new home at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and actively participated in planning for the new concert hall’s acoustics and operations. Mr. Sawallisch was born in Munich and graduated from that city’s Academy of Music. He began his conducting career at the Opera Theater of Augsburg, where he served as vocal coach, chorus master, and conductor of ballet, opera, and concert music. In 1953 he became the youngest conductor to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. He next held music directorships in Aachen, Wiesbaden, and Cologne and appeared annually at the Bayreuth Festival. He was music director of the Vienna Symphony from 1960-1970, and also served as music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic from 1961-1973. He served as artistic director of Geneva’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from 1973-1980. In 1971 he was appointed music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, serving concurrently as the Opera’s general manager during his last ten years there before coming to Philadelphia. As a guest conductor, Mr. Sawallisch’s recent appearances include performances with the Berlin, Vienna, Israel, and Czech philharmonics; the Vienna Symphony; Tokyo’s NHK Orchestra; the Orchestre de Paris; and London’s Philharmonia. Mr. Sawallisch is highly regarded as a chamber musician and accompanist. He has collaborated and recorded with such vocalists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda, Thomas Hampson, Hermann Prey, Lucia Popp, and Peter Schreier, as well as with the Munich Residenz Quartet, cellist Heinrich Schiff, and violinists Sarah Chang and Frank Peter Zimmermann. Mr. Sawallisch’s discography includes a wide range of orchestral and opera recordings, both with The Philadelphia Orchestra and with a number of European ensembles. His Philadelphia discs include works by Bruckner, Dvořák, Hindemith, Schumann, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. Mr. Sawallisch was given the Toscanini Gold Baton in recognition of his 35-year association with La Scala in Milan. He has received honorary degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and Villanova University, as well as the Pennsylvania Governor’s Distinguished Artist Award. 01/2004 PRODUCTION CREDITS Balance Engineer: George Blood Recording Engineer: George Blood Editor: Charles Gagnon Assistant Editor: Andrew Mullin Archival Transfer: Andrew Mullin Cover and Bio Photo: Chris Lee