Symphony No. 8 in C Minor
Grandeur and Neglect
When we experience the electrifying grandeur of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, especially in live performance, we can only wonder why this composer was reviled, then ignored, for so long. "With the exception of his idol Wagner," wrote music critic Lawrence Gilman, Bruckner was "the best hated composer of the 19th century." Even the Seventh Symphony, one of Bruckner's few successes, was denounced by the powerful traditionalist critic Eduard Hanslick as "sickly," "decayed," and "unnatural." Bruckner had the unique misfortune of being scourged not only by the Hanslick anti-Wagner crowd, but also class-conscious Viennese concertgoers who laughed at his peasant roots and un-chic "boorish" appearance.
For a long stretch, the 20th century didn't treat Bruckner much better, though the denunciations gradually became couched in the euphemisms of academia. Rather than being "perverted" and "diseased," Bruckner became, as the 2000 Cambridge Music Handbook series on Bruckner put it, merely a "lesser composer" who was "unsuited to the genre of the symphony" because of his "illogical" methods, a figure American music theorists "all but ignored." Orchestras were part of the neglect as well, put off by the staggering length and technical difficulty of Bruckner's works.
A Slow but Decisive Revival
In more ways than one, Bruckner was over people's heads. His music, especially the Eighth Symphony, constantly reaches toward the infinite. In the words of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruckner's most fervid and important mid-century champion, Bruckner soars "broadly and freely in a state of bliss, released from earthly cares, fulfillment without sentimentality, without calculation."
Following World War II, conductors increasingly took up Bruckner's cause, from obvious candidates like Bruno Walter and Herbert von Karajan to less predictable ones like Pierre Boulez, who recorded the Eighth with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2000 in a landmark performance that clarified the composer's architectural daring. Audiences have slowly but steadily warmed to Bruckner's music, despite its longueurs and structural difficulties.
Bruckner at the Summit
The Eighth, Bruckner's last completed symphony, is regarded by his admirers as the most monumental of his completed symphonies-the moment when the composer most completely attained the sublimity for which he was always reaching. It was Bruckner's personal favorite as well, even though he struggled even more painfully than usual with rejections, revisions, and self-doubts, including a traumatic turn-down by his "artistic father" Hermann Levi when Bruckner asked him to premiere the work. Levi found the symphony incomprehensible and unperformable, and his snub drove the self-abnegating Bruckner to depression and the brink of suicide.
A Dramatic Premiere
The sheer length and ambition of the Eighth are certainly daunting: The premiere by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter in 1892 took up the entire program, as it does in this performance. It was a dramatic event, attended by enemies like Hanslick (who stalked out of the hall before the Finale), skeptics like Brahms, and supporters like Johann Strauss and Hugo Wolf. The applause was enthusiastic, with even some of Bruckner's enemies admitting they were fitfully impressed. Bruckner's partisans declared the Eighth to be a turning point in the composer's fortunes, but performances continued to be rare. It was only played twice more during Bruckner's lifetime and was not performed in America until 1909 (by the Boston Symphony Orchestra).
All of Bruckner's signatures are here, in their most uncompromising manifestations: massive brass sonorities, Gothic spires of sound, organ-like pedal points and chorales, sudden climaxes in the midst of Olympian calm, fearsome chromatic complexities alternating with primitive octaves and unisons. Bruckner is famous for transporting the listener into a so-called cathedral of sound; nowhere is this mystical sense of space more vast than in the Eighth.
The tension between a starkness reminiscent of ancient church music and a staggeringly complex motivic network is explained by Bruckner's protégé Franz Schalk: "Bruckner's forms were so simple, so direct that at first people overlooked them, as if they were not there. People wailed about chaotic incoherence, about pointless climaxes … As people finally began to comprehend Bruckner's works as wholes, suddenly they stood clear in their primitive symmetry … in dimensions no one could grasp up close."
In this view, it simply took time (with a frustratingly gradual accretion of performances) for Bruckner to become comprehensible. And yet there is still something profoundly ungraspable that gives this music its frisson. In complex works like the Eighth Symphony, Bruckner inhabits what Edmund Burke called the Sublime, a sense of awe and mystery as opposed to the more manicured and symmetrical world of the Beautiful.
Bruckner and Mahler
Part of the reason we can begin to grasp Bruckner now is that we have become habituated to Mahler, who championed what he called the composer's "glorious art" when he conducted Bruckner's symphonies in New York. Mahler's symphonies are as monumental as Bruckner's, but they are also ironic, parodic, and ostentatiously theatrical, aided by soloists, choruses, street tunes, and spectacular off-stage effects, all of which made his own difficult path to acceptance smoother than Bruckner's. The Bruckner Eighth is overpowering precisely because its sublimity is served straight up. As Donald Francis Tovey put it, "this art has no tricks."
Pleas for Performance
Bruckner frequently revised his symphonies, partly because of second thoughts, partly at the behest of micromanaging colleagues. He often did this to get them performed, though contemporary performances tend to restore his original intentions. (This performance of the Eighth uses Robert Haas's edition from 1939, which purports to be Bruckner's authentic text.) Similarly, Bruckner offered various "programs," invoking in the Eighth everything from charging Cossacks to the second act of Tannhäuser to placate Felix Weingartner, whom he hoped would conduct the work. (He didn't, as Bruckner feared.)
A Closer Listen
In works like the Te Deum and the Fourth and Seventh symphonies, Bruckner contrived ways to make his large gestures comprehensible within traditional symphonic patterns. In the Eighth, he leaves the bare bones of sonata and scherzo forms intact, but stretches them so far that the audience is forced to listen with new ears.
The Eighth is structured with large melodic groups rather than discreet, hummable melodies. The first movement begins in mystery, with an idea frequently compared to the opening of Beethoven's Ninth. Sonata form—with its statements, developments, and recapitulations—is undermined by a chronic chromatic turbulence. Ideas do develop and reappear, but in such surprising harmonies that they are hard to recognize. The movement communicates a sense of dramatic striving, both in the C-minor theme (which returns just before the symphony's end in a resplendent C major) and the more lyrical sections. Blasts of cosmic force build from passages of remarkable stillness colored by trembling strings and distant horns. Rather than a climactic coda, a bleak wind-down concludes the movement, an ending so dark that Bruckner called it his Totenuhr ("death knell").
To relieve the claustrophobia of this ending, Bruckner immediately unfurls his most confident, open-air Scherzo (a movement he often put third). This exercise in dynamism is less folkloric and more abstract than Bruckner's usual scherzos, the main theme consisting of ascending patterns rather than a conventional dance tune. The soulful Trio, colored by delicate harps (an instrument Bruckner normally considered improper for symphonies) is extensive enough to nearly constitute an extra slow movement.
The celebrated Adagio is at once one of the composer's most emotionally intense introspections and a supreme example of Brucknerian "purity," an evocation of architecture floating in space. More a series of haunting modal modulations than actual melodies, it moves toward increasing harmonic tension before exploding into a full-blown Brucknerian climax. Enveloping horns and strings drift toward silence at the end in a rapturously quiet coda.
Bruckner called the last movement of the Eighth "the most significant movement of my life." The opening unleashes one of the most massive brass sonorities in any symphony, and the contrasting theme groups are some of Bruckner's most intensely lyrical. The coda fulfills what Derek Scott calls Bruckner's lifelong attempt to create a "musical form of apocalyptic vision," an unforgettable build-up and release beginning with brass and strings floating from one key to another, with the main themes from all four movements finally blazing together in C-major counterpoint—a glimpse of the infinite.