Hans Pfitzner’s oft-repeated assertion that Bruckner composed the same symphony nine times is as inaccurate as it is mean-spirited. So too is the claim, made by the conservative aesthetician Edward Hanslick, that Bruckner derived his sound world almost entirely from Wagner. Fair or not, the attacks stung, and left Bruckner prone to second-guessing his music throughout much of his career. He obsessively reworked his major scores, leaving behind multiple versions of most compositions. Music historians and theorists continue to scour the drafts for insight into his technique as well as his idiosyncratic psychology. The Sixth Symphony of 1879–1883 is an exception: It survives in a single edition.
It is cast in a traditional symphonic mold, with the exception of the second movement, considered the most beautiful in Bruckner’s output. Instead of a conventional two-part form, the second movement falls in a lyrical three-part design that explores the relationship between various keys. The melodic writing is stunning, and conductors frequently linger over the details, often extending the movement beyond the 15 minutes that Bruckner specifies. The first movement, intended to express divine power (hence the expressive marking “magisterial”), begins with a “Bruckner rhythm,” an agitated, mysterious repeated figure in the strings; a brass fanfare escorts the listener into the first and second themes. It is not a smooth unfolding, however. Thicker textures collapse, after a pause, into intimate passages for strings and woodwinds. The return to order that is characteristic of the recapitulation is also, paradoxically, the moment of greatest strife.
The third movement follows a traditional minuet-and-trio format, but the first and last sections are storm-tossed. In the middle is an Austrian folk-dance tune complete with cheerful hunting horns. The final movement recalls the melodic material of the first, and expands the key relationships of the second.
Performers and scholars have reassessed Bruckner in recent years, considering the battering he received from the music critics of his time in its cultural and political context. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are now considered as important an influence as Wagner, and the apparent bombast of his scores has been tempered by increased awareness of their spiritual inspiration. Bruckner narrates a search for answers in his symphonies, but the protagonist discovers, over and over again, that the path to understanding is blocked, jammed. In the Sixth Symphony, this phenomenon is manifest in delayed affirmations of the home key after agonized extensions of dissonant complex harmonies. The moment of apotheosis, or revelation, tends to be preceded by passages of harsh unrest, with Bruckner pushing the orchestra on occasion through the entire tonal gamut. Ultimately, the truth of the symphony resides in the exquisite passages of Renaissance-style counterpoint, which reflects Bruckner’s studies, as a devout Catholic, of the musical manuscripts preserved at the Monastery of Saint Florian in Linz, Austria.
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Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)is easily the most derided, even ridiculed, of the major composers in the Western tradition. He came from the sticks, from farmland outside of Linz, Austria, and never abandoned the dress and habits of the countryside, even after relocating from the tiny villages of his youth to cosmopolitan Vienna, where he became a teacher of music theory and composition. His father, a school principal and church musician, gave him his first music lessons on the organ, after which Bruckner enrolled in choir school. His first compositions, unsurprisingly, are religious, and he would end up completing, over the course of his career, both motets and mass movements. Vienna introduced him to symphonic composition and noxious musical politics as he found his music ranked below the works of Brahms, Wagner, and Mahler.