Program Notes: Bruckner’s Brilliance


Program Notes: Bruckner’s Brilliance

Jacksonville Symphony 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major:

(World Premiere April 8, 1894; Graz, Austria)

(80 Minutes)

  • Anton Bruckner’s symphonies are leisurely, even in the brisk scherzo movements.
  • Expanded brass add to the majesty of the Fifth Symphony.
  • Listen for when the cellos and basses play pizzicato (when the players pluck the strings) and tremolandi, a wavering effect in a musical tone, which presents itself through shimmering upper strings.
  • Themes from the first two movements recur in the finale, creating a full-circle symphonic experience.

Anton Bruckner was an accomplished organist who grew up steeped in the Austrian Catholic church. His early compositions were heavily concentrated in sacred choral works; however, for most of his adult career, he focused on monumental symphonies. All of them seem perfectly suited to the reverberant acoustics of a cathedral. The Fifth Symphony is the only one that opens with a slow introduction. It precedes a massive movement with an abundance of themes. Richard Wagner influenced Bruckner’s harmonic style, but Bruckner remained firmly rooted in classical tradition and forms. He also had an impressive command of counterpoint. The Fifth Symphony is carefully constructed: a giant work of musical architecture that brings together disparate elements in its monumental finale.

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major

Anton Bruckner

Born September 4, 1824, in Ansfelden, Austria | Died October 11, 1896, in Vienna

Any symphony concert with only one work listed on the program page tells us that we are hearing a monumental musical statement. Bruckner rarely shares the program with another composer, and there is really no other composer like Bruckner. Symphonies dominated his mature years and that devoted love manifested itself in a remarkable collection of absolute music in the purest sense. Bruckner became the first major 19th century symphonist after Franz Schubert to achieve the magic number of nine symphonies, an awe-inspiring precedent set by Ludwig van Beethoven. In the process, as Derek Watson has noted, he evolved from symphonic mass (in the sense of the Catholic Mass) to cosmic symphony.

For most of his adult career, Bruckner focused on large symphonies. As soon as he completed one, he moved directly on to the next, usually without the benefit of hearing his newly finished music performed. He was immensely sensitive to criticism, both from the press and from friends and colleagues. Consequently, he tinkered repeatedly with his scores, resulting in a quandary for scholars and performers because multiple versions of his works often coexist. Which one is definitive?

The Fifth Symphony is a representative case. Bruckner drafted its initial version between February 1875 and May 1876, returning to it the following year. His revisions occupied him from May 1877 to November 1878. The first performance did not take place until 16 years later, in Graz, Austria, on April 8, 1894. Unbeknownst to Bruckner, whose health issues prevented him from attending, the conductor Franz Schalk had made significant cuts and re-orchestrated parts of the symphony. The first edition, published in 1896, reflected Schalk’s changes. It took nearly four decades for Bruckner’s original intentions to be restored.

A frequent metaphor used to describe Bruckner’s music is the Gothic cathedral. One circles it on foot, observing its beauty from every angle, then enters. One visitor may be absorbed by the vaulting of the arches and the structural principles of the buttresses. Another may admire the decorative sculptures and the rose windows, remaining oblivious to the more practical aspects of construction. The cathedral is simply there, immutable and permanent. It does not go anywhere, but it exists with many facets, ready to be appreciated from every angle.

It is true that the Bruckner symphonies share certain traits, that some patterns prevail in the scherzi, or the slow movements, or the finales. However, like Gothic cathedrals, Bruckner symphonies all have their own individual character and presence. Each Bruckner symphony is a space to be entered and savored. One can temporarily suspend the world around him in meditation or reverie in either “place,” cathedral or symphony. These performances bring them together.

Bruckner opens his Fifth Symphony with a slow introduction–the only such occurrence in all his symphonies. It is a mysterious affair, with pizzicato celli and basses in a neo-Baroque “walking bass” beneath long, sustained pitches in the upper strings. Suspense lingers, interrupted by clarion calls from full orchestra with an emphasis on brass. Silence is as important as the music. These pauses after the resounding brass declamations evoke cathedral acoustics. A thrilling crescendo builds to the first orchestral climax. It heralds the Allegro, an enormous canvas in sonata form. The orchestra is rather large–this was the first time Bruckner included a tuba in his expanded brass section. However, there are many transparent moments where an individual instrument has an exposed, intimate solo. Quietude alternates with the power of full orchestra. As this enormous movement proceeds toward its majestic conclusion, Bruckner weaves together multiple melodic threads and repeated rhythmic cells, moving through multiple key centers in his quest for decisive arrival in B-flat major.

Plucked lower strings played pianissimo also open the Adagio, now in D minor. They provide the backdrop for a plaintive oboe solo, soon doubled by bassoon. Strings present a lush second theme steeped in romantic pathos. These two principal ideas provide the material for the balance of the movement. Bruckner holds our interest with an ongoing rhythmic seesaw: triple and duple figures are often superimposed. Pedal points–in timpani or lower strings–tend to underscore delicate writing in the upper winds. Bruckner takes his time unfolding his ideas, simultaneously letting time stop while his musical river keeps flowing.

The Scherzo remains in D minor and also echoes a theme from the Adagio, now played significantly faster. Surprisingly, Bruckner switches tempo a couple of times in the Scherzo, and his dance-like second theme is an Austrian Laendler, a popularized folk dance. This interpolation makes his form somewhat more complex, since the scherzo itself is in three segments, before we arrive at the Trio. For his contrasting Trio, Bruckner switches to duple meter and B-flat major. It opens with capricious woodwind writing, but a brief moment of heroic drama erupts before the reprise of the Scherzo. The movement ends in a blaze of radiant D major.

The finale is one of the most amazing movements Bruckner composed. As in the beginning of the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bruckner quotes briefly from his first two movements. These musical flashbacks help to unite the whole. He then embarks on a sonata form combined with a fugue, whose subject evolves out of fragments we have just heard. Bruckner was a master of counterpoint, and he weaves a stunningly complex tapestry that somehow coheres as it proceeds toward a splendid chorale for brass. That chorale becomes the subject of another fugue, this one initiated by the violas. Bruckner presents the chorale tune in its original form, then inverts it, then combines it with the first fugue subject in a double fugue. (The overall technique is similar to what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed in the finale to his Jupiter Symphony). It is dizzying and thrilling as we re-encounter music we have heard over the previous hour, now sounding fresh and ever more significant as it builds. Bruckner’s finale peroration returns to the chorale theme, slowed down for rhetorical emphasis and enhanced by full brass for a breathtaking and spine-tingling conclusion.

Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

For more information about the music of Anton Bruckner, visit the website for the Bruckner Society of America at


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023