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Symphony No. 4, Romantic

Bruckner offered an unprecedented (for him) programmatic subtitle to his Fourth Symphony: “Romantic.” Whatever the motivation, it was his first success, conducted by Hans Richter with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1881.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born September 4, 1824, in Ansfelden, Upper Austria; died October 11, 1896, in Vienna
  • Year completed: 1880
  • First performance: February 20, 1881, Vienna Philharmonic, Hans Richter conducting
  • First BSO performance: February 11, 1899, Wilhelm Gericke conducting
  • Approximate duration: 65 minutes

The score of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

The two leading composers of the late 19th-century symphony were no doubt Brahms and Bruckner; alas, the latter composer has not been properly represented in American symphony halls. Early history books pitted them as opposites, yet these two composers have so much in common: early careers writing choral music, their works rooted in Beethoven and Schubert, both composed symphonies only later in life, both held to a firm belief in the four-movement symphony at a time when programmatic symphonies were the new fashion, and both arrived in Vienna in the 1860s. True enough, but, in terms of musical style, there are significant differences, for Bruckner composed in a unique, idiosyncratic style. Inspired by the opening of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Bruckner’s symphonies do not so much begin as “appear.” The opening tremolo (such as in the Fourth Symphony) is a pre-thematic musica ex nihilo that soon evolves into real melodic expression.

We know that by Brahms’s time, the symphony had become an epic, public genre, along the lines of Beethoven’s larger symphonies. Bruckner’s symphonies are no less epic, but they are also both public expression and personal yearning: private expression on a vast scale. His grand Ninth Symphony was personally dedicated to God himself; Bruckner’s symphonic forms are infused with devout piety, Austrian heritage, and love of landscape. The modes of musical expression are unique: the broad, arching sequential gestures, the powerful repetitions, the orchestra as a sum of various choirs, string, wind, and brass. It is far-reaching chamber music, though the chamber is now a cathedral. Like Brahms, his music betrays the motivic integrity of Beethoven and the Austrian lyricism of Schubert, but Bruckner adds the chromatic harmonies of Wagner as well as his love of the brass (especially the horns).

Bruckner was born in Ansfelden, a village near Linz, in 1824, and he showed little if any potential for a symphonic career: he started as a schoolteacher and a local organist who was largely self-taught in composition. He secured an organist position at the St. Florian monastery, also near Linz, and he concentrated his compositional activity on composing choral music: masses, hymns, and motets. In 1863, in Linz, Bruckner was introduced to the music of Richard Wagner through his teacher, Otto Kitzler, who conducted a local Tannhäuser, which was a bolt out of the blue, and he saw his future in writing symphonies. In making the change, he was drawn to Vienna, where he accepted a position as theory instructor at the Conservatory in 1868, replacing his teacher, Simon Sechter (who also taught Schubert). There, he heard more Wagner, and he began writing his established symphonies.

But while Brahms, the German from Hamburg, easily integrated into Viennese society at that same time, such was not the case for Bruckner, who admittedly came from the provinces and was a devout Catholic at a time when Vienna’s middle class was seeking liberation from the church and crown. The major organ for the new Viennese bourgeoisie was the Neue Freie Presse, whose music critic was a man named Eduard Hanslick, who hated Wagner and saw Brahms as the last great hope for a musical culture that was deteriorating into decadence: the two towers of iniquity being program music and music drama. Thus, the first strike against Bruckner was his Catholicism, but the second one—even worse—was a suspected connection with Wagner.

But Bruckner, paradoxically, had no more interest in Wagner’s “music of the future” than Brahms did. His attraction to Wagner was not metaphysics but musical technique: the coloristic harmonies, the orchestration, and the grandiose scale of the musical structures. True, he dedicated his Third Symphony to Wagner, but he never was at one with the cult of Bayreuth, which was not enough for Hanslick who tainted him with the label Wagnerianer anyway. Hanslick’s reviews were horrible, and Bruckner—who suffered from bouts of depression—took them to heart. The Upper Austrian now in Vienna was on the outside looking in, whereas Brahms, the urbane German was greeted and accepted by all the major organizations of bourgeois Vienna, including membership into the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

Those first ten years in Vienna were miserable for Bruckner; he tried with great difficulty to get his works performed. The nadir of this period was, no doubt, the premiere of his Third Symphony. With great effort, he managed to get the Vienna Philharmonic to perform the premiere, but could find no one willing to conduct it, so, unfortunately, he did so himself. With his back to the audience and unaware that there had been a steady walkout during the performance while he was on the podium, Bruckner was shocked at the end of the concert to see a mere handful of students, friends, and supporters applauding from the balcony, among them the young Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf.

Whether it was in response to earlier failures or a genuine expressive urge, Bruckner offered an unprecedented programmatic subtitle to his Fourth Symphony: “Romantic.” Whatever the motivation, it was his first success, conducted by Hans Richter with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1881. It is said that the naïve Bruckner went to the podium to accept his applause and gave Richter a shiny silver coin as a gratuity on a job well done! Richter kept the coin. After the composition of the Fourth, the composer gave his impressions of the work:

Medieval city—Daybreak—Morning calls sound from the city towers—the gates open—On proud horses the knights burst out into the open, the magic of nature envelops them—forest murmurs—bird song—and so the Romantic picture develops further.

The symphony is in a classic four-movement structure: Allegro—Andante—Scherzo—Finale. It opens at “daybreak” with tremolos suggesting a pre-dawn mist out of which appears an E-flat major horn call evoking a Romantic trope we associate with Beethoven, Weber, and Wagner. This gives way to a forceful tutti first theme based on what we call the “Bruckner Rhythm” of a duple and a triple figure (one-two/one-two-three). In keeping with the Romantic trope, Bruckner tells us that the lyrical second theme is based on a bird call, specifically the Kohlmeise, a European chickadee. The climax of the movement is a stunning brass chorale (trumpets, horns, trombones, and tuba) at the end of the development, roughly two thirds of the way into the movement.

Bruckner described his second movement as a “song, prayer, serenade,” but—given the persistent walking bass—one might add procession, and a religious one at that. The sense of solemnity is suggested by a turn from major to the minor mode. This introspective song is played by the cellos in C minor, and it gives way to an extended secondary song in the violas with lute-like pizzicato accompaniment in the other strings; this secondary song is surely the serenade.

Bruckner was also quite clear about his extramusical ideas with the Scherzo, which he called “The Hunt-Scherzo” (Jagdscherzo), again with evocative triplets in the bucolic horns, full of rustic energy and drive. He was equally clear about the quiet, more relaxed Trio section, which is a picnic for the hunters taking a break under the trees. The composer was hazy in his description of the Finale, which at one time was called “Storm,” and at another, “Folk Festival” or “Carnival.” Whatever the case, it is a compelling conclusion to the medieval knights, the serenades, and the hunt. The opening, with its falling octaves in the minor, is an ominous counterpart to the opening dawn theme, in the major, of the first movement. It is an extended Finale touching upon the previous themes of the pastoral-bucolic, the lyrical, the solemn, and the ominous, but the highlight is the momentous return of the opening movement in the Finale’s coda.

Finally, a note about editions and versions. Bruckner’s symphonies exist in various manifestations. He was an organist and improvisor, so his view of a fixed work was not the same as most composers. That fact, combined with many well-meaning friends and students who wanted to see him succeed, led to many adaptations of his symphonies. The New Bruckner Edition score, edited by Benjamin Korstvedt and published in 2018, is based fundamentally on the composer’s 1880 edition but takes his own further revisions into account. This edition is dedicated to the conductor Herbert Blomstedt.

Bryan Gilliam

Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University, Bryan Gilliam is a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century German music. He is the author of The life of Richard Strauss in the Cambridge Musical Lives series as well as editor of several volumes of Strauss scholarship. His most recent book is Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera.