1874: Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in Eb major, age 54

Mr. Peabody Says:

Start with this one movement, then if you like it, listen later to the rest: III. Scherzo. Animated (Bb major). I think this is the most easy movement I’ve heard to enjoy in a Bruckner symphony, and Celibidache with MPO just nails everything. It does not get better than this. It always puts me in a good mood.

Celibidache, MPO (1988)

  1. 0:07 Animated, not too fast (Eb major)
  2. 22:03 Andante quasi Allegretto (C minor) 
  3. 39:54 Scherzo. Animated (Bb major) – Trio: Not too fast, but absolutely do not drag (Gb major)
  4. 51:14 Finale. Animated, not too fast (Eb-major)

1st movement:

For me this is a long story. There is not a lot of action. It’s very thoughful, and that means almost 20 minutes of very atmospheric music that creates its own moods within another world. The tempo indication, in German, really does not say much.

2nd movement:

Usually the slow movement is where everything relaxes or becomes more introverted, but after the 1st movement you have to wonder what is going to happen next, because long parts of the 1st movement were calm and restful, although certainly there were also dramatic parts

3rd movement:

I have come to love this one movement, and this is where I started as I began to get to know Bruckner’s music.

4th movement:

It’s one of his gigantic movements, something like 22 minutes long. You can never accuse Bruckner of being concise.

Bruckner was never finished with anything:

There were always multiple versions of Bruckner’s symphonies. The problem of agreeing on one and one version only will never be fully solved. In a nutshell, Bruckner was not a strange, humble man who never stopped revising his music. I believe anyone who composes and has questions about his own work inevitably runs into a similar problem – when is it time to stop, to “put a fork in it” so to speak? If further revisions result from personal growth and greater experience then those revisions will be a good thing. However, often they come from doubt and fears, largely because of suggestions and criticism coming from others who don’t fully understand the music. In that case the results will be mixed and often anything but “improvements”.

This leads to the “Bruckner Problem”:

It’s about multiple revisions and no clear indication from the composer of what his final version was This is a problem in all his symphonies. Bruckner never stopped questioning himself and his music. You can spend a lifetime studying the symphonies and deciding for yourself which version is best, and no two people will fully agree.

Bruckner’s music was not understood by most of his contemporaries:

Even most of his friends did not fully comprehend what he was doing, and as is usually the case his critics were as wrong as wrong can be. Anyone who has read my thoughts knows that I have zero respect for most critics, who almost always miss the point. So often they aim to score points by making vicious comments in the most clever way possible. I really hate most of them, and I think with fairly good reason. There are also good critics who are both open-minded and forward thinking, but they are rare animals.

In Bruckner’s case even his friends were wrong:

If you go back to the time of young Bruckner and read the opinions of his contemporaries, most of what you read is painfully off the mark. His harmonic and melodic ideas were way ahead of his time – hardly unusual for geniuses – and his choice of orchestration came largely from his immense knowledge of the organ. He was a master of that instrument.

As a child he practiced the organ as much as 12 hours a day…

I can’t conceive of working that hard, even as an adult. Apparently he was totally obsessed with music and never stopped working. This was a life-long characteristic. Not only did he endlessly revise his work, he was known for starting the next symphony just days after completing one.

There were two rival camps…

To make things worse, there were people allied with Brahms and other composers in that style, while others aligned themselves with composers such as Liszt, Wagner and Mahler. These two “camps” went in a very different direction, and people picked sides. Liszt, always the most intelligent of all, supported composers in both camps, but he was a lone wolf in this regard, above it all and far wiser than the rest. Today we know that Liszt was right, and most everyone else was wrong. There were giants in both rival camps.

The Nazis loved Bruckner, but it was in no way his fault…

No one ever accused Bruckner of being a nasty human being, or a racist, or anything else of that nature. But just when he was getting more and more acceptance – and rightfully so – along came WWII, and for a time his name was linked to Hitler’s. Unfortunately the Nazi’s also hyped the music of Wagner. Wagner was a despicable human being and and an anti-Semite, so Bruckner was in danger of being linked to Wagner.

Unlike Wager his reputation was not damaged by the Nazis or WWII after the war ended…

The world correctly considered Hitler’s support of Bruckner not to be in any way caused by Bruckner himself, so his popularity continued to rise again after WWII and is likely now at an all time high.

Modern recordings suit his music…

Perhaps today, more than ever before, his music has a greater chance of being heard and appreciated because of our freedom to listen in a state of relaxation, even doing other things to let the mind receive new ideas. Modern recordings help tremendously. There has been a steady evolution in sound throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. First came the advance in recording sound leading to fine stereo recordings in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, but even then vinyl was limited in time to well under an hour per record.

Now we can hear very long compositions without changing a record, with no interruptions…

To hear something really long in the late 1950s required at least two records, and records themselves narrowed dynamics. They also did not allow the full sound of the recordings themselves to be revealed, all done on tape. CDs changed that, though even on a CD there is a time limit. CDs allowed sound to be presented more in the manner in which it was recording on tape, though there are some claims that analogue tapes have more information than can be presented digitally. Finally, with mp3s and other ways of sharing music we have no time constraints at all. This is a huge plus for the 21st century.

It has never been a better time to hear massive musical compositions:

In a sense the ideal environment for very long symphonies by composers such as Bruckner and Mahler have become ever better as the average attention span of the listener is becoming more constricted. In other words, in the 21st century we are conditioned to either like or not like music based on a window of three to five minutes, but we are free to start with only a few minutes, then listen to more as we become interested.

3 thoughts on “1874: Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in Eb major, age 54”

  1. What a passion to express his feelings by practicing so hard and never stop from working.

    I have no clue when a symphony has a story or not. I passed the hour, while doing my job, hearing it and didn’t get bored; guess I like it.

  2. If you click on “watch on Youtube”, there are hyperlinks for each movement. This way you can go straight to movement 1, 2, 3 or 4. I decided to listen to no. 3. I like the way voices go back and forth like in a conversation, or tossing balls.

    I like what you said about how we can choose to listen our own way nowadays. That’s how I came up with the idea of seeing if Youtube had links for movements.

  3. I listened to the first 19 minutes of this piece and found it to be very much to my liking. I intend to go back to hear the rest.

    Bruckner is a new composer to me. Thanks to your great introduction I now have some insight into his music.

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