1887: Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (APOCALYPTIC) in C minor, age 63

Listen to this movement first. Scherzo. Allegro moderato – Trio, langsam (21:24): This grabbed me so much I downloaded the score and studied it, including the modulations. It really is a scherzo in the sense that it is A B A, where the first long section repeats exactly after the middle section, called the trio.

Celibidache/Münchner Philharmoniker (Live Tokyo, 1990)

  1. Allegro moderato (1:20) (1:20-20:45) (19:25)
  2. Scherzo. Allegro moderato – Trio, langsam (21:24) (21:24-37:43) (16:19)
  3. Adagio. Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend (38:25) (38:25-1:10:12) (29:47)
  4. Finale. Feierlich, nicht schnell (1:10:12) (1:10:20-1:39:42) (29:22)


  • 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon
  •  3 trumpets, 8 horns (4 = Wagner tubas), 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, triangle, cymbals
  • 2 harps, strings

Is this really a symphony?

Should it be? What if we gave the whole thing a different name? What if we call these four movements “four tone poems”, tell people at some time to listen to each one, in any order, at any time, and just take in the music? That’s what I did at first.

Be patient:

Unless you are a very calm person with a super long concentration period and have a great deal of persistence – and time – I suggest you try a little of each movement, sample the “ambience” and decide if you want to proceed. You will probably have to slow down your brain, and try doing something else relaxing at the same time. Cracking this music is not at all easy for me, but I think at least sampling it is worth the effort. If you use my time stamps, just remember that when the music stops for at least a minute, that means that a movement has ended.

1st movement:

It’s about 18 minutes long.It doesn’t start out in C minor, and it doesn’t get there for a couple minutes. You know this is not going to be simple when you find out that the 1st movement is almost 20 minutes long. It’s at this point that you realize maybe you might have to do something else while listening or you might not make it. What did I do? I started writing about what I’m hearing, and this is also a good time to watch. Is he going to go with Wagner tubas or just horns? Where are they used? Is there an English horn, that thing that is a deep sounding oboe? (No, you find that out with the instrumentation.) Then from there it’s just a matter of listening and finding out if this is fascinating, a bit interesting, boring, or just the most mind-killing thing you ever listened to in your life. But be warned – even if this has the potential to become something you like – and I personally do like it – you just have to listen a few times. This is not music for dummies. And you have to take it one movement at a time, then remember that this one movement is twice as long as one famous Mozart symphony. My impression: I liked this and want to listen again. Note that at the end of each movement even the players need a rest and time to retune. to 18:20

2nd movement:

It’s a bit more than 15 minutes long. What’s happening now? It says scherzo. Well, forget that except for form. It has a trio, so in form it has the A B A thing. The problem is that tone poems also have structures and form. Music is way too aural to give me a story, but if I had one for this it would heroic. There is something triumphant in this, but there is a lot more. What I would love to get from other listeners is a name. If you had written this but you decided to call it something, what name would you use? The middle section, marked trio, moves to Ab major and the trio actually ends clearly in Ab, but on the way there are sharps and naturals all over the place. What is the mood? It’s slower and could be some kind of regal ceremony. There is kind of a break in the middle,after a harp solo,  then it resumes. It builds back up a little and then the trio finishes. At this point the first section is repeated exactly.

3rd movement:

It’s a bit more than 27 minutes long, so this is the second longest movement. Bruckner just goes up to Db, after a long pause. The amount of time between movements is amazing. You don’t realize that with studio recordings, which of course delete the pauses. What is most noticeable to me is that nothing stays in a key, and that must be the Wagner influence. I actually like the sliding – it’s my thing – but I’d have to write down what he’s doing here, because it is complex. So again I have to say in this movement, and this one is a monster, somewhere around 25 minutes long. I’ll compute the actual playing time later. There are some pure major chords in one place that sound to me half Wagner and half Vaughn Williams (Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis) because of the lush string work that reminds me of his sound. So, did Vaughn Williams know Bruckner well? Id’ wager yes, and he was born almost 50 years later. The really famous spot for Wagner horn happens HERE. Again, this one movement is a separate experience and it needs to be heard and experienced alone the first time. 1:03:36

4th movement:

This is about 23 minutes long. Now, what is it about? What if you only listened to this, and what if it had a catchy nickname? What might you name this? Is it heroic? Is it romantic? Is it dreamy? Tragic? What do you feel? Or what thoughts go through your mind while listening? The first thing I think about is that I want to put this music into a box, because it’s a symphony. But does this have to come last, after more than an hour.? Does that make sense? The whole symphony has been given the label “key of C minor”? Does it even end in that key? Or do we hear that much at all? My instant answer: absolutely NOT! It’s like a gigantic misstep, and it tells me that I’m not hearing what I’m hearing. But as a musician with decades of experience, I go with my own gut. I go with my own impressions, and I’m ready to say that almost everything ever written about this music is misleading and will close my mind to the actual music. In fact, I very much like the whole feeling. It takes me on a sound-adventure, and it pretty much treats all 12 keys as equals. By the time he is finished with this one movement he hits at least every key one time, briefly, and usually major and minor. You might call Bruckner the “King of morphing”, while sticking to pure sound and completely  avoiding any kind of labels or literary descriptions. It is pure music.

The last completed symphony…

Symphony No. 8 in C minor is the last symphony the composer completed. It exists in two major versions of 1887 and 1890 and was premiered under conductor Hans Richter in 1892 in Vienna. It is dedicated to the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. His 9th symphony was never finished.

The Wagner tuba…

What in heaven’s name is a “Wagner tuba”? In fact, it doesn’t sound at all like a tuba. It sounds a bit like a cross between a valve trombone and a horn. Listen here: horn players talk about it being hard to play in tune. In fact, it’s not, but horn players don’t realize that the rest of us can’t cheat with the hand. Horn players can tune each note by moving the hand in the bell. Trombone players tune each note with the slide. The rest of us have to do it with the lips, which is horribly difficult, but it’s just what brass players have to do. The other difficulty is that if you play horn it’s best to be left-handed. But if you are a lefty, suddenly you have to pick up this totally different instrument, you lose the use of the hand in the bell, so you then use your right hand for fingering. Now, does it sound very different from horn? I’m not sure. To me it sounds so much like horn that I would be fooled every time, I think, and I’ve been playing brass since age 12. I also taught horn for many years.

Symphonic directions in German and French…

We have an international language for music, and it’s Italian. I know German, so I read these directions fluently, but I still think it is unnecessary. For instance, “Adagio: Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend” just means “Adagio (slowly), somber but not dragging”. Mozart would likely have written those directions in Italian, something like this: “Adagio, solenne ma con moviemento” – or something close to that. The reason for sticking to Italian is to keep musical instructions universal. The French did the same thing as the Germans, writing directions in a mishmash of French and Italian, and I find it confusing and unnecessary, so when you see musical directions in French or German, you are dealing with provincialism and nationalism.

Wagner for people who hate opera?

What a strange man he was, and the more I read about him, the more of a puzzle he is to me. He was 11 years older than Wagner, and he worshiped the older composer. But he had no interest at all in Wagner’s dramas and in fact studied his scores absolutely ignoring the texts. So in this sense he was purely linked to only the sound, and that is precisely my reaction to Wagner. I’ve loved his overtures since I was very young, and there are parts of his operas that I find fascinating. But I find his librettos utterly boring and have no interest in what happens on the stage.

Absolutely gigantic orchestras…

The 8th symphony has eight horns. Supposedly he originally wanted to use four Wagnerian tubas but eventually changed to four extra horns instead. No one before him used so many percussion players. His brass section had more brass than that of any other composer, his woodwind section was gigantic, and in the 8th symphony he used not one harp but two.

Too long?

I honestly don’t know. The length of his music, even of his movements, seems to be totally out of sync with modern 21st century life, where pop songs are five minutes long or far shorter. Does anyone today have time for a symphony that is nearly 90 minutes long? The recording I’m linking to here is almost 90 minutes long, but there are long breaks between the movements – breaks that are necessary for the musicians to catch a breath and retune.

You have to re-calibrate your you idea of time…

I started out with this symphony today because of my huge interest in the conductor, Manfred Honeck, and his obvious passion for the music. I’ve just finished with his recordings of several Mozart symphonies and the Dvorak 8th symphony. So if a conductor that I enjoy so much is this connected to Bruckner, maybe I should take a more serious look at his music.

But how do you start?

I began by doing some research on the instrumentation, because his choice of instruments fascinates me, and I love the variety of a huge orchestra when a master knows how to use it. I also wanted to think about the very small orchestras of Mozart, and how they got expanded more and more throughout the 19th and 20 century. So I started there, entered the four movements and started writing about what I found.

What was it like listening to all this?

I think I had to do something different the first time. I wanted to relax, let the music wash over me while taking in the textures, the musical movement and the big ideas. Does this all work for me? Could I just close my eyes and listen without doing something else? I’m not sure.

Perhaps you have to take this music movement by movement…

If we go with a length of 80 minutes, that’s an average time of 20 minutes per movement. That’s still long, since one Mozart symphony is shorter than 10 minutes, and in general his symphonies are around 30 minutes long, tops, with a few exception. So it’s probably best to listen to each movement, try to absorb that, and see if you want to come back to that movement.

It’s been fascinating, but do I want to do it again?

I said: I think so, but I’m not sure.That was a few days ago. Now I know that my answer is yes. I also said that listening made writing this very easy, but it turns out that writing this also made listening easier because it made me start to think deeply about what I’m hearing. This is incredibly complicated, challenging music. I’ve had conflicting impressions. Different sections seem absolutely brilliant. The orchestration is wonderful. There are ideas, modulations and details, that I want to make note of and come back to. But does it work for me, dramatically? I’m on the fence. I’d like to come back to this a year later and see if I’m in a different place.

But it’s a lot better for me than a Wagner opera…

Like Bruckner I want the music and none of the other drama, and that brings me back to the idea, again, that if Wagner had written symphonies instead of operas, one of them might have sounded a lot like this one.

3 thoughts on “1887: Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (APOCALYPTIC) in C minor, age 63

  1. I taste tested it this time round – the horns you highlighted, and then the beginning which got me hooked. I want to wait for the weather to be good enough to listen while walking. It’s the right music for that.

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