1873: Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 in D minor (Wagner), age 49

1888/89 Version ed. Nowak

Mr. Peabody Says:

This is long.

Celibidache, MPO (1987)

  1. Gemäßigt, mehr bewegt, misterioso (also Sehr langsam, misterioso) — D minor
  2. Adagio: Bewegt, quasi Andante — E♭ major
  3. Scherzo: Ziemlich schnell (also Sehr schnell) — D minor, ending in D major. Trio in A major
  4. Finale: Allegro (also Ziemlich schnell) — D minor, ending in D major


  • pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons
  • four horns, three trumpets, three trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

The work has been characterised as “difficult”, and is regarded by some as Bruckner’s artistic breakthrough.[2] According to Rudolf Kloiber, the third symphony “opens the sequence of Bruckner’s masterpieces, in which his creativity meets monumental ability of symphonic construction.”[3] The work is notorious as the most-revised of Bruckner’s symphonies, and there exist no fewer than six versions, with three of them being widely performed today.


Bruckner wrote the first version of the symphony in 1873. In September 1873, before the work was finished, Bruckner visited Richard Wagner, whom he had first met in 1865 at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in Munich. Bruckner showed both his Second and Third symphonies to Wagner, asking him to pick one he preferred. To Bruckner’s delight, Wagner chose the Third, and Bruckner dedicated the symphony to the master he highly respected.

After arriving home, Bruckner continued to work on the symphony, finishing the finale on 31 December 1873.[5]

According to an anecdote, Bruckner and Wagner drank so much beer together that, upon arriving home, Bruckner realized he had forgotten which symphony Wagner had chosen. He wrote a letter back to Wagner saying “Symphony in D minor, where the trumpet begins the theme?” Wagner scribbled back “Yes! Best wishes! Richard Wagner.” After this, Wagner often referred to Bruckner as “Bruckner the trumpet” and the two became firm friends. In the dedication, Bruckner referred to Wagner as “the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music”.

The 1873 version was rehearsed by the Vienna Philharmonic in June or July 1874, but it was not accepted for performance. The premiere of the Symphony (1877 version) was given in Vienna on 16 December 1877. The conductor was meant to be Johann von Herbeck, though his death a month before the concert forced Bruckner himself to step in and conduct. The concert was a complete disaster: although a decent choral conductor, Bruckner was a barely competent orchestral director: the Viennese audience, which was not sympathetic to his work to begin with, gradually left the hall as the music played.Even the orchestra fled at the end, leaving Bruckner alone with a few supporters, including Gustav Mahler.

(The score of the first three movements was later owned by Mahler; his widow Alma Mahler ensured she took it with her when fleeing the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 for the United States.)

Stunned by this debacle, Bruckner made several revisions of his work, leaving out significant amounts of music including most quotations from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre. The original 1873 score was not published until 1977.

The symphony has been described as “heroic” in nature. Bruckner’s love for the grand and majestic is reflected especially in the first and last movements. Stark contrasts, cuts and forcefulness mark the signature of the entire composition. The signal-like trombone theme, heard at the beginning after the two crescendo waves, constitutes a motto for the whole symphony. Many typical elements of his later symphonies, such as the cyclical penetration of all movements and especially the apotheosis at the coda of the finale, which ends with the trombone theme, are heard in the Third for the first time.

First movement:

The symphony opens with an ostinato on the strings, similarly to the unnumbered Symphony in D minor. Soon after, the trumpet sounds out the main theme:

The music builds to a loud climax and the second theme of the first group is given by the full orchestra:

The music goes back to the string ostinato and the first theme, this time in A major and builds to another loud climax with the second theme. After this first theme group, the second theme group is introduced with a quiet, descending passage played by the strings:

The movement then enters the third theme group. This group alternates between loud and soft and combines two Bruckner hallmarks: octave falls and the Bruckner rhythm:

Following this section, the movement settles into the development. During the development, the main theme is developed through inversion and is the subject of a massive climax near the center of the movement. The secondary group is also developed. In the original version, Bruckner quotes the “sleep motif” from Wagner’s Die Walküre right before the recapitulation begins. The recapitulation goes through the theme groups (the first group only has one climax instead of the exposition’s two). The movement ends in an unusual fashion: while there is no ambiguity as to the tonic (D), the final “chord” only contains an open fifth of D and A. Since there is no third, the ending is neither major nor minor:

Second movement:

The Adagio opens quietly and has a contrapuntal flair, with the strings playing in four parts:

The second part of the movement shifts to 3/4 time and features a melody played by the violas and accompanied by the violins:

Depending on the version, the second part may not be heard again, as the reprise was cut during the first revision. Near the end of the movement, there are (also depending on the version) one or two quotations from Wagner: one from Die Walküre and another from Tannhäuser that was cut in subsequent revisions.

Third movement:

The Scherzo begins quietly, quickly building up to a belligerent opening that consists mainly of the notes D and A:

The dainty Trio that follows has the violas and violins in a dialogue:

Fourth movement:

The Finale’s main theme is a recall of the main theme of the first movement, by sharing the same rhythm, as shown below:

The second theme group is in a slower tempo and has a somewhat similar delicateness as the Trio of the third movement:

During this theme group there are quotations from Tristan und Isolde and the main motive of the Second Symphony that were cut after the first versions. After this group, the third theme group makes use of syncopated octaves, making it very rhythmic:

The original version has a quotation of Rienzi near the end of the recapitulation. Additionally, the earlier versions feature a “catalogue” of themes from previous movements, similar to the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, albeit near the end of the movement rather than the beginning. Eduard Hanslick, one of Bruckner’s greatest critics, described the symphony as such: “Bruckner’s poetic intentions were not clear to us – perhaps a vision of Beethoven’s Ninth becoming friendly with Wagner’s Valkyries and finishing up being trampled under their hooves.” The catalogue was removed in the final version. As the symphony draws to a close, the main theme of the first movement is recalled, and in the final version, is actually used to bring about the final D major cadence.

Bruckner’s artistic breakthrough:

According to widespread opinion, the Third can be regarded as Bruckner’s artistic breakthrough. In it, the “real and complete Bruckner” comes into expression for the first time. According to Rudolf Kloiber, the third symphony “opens the sequence of Bruckner’s masterpieces, in which his creativity meets monumental ability of symphonic construction.” However, the difficult work has never received general critical acceptance. Especially the question of the different versions and their judgement is still as open as ever.


There exist no fewer than six versions, three of them being issued: the 1873 original version, the 1877–78 version, and the composer’s last thoughts of 1889.

First version (1873):

The 1873 version was the version that Bruckner sent to Wagner for his approval. It is available in an edition by Leopold Nowak (published 1977), which is based on Wagner’s fair copy. It was first performed by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in Australia in 1978.

The 1874 revision:

Bruckner revised the symphony in 1874.

As described by Carragan in its presentation paper “Bruckner’s Trumpet”,[14] the “significant improved” 1874 version[15] is, movement for movement, of the same length and structure as the 1873 original version, but there are many passages, particularly in the first movement, with major changes in texture (canonic imitation) and orchestration. The 1874 version has been premiered and recorded by Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva.

This symphony and the Fourth are the most-revised compositions in Bruckner’s canon … As one follows the increasing sophistication in the developing style of Bruckner’s canonic writing one obtains a window into the expert and intricate counterpoint of the great fugue of the Fifth Symphony.

Second version (1876–1878):

The “1876” version

Bruckner revised the Symphony in 1876.

The 1876 Adagio has been edited by Nowak in 1980. In this version of the Adagio, the openings of parts 1 and 3 were broadened, and in part 5 the difficult accompaniment in syncopated semiquavers is replaced by that used by Wagner in the overture of Tannhäuser.

The other movements of the “1876” version of the Symphony have been reconstructed by Carragan.

In this revision … the citations of themes from Wagner’s operas Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre were removed from the first movement and finale… [I]n the first movement the opening trumpet theme was added as a two-part canon near the end of the exposition. [I]n the finale that same motto theme was also made into a brilliant four-part canon which was placed in the middle of the development. [It] is an interesting passage of 38 measures in which the chorale theme from the second or B theme group is played unexpectedly loudly accompanied by material from the A theme and the motto theme from the first movement. This is followed by a dialogue between the loud C theme and the quiet B theme chorale.[16]

As Carragan writes, “This version, though completed in the spring of 1877, is called the “1876” version because its characteristic five-part slow movement was dated 1876 and was published many years ago by Nowak with that date. In that way confusion with the version as later revised in the fall of 1877 can be avoided.”[16]

The reconstructed “1876” version of the Third Symphony, which constitutes the earliest phase of the second version of that much-revised symphony, was given its first performance on March 2, 2019, by the New England Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Richard Pittman in Boston, Massachusetts.[16][17]

The 1877/1878 revision:

From the fall of 1877, Bruckner revised the symphony further:

In the Adagio, part 3, devoted to the A theme, was completely deleted along with the first third of Part 4 (bars 129–176), and, in part 5, the quote of the overture of Tannhäuser was replaced by another motive. The result was a sort of approximation to a three-part song form ABA.

An additional cut in the Finale of a passage, in which the chorale theme from the B theme group is played unexpectedly loudly, accompanied by material from the A theme and the trumpet theme from the first movement, followed by a dialogue between the loud C theme and the quiet B theme chorale, was also done.

In 1878, a powerful coda was added to the Scherzo.

According to an advertisement in the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna, on 23 May 1880, the full score and parts of the 1877 version had just appeared in print by Thomas Rättig in Vienna. The 1877 version, which was first published without Scherzo coda by Fritz Oeser in 1950, was republished with the Scherzo coda of 1878 by Nowak in 1981. A transcription of this version for piano duet was prepared by Gustav Mahler (the last movement presumably by Rudolf Krzyzanowski), though only Mahler’s name appears on the title page of the score, published on 1 January 1880 by A. Bösendorfer in Vienna.

Third version (1889):

The 1889 version was published by Nowak in 1959. In this version, the Scherzo coda is removed and additional cuts are done in the first movement and the Finale.

The 1890 revision:

The first published version of 1890, published by Thomas Rättig (Vienna), remains controversial because it has not been ascertained how much it reflected Bruckner’s wishes, and how much it was influenced by Josef and Franz Schalk.

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