Symphony No 5
Lance Friedel conductor
Symphony No 5 in B-flat major
1878 ed Nowak 1951
1. Introduction (Adagio) – Allegro
2. Adagio. Sehr langsam [very slowly]
3. Scherzo, Molto vivace (schnell) [speedily]
4. Finale. Adagio
'All the joy and pleasure have gone out of my life; it seems utterly pointless and futile.'
Begun in a mood of deep despair, the Fifth Symphony is Bruckner's most astonishing triumph of mind over matter. Of all the Bruckner symphonies, it is the one least amenable to canonisation by those conductors convinced of the composer's saintliness, but it does reveal most starkly its creator's strength of spirit.
Circumstances were not encouraging in early 1875 when Bruckner began work on what was to be the slow movement. Bewildered by Vienna after more than six years there, Bruckner still missed his old post back in Linz, and had no equivalent salary to compensate, only his fees from teaching at the Conservatorium (things would improve with an honorary lectureship at the University starting in November). That February his Third and Fourth symphonies remained unperformed, and yet Bruckner started work on another symphony only two months after the Fourth's completion. It was finished in May 1876, and subject to only minor revisions in 1878. The pattern of events thereafter was fairly typical of the attitude towards Bruckner's works: indifference, in this case marked by a silence of 15 years, followed by an 1893 premiere in Graz conducted by Franz Schalk, who re-orchestrated the entire work, cut the Finale and added an extra brass band at the end!
Luckily for posterity, Bruckner was too ill to attend the performance, or to agree to a re-write as he so often did on Schalk's advice. The situation for the Fifth is simpler than usual with Bruckner: the score published in 1896 can be ascribed to Schalk's interference and – since it lacks even the interest of the kind of well-meaning that makes, say, Rimsky-Korsakov's performing edition of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov worth hearing – duly consigned to the historical scrap-heap. The only Bruckner Fifth we want to hear in the concert hall is the original version either in the Haas or Nowak editions (which differ only on very minor points).
As we hear it, we have to wonder what Schalk's problems with the work might have been. The only doubts must be the listener's as to whether the endless tensions will be resolved, not the composer's as he steers us through a series of large-scale but infallible structures to various goals. The use of the orchestra – still a small one by Wagnerian standards, with only double woodwind and a bass tuba part added to a standard brass family at a later stage – is always apposite, whether in blocks and unisons for the score's more monolithic statements or for a transparent handful of instruments. As for the silences and pauses of the outer movements, there is every reason to believe that Bruckner did indeed have in mind cathedral-like acoustics as well as a desire to 'take a breath', as he put it, before the next important sentence, for the Adagio, as always in his symphonies, shows him a perfect master of the smoother transition when he wants to be.
The slow introduction is unusual for Bruckner, but not exactly unique as some commentators have insisted, since there are briefer preparations for the main action in his other symphonies. Many famously begin with a timeless tremolo and a stark interval; this one makes a more human start with the tread of lower pizzicato (plucked) strings and the spread of noble violin and viola counterpoint above it. Then comes the cosmic wrench: a massive gesture hurled upwards, tempered by an answering choir of brass. The pattern is repeated before a steady crescendo results in what seems to be the main event of the first movement Allegro, a singing theme gently but firmly projected on violas and cellos. But even here the 'home' key of B-flat major is only briefly touched upon, and whether or not the listener has consciously assimilated the whole spectrum of keys thrown up in so short a space of time, Bruckner has already created a sense of instability in a movement persistently, almost heroically searching for a key.
The ground-plan of the Adagio is infinitely more straightforward; the instant richness here comes from the tension between pizzicato figures announced at the outset and the plain-sailing of the lonely oboe melody above it. Bruckner is proud to announce his second theme, one of his finest lyric inspirations, without preparation. The abrupt C major in which it is launched prevents the violins from going down to the theme's rightful depths – a striking way of saving the melody's noblest contours for its G major return. There is nothing more to observe except the alternation of these ideas, returning with increasing beauty of elaboration and in longer paragraphs that never quite reach the beatific heights of their counterparts in later symphonies – and with good reason, for salvation is only on the horizon and the movement ends as disconsolately as it began.
The Scherzo builds on those twin poles of stern nature and warm humanity, even beginning with the same notes as the pizzicato which launched the Adagio, and in the same key. This time the string consolation, just as abruptly introduced, is a happy Ländler (a waltz-like dance) which takes on more shades and colours in its extended treatment. Here the easy weave of woodwind, strings and trumpet, as well as the rustic manner, provide one of the few points of contact with the symphonic world of Mahler, who conducted the Fifth shortly after Bruckner's death. The Ländler pre-empts the need for a serene idyll in the trio, which proceeds with disarming innocence despite the initial, and persistent, warning note from the horn.
Worlds apart in mood, the two inner movements have nonetheless been persistent in their proclamation of D minor; it has been a long time since the 'home key' triumphs at the end of the first movement. Bruckner now pulls off a series of surprises. He takes us right back to the symphony's slow introduction, but the new octave drops of the first clarinet discreetly attached to it turn into a full-blown question in the silence that follows – bare-faced cheek if not downright comic. An answer comes in the shape of the first movement's main Allegro theme as we first heard it; this is beginning to look like a review of old ideas much like the start of the finale to Beethoven's Ninth, a suspicion confirmed by the pizzicato launch of the Adagio which also cropped up in the Scherzo. Bruckner's intentions will soon emerge as very different from Beethoven's: he has no wish to discard what has gone before and to sing an entirely new song. For the time being, however, the clarinet's impudent suggestion is recklessly taken up by the strings in a riotous fugato passage. We are, it seems, on our way, with a stream of good-humoured ideas to coast us along to the rough-hewn climaxes we expect from a Bruckner finale. Then, just as all energy seems to have drained away, the brass proudly announces the most splendid of chorale themes, reiterated to the hallowed awe of strings: and this, it turns out, is what the Finale has really been waiting for.
The chorale now engages in vigorous combat with the clarinet theme, prepared to turn itself upside down and ready for any harmonies through which Bruckner, with tireless ingenuity, might care to pass it. A more straightforward full-orchestral combination of themes steps promptly into a breach and finally yields to a transfigured review of the earlier, good-humoured material. But Bruckner has an even more comprehensive aim in mind than simply to surmount his final edifice with its crowning glory, the chorale; he does that, but not before bringing back the first movement's Allegro theme in full armour, ready for combat in a further stretch, and allowed to state its case right at the end – much as it did in the closing bars of the first movement, but this time with the whole deafening weight of the chorale theme behind it. Bruckner may have gone on to look at the finale question from different angles, but he never clinched it more magnificently – even in the Eighth – than this.
Note by David Nice David Nice writes, lectures and broadcasts on music, notably for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Music Magazine. His books include short studies of Richard Strauss, Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, and the first volume of his Prokofiev biography, From Russia to the West 1891–1935, was published in 2003 by Yale University Press; he is currently working on the second.
Bruckner is still frequently described as a ‘simple’ man, an Austrian peasant with little education and even less grasp of the sophisticated Viennese world in which he tried so desperately to establish both a living and a reputation. The facts tell a different story.
'Myths cling like limpets to great artists, no matter how hard scholars try to scrape them off. And of no composer is this truer than Anton Bruckner.'
Bruckner may have appeared unpolished, at times bizarrely eccentric, especially to self-conscious Viennese sophisticates, but he was far from ill-educated. His father was a village schoolmaster – a background he shared with several of the greatest Austrian and German writers and thinkers. Bruckner went through a rigorous Catholic teacher-training programme, passing his exams first time with distinction (a rare achievement in those days). Close friends and colleagues testify to his lively and enquiring intellect, as well as his friendliness and generosity. Bruckner’s intense Roman Catholic faith certainly marked him out as unworldly. There are stories of him breaking off lectures at the Vienna University to pray; begging God’s forgiveness for unintentionally ‘stealing’ another man’s tune; dedicating his Ninth Symphony ‘to dear God’. However, tensions between the demands of his faith and his lifelong tendency to fall in love with improbably young women reveal a deep rift in his nature. Bruckner could also be alarmingly compulsive in his devotions –especially at times of acute mental crisis (there were plenty of those) – and there are hints he was prone to doubt, especially in his last years.
Equally strange to those who knew him was Bruckner’s almost religious devotion to Wagner –even Wagner himself is said to have been embarrassed by Bruckner’s adoration (which is saying a great deal!). But the way Bruckner as a composer synthesises lush Wagnerian harmonies and intense expression with elements drawn from Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Bach and the Renaissance church master Palestrina is remarkably original. It shows that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Bruckner was far from losing himself in Wagner’s intoxicating soundworld. His obsessions may have caused him terrible problems – particularly his notorious ‘counting mania’. (During one crisis period he was found trying to count the leaves on a tree.)
But paradoxically the same obsessiveness may have helped him keep his bearings as a composer. There’s an old joke that Bruckner ‘wrote the same symphony nine times’, and it’s true that the symphonies tend to be based on the same ground plan, with similar features in similar places. But the same is true of the great Medieval cathedrals, and no one could say that Chartres Cathedral was the same building as Durham or Westminster Abbey. Bruckner planned his cathedral-like symphonic structures in meticulous detail, and at best they function superbly as formal containers for his ecstatic visions and extreme mood swings. Disconcerting simplicity and profound complexity co-exist in the man as in his music. It’s one of the things that makes him so fascinating and, in music, unique.
Composer profile by Stephen JohnsonStephen Johnson is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber). He also contributes regularly to BBC Music Magazine and The Guardian, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 (Discovering Music), BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service.
American conductor Lance Friedel attended Boston University, the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and the University of Music in Vienna, completing his work at Mannes School of Music in New York. Among Friedel's conducting teachers were Gustav Meier, Michael Charry, and Georg Tintner; he also took part in master classes given by Leonard Slatkin, André Previn and Lorin Maazel, and participated in the Mozarteum Summer Academy in Salzburg, the Aspen Music Festival and the Tanglewood Music Festival. In 2001 he won first prize at the Mario Gusella International Conductors Competition in Pescara, Italy.
Friedel has conducted many orchestras, including the Providence Chamber Orchestra, the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra, the West Bohemian Symphony Orchestra, the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, the Berlin Sinfonietta and the London Symphony Orchestra, among many others. He has recorded for Naxos and MSR Classics, producing notable recordings of orchestral music by Carl Nielsen and Josef Bohuslav Foerster.
Biography source: Allmusic
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