Anton Bruckner’s 4th Symphony

By September 21, 2013ABC, History, Music, Society

In July 1984 I got off the plane from Perth, checked into my hotel, and walked over to the Adelaide Festival Centre to see what was on. I’d been doing this for a couple of years, as part of a regular journey around Australia at that time of the year associated with the Australian Research Grants Committee’s interview round. There was indeed something on: the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with an emigre Russian violinist called Viktoria Mullova. They’d be doing the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. I got one of the few remaining tickets.

The Sibelius was and is my favourite violin concerto. The Bruckner I did not know at all. I may not have heard any of his music. When I started listening to classical music in the mid 1950s, my handbook was a Pelican by Ralph Hill called The Symphony, and Mr Hill dismissed Mahler and Bruckner in the last chapter, I think, and said that they might or might not be heard in our time (he was talking about the UK). He was wrong about Mahler, whose music began to be heard everywhere at much the same time as the book was published, and Mahler symphonies are now in every orchestra’s repertoire. I heard the concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic on radio yesterday morning saying that his orchestra had played Mahler’s 1st ‘a hundred times’ since he had joined it in 1997. That’s about four times a year, and for only one symphony (the one I like best — the music in the later ones can verge on the hysterical).

But Bruckner didn’t get the same rave attention from the concert-going public. About all I knew of his music was that Brahms had referred to his symphonies as ‘giant boa-constrictors’ or something like that. That wasn’t really encouraging, as I like Brahms’s symphonies. I knew that Bruckner had been a famous organist, and that he had been a compulsive corrector of his own drafts. That was about it.

The Sibelius was fascinating. Ms Mullova appeared in a shimmering ice-blue gown and gave a shimmering icy-blue performance. I cannot now recapture the experience, but at the time I felt I had heard the concerto as never before. And I was greatly impressed. That was what I had come for, but my Scots ancestry rebels at not getting my money’s worth. So I stayed for the second half.

Bruckner’s 4th Symphony starts with more shimmers, from the strings, and over them comes a horn call, repeated and then taken up by the orchestra. The hairs on my arms rise, and I am alert as rarely before, listening to every bar as the music unfolds. What brilliant music! It is a long symphony, in the traditional four-movement form, adagio, scherzo and finale to follow the first movement. In the fourth movement the opening horn call comes back in a different guise. Another member of the ARGC, who came with me, had a different seat, and we agreed that it had been a wonderful concert. Back home I bought the 4th and played it to my adolescent kids. ‘Yes, Dad,’ they said as they listened patiently to the opening. They were used to my musical enthusiasms.

Why hadn’t I heard it before? It’s long (all his symphonies are), and unfashionable, so no one asks for it. I have done, in suggestions to my local symphony orchestra, but the managers smile. Bruckner won’t sell tickets. Nor will Shostakovitch, whose 5th is another of my favourites. My Adelaide experience was nearly thirty years ago, and I have still to go to another live performance of any of Bruckner’s symphonies. But Classic FM has begun to program them, especially if it is giving us a concert recorded by another national radio network.

No matter. I bought the whole eleven symphonies, and in some in different versions. I began to hear how conductors varied in their interpretations, and thought I was doing well until I invited Laurie Carmichael, once the Assistant Secretary of the ACTU, former communist and a fellow member of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, to come and have dinner and listen to some music. Laurie went through my collection and told me I had too much Bach, not enough Mozart and nowhere near enough Vaughan Williams.

He congratulated me on my Bruckner collection, and asked how I liked the different versions. Before long he was showing me how Karajan, Jochum, Furtwangler, Solti and Klemperer organised the great climaxes in the symphonies. It was a deeply knowledgeable music lesson, and I was most impressed.

If I know that another Bruckner symphony is going to be broadcast I do my best to organise my life to listen to it. Bruckner is one of the three great symphonists, the others being Beethoven and Sibelius (my opinion only). My current favourite is the 7th, or the 8th, or the 9th, or the 3rd. I heard the 4th again on Classic FM the other day, and that pushed me to write this piece.

Anton Bruckner deserves much more attention than he gets. A quiet, shy and intensely self-critical man, he loved beer, and kept falling in love with young ladies, who turned him down. He never married. It was the 7th Symphony that established him as a great composer, and it was at its premiere, when the applause went on for fifteen minutes, that he finally knew he was a genuine success. He was then 60, and died at 72.

(Later,  7 August 2016 I have recently acquired an old copy of Ralph Hill’s book, and see that I did him a disservice. There is a chapter on Bruckner, but it is by someone else, and it is too short, and too full of similes and allusions for my taste. Ralph Hill explains in the Introduction, not the concluding chapter (he didn’t write one, the last being on the symphonies of Arnold Bax), that he thought Bruckner was worth including even though no-one wanted to play his symphonies in England. My apologies.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Phillip Williams says:

    Watched the concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic, Ilya Konovlov, playing in a chamber music concert last night. He was playing a stradivarius and one of the strings kept breaking.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I’ve seen that happen in other concerts, and also the horse-hair of the bow coming loose, which is quite distracting to both the player and the audience.

      • Phillip Williams says:

        That also happened to him – but he carried it off with good grace. Anyway – first time I’ve seen a Stradivarius close up – I was sitting close to the front – it was the Herkules, made in the 1730s.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Bruckner and Mahler came knocking on my ears quite late – must have been only in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Now they are two of my favourites. Why is that? Is it that having heard the other earlier greats so often, the soaring waves one hears in these other two, carry a depth and emotional thunder and silence I no longer hear so strongly in the others?

Leave a Reply