Notes by TŌN bassoonist Cheryl Fries
The Mysterious Bruckner
Anton Bruckner’s compositions and legacy have remained a constant fascination and mystery. Bruckner has garnered a rather bizarre reputational legacy, accumulating several different personas: death obsessed, anti-social, a drunk, and a country bumpkin. It seems nearly impossible to determine exactly who Bruckner the person was, but it is clear that his colossal symphonies continue to intrigue musicians.
Bruckner deeply admired the music of Richard Wagner; it has been said Bruckner’s symphonies are the symphonies Wagner never wrote. While composers like Strauss and Mahler were leading the helm of German modernism, Bruckner strongly upheld and expounded upon the musical conservatism of Wagner. Despite his humble beginnings, Bruckner was an intellectual and as such was deeply insecure and self-critical of his works, which contributed to the constant revision of his symphonies. Bruckner had a lot of obsessive tendencies when composing. One characteristic feature of his nine symphonies is the length and size, which Johannes Brahms offhandedly described as “symphonic boa constrictors.” Bruckner also had a fascination with counting, which ensured that his symphonies were masterfully crafted down to every last note and rhythm.
The most characteristic feature of the 5th Symphony is the contrapuntal style, which is first highlighted in the opening chorale of the first movement. The overall structure of this movement is an elongated sonata form that slowly builds, beginning softly and ending triumphantly, introducing themes in blocks of contrasting music. The second movement serves as a theme and variations, with the opening theme being introduced by the solo oboe at the start of the movement. The last variation uses the opening theme, but weaves underneath a contrapuntal moving line in the strings alongside a chorale in the brass that echoes the beginning of the symphony. The third movement alternates between two contrasting styles. It begins with a faster, menacing theme in a minor key and then eventually transitions into a sweeter, more pastoral theme. Throughout the movement, the dueling themes fight for the spotlight at times blending and weaving into one another. The finale begins with reminiscent themes from the earlier movements, the opening chorale, second movement oboe solo, and themes from the scherzo. Near the end of the movement Bruckner’s mastery of counterpoint is featured in an extensive double fugue.