Bernard Haitink conducts Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony

12 Mar 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (82 min.)

Over the years, Bernard Haitink has performed Bruckner’s symphonies with the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions. For this concert from 2011, the programme includes the Fifth. The work is not least a monument to Bruckner’s self-assurance, composed at a time when he saw almost all of his life’s plans come to nothing. He was denied recognition as a composer as well as a hoped-for professorship at the university in Vienna. Even his marriage plans remained unfulfilled.

The appeal of the Fifth lies in its ingenious polyphony with which Bruckner wanted to persuade the last doubters of his abilities. Wonderfully floating, transcendental choral melodies form a counter-world to the bright construction. The message of the deeply religious Bruckner is clear: that there is something higher than all earthly endeavours.

There are few music fans who would disagree that Bernard Haitink is one of the outstanding interpreters of Bruckner of our time. The Chicago Tribune summed up Haitink’s qualities as follows: “His plain-spoken humanity is fully in keeping with Bruckner’s humility. His flexible control of the music’s vast expanses of cathedral-like sound is matched by the sureness with which Haitink the arch-classicist illuminates detail.”

“Contrapuntal Masterpiece”

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat

Suddenly it is there. Out of nowhere, not quite 200 bars into the Finale of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, a chorale resounds. The movement’s first climactic surges have ebbed away, and even mightier developments lie ahead; but for now – like the holding of breath, like an island of inner contemplation after all of the music’s exertions and ruptures – there is simply this chorale. Radiant, unadorned, as though carved in stone, presented again and again by the brass, echoed by the strings. In the midst of the proverbial calm before a storm, we bear witness to one of those moments in Bruckner’s symphonies that can take the listener’s breath away. It is as if the music stepped out of itself on to another, higher plane, into another world.

There are, of course, chorales or allusions to them in other Bruckner symphonies. But nowhere else does this structure take on such a prominent role, and one so crucial to the musical architecture, as in the Fifth. Accordingly, this special chorale has a pre-history: in the slow introduction that begins the symphony, the listener is already confronted with a powerful brass statement, the emphatic announcement of a promise to be redeemed in the further unfolding of the Fifth. The opening of the first movement is indeed full of significant allusions: the very first bars, a steady, quiet low-string pulsation, have understandably elicited references to the beginning of the Mozart Requiem. And the “audacious” gestures that shortly thereafter unleash the orchestra’s full impact can also be interpreted as centuries-old, sacred musical symbols.

Bruckner’s Fifth was created in one of his most productive creative phases: during the 1870s, Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 followed one another in the closest possible succession. But his depression at this time over his career prospects and living conditions are evident in embittered laments found in his letters: “In my whole life I wouldn’t have been brought to Vienna if I’d suspected that... It would be easy for my enemies to force me out of the Conservatory. I’m amazed this hasn’t already happened... My life has lost all joy and delight – all in vain and for nothing.”

In spite of all his complaints, there were signs of light on the horizon, especially in 1875-76, when the Fifth was composed. Richard Wagner’s visit to Vienna allowed Bruckner a sense of increased proximity to the revered “Bayreuth master”, whose public approbation of his Third Symphony compensated for much else, while new sources of income from the Hofkapelle largely offset his earlier financial reverses. A real milestone in Bruckner’s social aspirations was his appointment as lecturer in harmony and counterpoint at Vienna University – a position he had doggedly pursued against every obstacle and all opposition.

Certain tactical errors in his application and in explaining the rationale behind the request had delayed his acceptance for years. In particular, the fact that Vienna’s musical “pope”, the critic Eduard Hanslick, would in his capacity as professor of music history and aesthetics need to approve Bruckner as a colleague proved to be a major hindrance. Initially favourably disposed to and even supportive of Bruckner, Hanslick had long since become a feared adversary. Bruckner’s ambition and patience could not be gainsaid. Once again he showed his staying power – and in the summer semester of 1876 he was finally able to give his first lecture at the university he held in such high esteem.

It is widely believed that Bruckner’s academic ambitions had an effect on his composition. There is a certain truth to this assumption, and one can readily imagine how the demands placed by the composer on his own creative efforts, already verging on masochistic, had further increased by the time he was finally appointed to the university. The drastic revisions to his Second, Third and Fourth symphonies undertaken during this period are striking evidence of his unbending zeal for perfection and music-theoretical “correctness”. This was further borne out when, looking back over his works years later, he attached special importance to their “theoretical, contrapuntal foundation”.

Bruckner’s understanding of this concept was seldom realized as radically and uncompromisingly as in his Fifth – his “contrapuntal masterpiece” – which largely escaped his efforts to “improve” his works and exists in only one version. Openly, almost blatantly emphasized and a distinctive feature of the symphony’s strict, even austere sonorities is its use of time-honoured compositional procedures. In its “polyphonic style” and its “extraordinary wealth of contrapuntal art” (Franz Schalk, his pupil who conducted the first performance), there is a certain undisguised textbook aspect to the work.

This impression is reinforced by its markedly “classical”, in a sense “paradigmatic” construction. The Fifth is pervaded by symmetry: while the first and last movements are preceded and related to one another by slow introductions, the Adagio and Scherzo are erected upon the identical accompanimental stratum, which, in spite of the movements’ extreme differences, also links them to form a pair. There is no parallel for this conception elsewhere in Bruckner’s works. These interrelationships within the symphony are explicitly presented to the listener in the introduction to the Finale, where the main ideas of the earlier movements are recalled, quoted literally, passing once again, in “single file”, through the symphonic spotlight.

All of which tends to indicate that in the Fifth, perhaps more than in other scores, Bruckner was seeking concentration by means of cross-references and associations. There has, in any event, been no dearth of attempts to trace the symphony’s principal themes to the first movement’s introduction, to reveal in it the germinal cells of the entire work. Nonetheless, Bruckner’s strategy of locating a symphony’s centre of gravity in the finale remained valid even, and especially, in the Fifth – although here assuming a highly individual form.

The “engine” of the process in this last movement can be found in the ever more refined fugal techniques, unfurled in several stages and in full force, that distantly recall historical models going back as far as Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. With Bruckner they unmistakably serve a single goal: to elevate the final movement, coming after the profound Adagio and dynamic Scherzo, into the work’s overriding climax. It is as though this Finale is there to reaffirm the necessity behind all the moments of crisis, all the baffling diversity and all the unanswered questions of existence. Bruckner reserves for this movement the chorale – he himself entered that word in the score – which so powerfully and repeatedly “cements” the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony.

Torsten Blaich

Translation: Richard Evidon

Bernard Haitink, born in Amsterdam in 1929, is one of today’s most celebrated conductors with an international conducting career that has spanned more than five decades. He was at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw for more than 25 years (1964 – 1988) and subsequently held posts as music director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1987 – 2002), the Dresden Staatskapelle (2002 – 2004) and as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2010). In addition, he was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (1967 – 1979) and music director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1977 – 1988) and the European Union Youth Orchestra (1994 – 1999). He is conductor laureate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bernard Haitink has received many international awards in recognition of his services to music, including both an honorary Knighthood and the Companion of Honour in the United Kingdom, and the House Order of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He was awarded the Hans-von-Bülow-Medal by the Berliner Philharmoniker and named Musical America’s “Musician of the Year” for 2007. A regular guest with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in 1964, he last appeared with the orchestra in January 2010; in only a few days (16 – 18 March) he will return for another set of concerts.

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