Christian Thielemann conducts Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

13 Dec 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 8 in C minor (87 min.)

Like many of his contemporaries, Hugo Wolf was also overwhelmed when Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony was premiered in Vienna on 18 December 1892: “This symphony is the creation of a giant and surpasses all the master's other symphonies in spiritual dimension, richness and greatness.”

The greatness attested to by Wolf is shown in many ways - first in its length, which puts all other works by Bruckner in the shade. In addition, the composer achieves a unique emotional power, such as in in the slow movement where themes of changing moods – we can hear doubt, sadness and warm comfort – intertwine, building up great intensity of expression.

Bruckner’s inspiration here is also rich and varied. He himself claimed to use both the emotional and sound worlds of Wagner in the first movement, in particular the Todesverkündigung, the “annunciation of death” from the Valkyrie and the monologue of the Flying Dutchman. In the finale on the other hand, there are echoes of a historical meeting of the Austrian Emperor and the Russian czar, for example in a “Ride of the Cossacks” in the string accompaniment at the beginning of the movement. Despite its multifaceted and well-calculated contrasting nature, the music is not fractured: Rather, it is firmly bound together by the ever-present personality of the composer, which ensures that the symphony maintains a never-diminishing intensity.

“The Creation of a Giant”

Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

Bruckner was 60 in 1884 when he began sketching his Symphony No.8 in C minor. He completed it in 1887, and in September of that year sent the score to the Munich court Kapellmeister Hermann Levi, one of his most devoted supporters. Levi harshly criticized the work and declined to conduct it. The crestfallen Bruckner then revised it, largely in 1889 and 1890. When the Eighth Symphony was finally premiered in Vienna on 18 December 1892, it was an extraordinary success and hailed as “the crown of music of our time”. The passionate Bruckner partisan Hugo Wolf declared it to be “the creation of a giant”. Even many of Bruckner’s detractors acknowledged its greatness.

Eduard Hanslick, Vienna’s “musical pope”, however, again made no secret of his fundamental antipathy to Bruckner’s symphonies, fearing that “this dreamily disoriented style” might represent the future. Hanslick’s polemics always stress the “monstrous, formless and stereotyped” qualities of Bruckner’s music and dismiss him as a Wagner clone. Reviewing the Eighth, Hanslick maintains that “Bruckner doesn’t merely lapse repeatedly into specific Wagnerian gestures, effects and reminiscences; he even seems to have taken certain pieces by Wagner as models for his symphonic structure”.

If Hanslick shows a failure to comprehend Bruckner’s music in this now famous review, as the eminent scholar Constantin Floros points out, he was at least being consistent to his own principles (readers of German are urged to consult Floros’ Bruckner 8 note on this website, of which the present English text is an abridged version). To a critic committed to formalism, all of the Austrian composer’s symphonies, and especially the Eighth, could only seem like monstrosities. But, as Floros reminds us, this is “music of expression” to which Hanslick’s definition of music as the play of “sonically moving forms” isn’t applicable. No listener can miss the colossal emotional forces at work in Bruckner’s music: mighty waves of swelling intensity that largely determine the formal processes, emotional curves that ascend steeply to one or more climaxes and then – usually abruptly – fall away.

The first movement of the Eighth, whose effect Hugo Wolf described as “simply overwhelming, beyond criticism”, is highly compact compared with the breadth of the three which follow. Its composer cited as his inspiration the Dutchman’s great C minor aria in the first act of Wagner’s opera, whose text depicts the spiritual landscape in which Bruckner’s music is localized: “When all the dead rise again, then I shall pass into the void. Heavenly bodies, cease your motion! Let external extinction take me!” The principal motifs of the first and second themes are treated in reverse order in the development section and, at its climax, are contrapuntally interwoven. The pinnacle of the movement, however, comes in the recapitulation, when fortissimo horns and trumpets together sound the main theme’s dotted rhythm, a passage of truly elemental force. Bruckner indicated that he was strongly inspired here by Wagner’s Walküre, and that this is a “Todesverkündigung” – an annunciation of death. The epilogue transforms the dotted principal motif into a hushed lament, which Bruckner called “resignation” and a “death knell”.

Two modest ideas exposed at the beginning of the scherzo – a tremolo accompanimental figure on the violins and an ostinato motif on violas and cellos –harbour astonishing rhythmic energy which breaks through as the movement unfolds. The A flat major Trio section is lyrical and intimate; its use of horns and harps is typically “Romantic”, and its fortissimo passages adumbrate the singular expressive territory of the Adagio, which terms like “ecstatic mysticism”, “consecrated conception” and “dark mystery”, used by some interpreters, only begin to comprehend.

The “mighty, harrowing” Adagio (Hugo Wolf), one of Bruckner’s most deeply expressive movements, is based on two pairs of themes. The highly charged, “sighing” first theme unfolds over an ostinato rhythm in accompanying low strings (an allusion to the Love Duet from Tristan is unmistakable); the aspiring second theme culminates in broad chordal pillars, flooded with the sound of harps; the third theme is given to the cellos; the fourth is a tuba chorale. The movement as a whole is laid out in three broad “strophes”, each surpassing the preceding in intensity, and with the second and third freely varying the first.

An encounter between the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I and the Russian tsar Nicholas III is thought to have triggered Bruckner’s imagination in writing the mighty finale. In a letter to the conductor Felix Weingartner, he interpreted the horn and trombone sonorities of the first theme as “military music”, the stamping accompanying rhythm of the strings as a “ride of the Cossacks”, and the prominent trumpet fanfares as “the meeting of the majesties”. Following the third thematic complex is a grandiose, marchlike section that cites the “Annunciation of Death” rhythms from the first movement. Hugo Wolf’s description of this symphony, which ends in triumphant, affirmative C major, as “the creation of a giant” was surely no exaggeration.

Christian Thielemann has been general music director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra since the start of the 2004/05 season, having previously held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from the autumn of 1997 to the summer of 2004. He studied at the Academy of Arts in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. Since then he has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he has concentrated increasingly on a relatively small number of opera houses, most notably the Vienna State Opera and the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, while at the same time limiting his concert appearances to a select group of world-class orchestras. Since 2000 he has been particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertory are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods – above all the music of Wagner and Strauss – as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. In the summer of 2006 he conducted Tankred Dorst’s new production of Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth. Christian Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently in mid-April 2007, when he conducted works by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

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