Zubin Mehta conducts Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

17 Mar 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Zubin Mehta

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 version) (91 min.)

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    Zubin Mehta on Bruckner’s Eighth: an introduction to the work with excerpts from rehearsals (11 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.

In Honour of the Emperor

Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

Vienna, 1885. Anton Bruckner, who had long been looked down upon in the elitist circles of the Habsburg capital and was known to only a few insiders beyond the city boundaries as it was, had achieved his breakthrough on the international music scene, which he himself must have found almost unbelievable. His Seventh Symphony, premiered by Arthur Nikisch and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig on 30 December 1884 and performed in Munich a short time later, was a brilliant success. The quality of his symphonic works had finally been recognised, and (almost) no one wanted to challenge the position he had attained. Bruckner himself was nearly overwhelmed by the praise that was heaped on him; the honours connected with it and other social obligations were for him – the “shy Cyclops” – too much of a good thing. A letter to his sister, Rosalie Hueber, on 9 February 1885 verifies this: “Afterwards all the correspondence from here and abroad!!! Now there is also Holland, where my Third Symphony was performed with great success on 4 December. The second performance of my Seventh Symphony in Leipzig on 28 January was before the royal couple. The newspapers are full of admiration, also in Dutch. In March I will go to Munich (the performance in Hamburg is also approaching). Unfortunately I need a great deal of money. In The Hague they would like to see me in person.”

Immediately after completing the Te Deum, which he had begun in 1881, before the Seventh, Bruckner set about composing another symphony. Considering the fact that he began the sketches for the Ninth directly after finishing the Eighth (and during the work on the Seventh composed his impressive String Quintet), one can justifiably speak of a powerful creative surge. An important reason for it was the success of the Seventh and the revised Third Symphony mentioned above, which has, incidentally, continued to this day – along with the Fourth, Eighth and Ninth, these two works are Bruckner’s most frequently played symphonies. Bruckner had to pay a price for this fame, however. The Eighth could not really get off the ground. The composition process dragged on for many – at times agonising – years. He polished the Eighth until 1890, but another two years passed before this titanic symphony had its premiere. Yet no matter how arduous and sometimes painful these revisions may have been, the music world thanked the composer for it.

“The German Michel musing upon his country”

This success can be attributed not least to one of the most original and – in its scale – substantial scherzos of the entire Romantic symphonic literature. Formally, the composer adhered to the traditional schema in this Allegro moderato, the second movement of the symphony, to which he added the programmatic explanation “the German Michel a figure representing the national character of the German people musing upon his country”. The Scherzo, whose texture is probably the most rhythmically striking and massive within Bruckner’s symphonic universe, is arranged in three sections and, within these three sections, again divided into three parts. An expansive A-flat major Trio with the heading “Langsam” serves as the middle section, which introduces a soft, gentle cantilena at the opening, so that the overall formal scheme is A-B-A-C-A-B-A. This results in the virtually symmetrical structure found in many of Bruckner’s scherzos, but not as extended as here.

Significant – in addition to the formal solution – is the use of three harps, which in the original version of 1887 were not heard until the Adagio, but after the revision of the symphony were already assigned an important role in this movement. They not only create increased intimacy in the Trio at precisely the point where, according to Bruckner, “Michel briefly pauses in prayer”, they also form the soft, melodious conclusion of this interlude.

Architectural precision does not only prevail in the Scherzo; it is one of the symphony’s essential structural principles. Both in the first movement Allegro moderato – which begins with a wonderfully celestial atmosphere but then introduces the motif that is later used as a threatening gesture in the fourth movement – and in the Finale, headed “Feierlich, nicht zu schnell” Solemn, not too fast, Bruckner presents three striking thematic complexes, which he then works out during the development section, following all the rules of polyphonic art. The difference between the Eighth and most of the earlier symphonies lies in the duration of this activity. At 75 minutes, the Eighth is (with the Fifth) by far the longest of Bruckner’s symphonies. There is another important contrast to normal symphonic principles: whereas the sections in his earlier works of the genre are clearly separated from each other, that is, the caesuras literally have the character of a break, the entrances of the major sections of the Eighth Symphony are deliberately obscured, especially in the outer movements. In other words, Bruckner “practiced” the art of the transition.

Visit of the Czar

This art is also perceptible in the only movement that deviates from the three-part structure. The nearly half-hour-long D-flat major Adagio, which is marked “Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend” Solemn and slow, but not dragging, consists of five large sections with rondo-like character and is, if you will, the secret heart of the symphony. The structure is “strophic,” that is, the two thematic groups forming the framework of this movement are repeated several times and rapidly intensified. The principle is a sort of continuous crescendo, as in the other movements. Furthermore, the Adagio, which opens with delicately hovering sounds, displays a few unusual features which should not go unmentioned. One is the style, particularly because of the expansive second theme, with its vast symphonic dimensions (the final restatement of the first theme alone covers 70 bars). In addition, similar to the main themes of the first and fourth movements, the main theme shows a contrast between obscuring and vivid clarification. In the Adagio, however, it is a contrast between rhythmic and harmonic complication on the one hand and chordal simplification on the other.

Although Bruckner provided no extramusical programme for the slow movement, for the monumental Finale – as in the first two movements – he devised a truly peculiar scene: “Finale. At that time our Emperor received the visit of the Czar at Olmütz; therefore, strings: ride of the Cossacks; brass: military music; trumpets: fanfares, as the Majesties meet. In closing, all themes; (odd), as in Tannhäuser in Act 2 when the King arrives, when the German Michel comes home from his journey, everything is already gloriously brilliant. – In the Finale there is also the death march and then (brass) transfiguration.” Thus, it is hardly surprising that this dramatic fragment resulted in confusion already during Bruckner’s lifetime. More recent Bruckner research confronts it calmly, however, as if to say: one should not take the master too seriously in this case but instead regard the Eighth Symphony as what it is – a marvellous work of enormous proportions and enormous genius.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961; he last conducted the orchestra in October 2011 in works by von Einem, Schumann and Mahler. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. In November 2007, he was made an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, and in 2008 he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family. Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv provides tuition to young Israeli musicians and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Moreover, within the scope of a new project, young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth are trained by local teachers as well as by members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

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