Simon Rattle conducts Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7

31 May 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Pierre Boulez
    Notations: Selection (21 min.)

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 7 in E major (72 min.)

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    Albrecht Dümling on Pierre Boulez’ "Notations" (10 min.)

  • free

    Albrecht Dümling on Bruckners Symphony No. 7 (14 min.)

Pierre Boulez’ Notations are based on twelve short piano pieces from his student days which the composer and conductor has been realising in orchestration since 1985. They make up a sensually and analytically brilliant “work in progress”. Boulez has said about his interest in these orchestra arrangements, which have been carried out over a long period of time and still have not been concluded: “Like Proust, I like very much to use the same material again and again without the connections being evident. I only rarely write pieces where I can say – good, that’s done.”

In this concert, the Berliner Philharmoniker under Simon Rattle, whose connection to Pierre Boulez goes back to his time as a student, perform a selection of those Notations which already exist in an orchestra version. One could also talk about a “work in progress” with many Bruckner symphonies, considering the numerous revisions that the composer made to his works (usually not initiated by him).

Against this background, it must have been tremendously gratifying for Bruckner that the premiere of his Seventh Symphony was finally given the resounding success for which he had hoped for much of his life. They turned out to be enthusiastic even in Vienna: “Already after the first movement 5-6 rousing curtain calls, and so it went on, after the Finale endless, rapturous enthusiasm and curtain calls, a laurel wreath from the Wagner Society and banquet.” (Bruckner) So it’s no wonder that the Seventh was spared the otherwise obligatory “suggestions for improvements” from his friends and that only one version of it exists.

Calculation and Sensitivity

Compositions by Pierre Boulez and Anton Bruckner

“My music was strongly influenced by Webern, Debussy and Stravinsky,” Pierre Boulez acknowledged in 1952. “Those are my ancestors, but I believe that music can take no other course but the one that Webern gave it. The Viennese only apply the serial technique to pitch. We extended it, my comrades and I, to all elements of sound, as much to duration as to timbre and mode of attack. It is what I call the complete organization of sound, since all elements of sound are organized this way.”

The Douze Notations for piano, completed in 1945, were the first work in which Boulez consistently showed this compositional rigour. On 12 February of the same year the pianist Yvette Grimaud played the premiere of the Notations – twelve brief piano pieces, each comprising exactly twelve bars, based on a twelve-tone row which appears in a different form in each movement of the work (in the second piece the row begins on its second note, in the third, on the third note, and so forth).

“Apparitions” in New Compositions

In 1978 Boulez set about arranging the first four of these piano pieces as Notations for orchestra. He completed the orchestral version of Notation VII in 1997; others exist thus far in particella (a compressed short score, a preliminary stage of the orchestral score). The Notations for orchestra differ considerably from the original piano pieces, not only in terms of sound. Notation VII, for example, comprises around five times as many bars as the piano piece on which it is based, through – according to Josef Häusler – “the use and exploitation of originally conceived structures up to the maximum output by taking up new structures obtained from the old structures by means of derivation, mutation, permutation”. Boulez described this phenomenon in more metaphorical language: “For me a musical idea is like a seed: you plant it in a certain soil and suddenly it begins to proliferate like a weed. Then you have to pull out the weeds.”

The composer summarised the relationship of the “original text and transcription” of Notations with the comment that the orchestral versions are not arrangements but “perhaps better, new compositions” and differ so greatly from the piano pieces “that the original text itself changes into a sort of apparition which, in this newly arisen world, only leads a spectral life”.

Boulez summed up his attitude towards the tradition of modernism and his responsibility as a composer as follows: “In the past – especially during Webern performances – the lack of attention to sound made me half sick. The instruments became ugly, took on an aggressive timbre; there was no connection between them, no flexibility in the textures, there was no perception of a transition from one point in the work to another. ... You have to find out how an instrumentalist can play an individual note intelligently so that it is connected with what preceded it and what follows. You have to make the player understand a certain phrase, not just intellectually, but also psychologically, emotionally.” It is this orientation towards emotional accessibility – undoubtedly influenced by Boulez’s experience as an orchestra conductor – which is also communicated to the listeners during “intelligent” performances that characterises his music far more than the rigorousness of its structure.

“Boa Constrictors” of a “Drunkard”

Anton Bruckner was probably one of the most misunderstood composers of all time. The fact that his music was initially accepted only reluctantly by the public, then was later subjected to dubious idealization in the context of ideological exploitation, and only very belatedly became the subject of objective study and evaluation is of secondary importance. In fact, the composer suffered an injustice because his character – or rather, what people supposed it to be – was laid over his music like a transparency in order, out of the kaleidoscopic diversity of the biographical and musical pattern resulting from this perspective, to make arbitrary, at times wholly irrational interpretations of his creative output, depending on whim and purpose. Two constants could thus be identified in the Bruckner reception of the past two centuries. He was suspected of not possessing the intellectual qualifications befitting a composer of his stature, and his music was believed to be too strongly influenced by the works of Richard Wagner – preconceptions that even the recent musicological reappraisal of Bruckner’s life and works has not been able to dispel entirely.

During Bruckner’s lifetime, his symphonies, which Eduard Hanslick once referred to as “boa constrictors”, for the most part still met with disapproval. As the first reviews of his Symphony No. 7 in E major indicate, it was the supposedly haphazard impulsiveness of Bruckner’s musical language that caused uneasiness. Gustav Dömpke, for instance, polemicised: “Bruckner composes like a drunkard, he is a virtuosic imitator whose fantasy has been infested with the most heterogeneous manifestations of Beethoven’s and Wagner’s music, without the counterweight of an intelligence able to differentiate these impressions based on their merit and substance and entirely without the artistic ability to assimilate them as one separate, independent individuality.”

Given the well-preserved line of tradition of Austro-German symphonic music, it is natural to compare Bruckner’s music with that of Beethoven, but that is misleading because Bruckner takes a different direction in his symphonies than that prescribed by Beethoven. For example, in the Seventh Symphony it is not important to him to entrust prominent themes to a dynamic development process, to make his motivic and thematic ideas the starting point for dramatic confrontations. Instead, Bruckner uses the traditional formal model of the symphony as a vessel into which his themes – increased to three – flow, in order to expand into new orchestrational and harmonic variants. The apotheosis-like cadenza in the first movement of the Seventh does not result from the contrasts of the individual themes but from the formal architecture which, in keeping with tradition, calls for an appropriate completion. And, although the theme of the Finale seems like an echo of the first movement, the work is not oriented towards its last movement. Instead, the focus of the Seventh Symphony is the expansive Adagio, whose expressiveness admittedly seems forced at times. After this pivotal movement, the Finale diminishes in importance, alternating formally between rondo and sonata form and surprising the listener with heroic gestures during a playful “grand finale”.

The influence of Wagner, whose death in 1883 supposedly inspired Bruckner to compose the chorale-like coda at the end of the Adagio of his Seventh, is limited to a harmony rich in thirds and the use of Wagner tubas, with which Bruckner adds new colours to the horn section. The composer went his own way in terms of melodic invention and his approach to the formal architecture of the symphony. As Wolfgang Grandjean emphasises: “The theme calls attention to itself as a musical idea, and not what develops from it.” Despite its sensitivity, Bruckner’s music is thus as far removed from Wagner’s “art of transition” as from Beethoven’s precise compositional dramaturgy. That it was by no means a lack of intellectual calculation which led Bruckner to take this path is beyond dispute, however, given the mastery of his music and its enduring fascination.

Mark Schulze Steinen

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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