Daniel Harding conducts Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony

22 Sep 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Harding

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (77 min.)

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    Daniel Harding on Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony (11 min.)

What a find! In 1904, a retired civil servant of the Imperial and Royal Ministry of Railways came across on a handwritten score from the pen of Anton Bruckner among the papers of his recently deceased father-in-law. The sensation was by no means that this work was previously unknown – it was after all Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony which had been premiered under the direction of Franz Schalk in Graz on 9 April 1894. Rather, what caused a sensation was the fact that this manuscript had a dedication. It showed that three years after its completion, Bruckner had dedicated his Fifth “with deepest respect” to Karl Ritter von Stremayr. In his function as Minister of Public Instruction, Stremayr had confirmed Bruckner’s appointment as a lecturer of harmony and counterpoint to the University of Vienna in 1875. The composer expressed his thanks by making a neat copy of his Fifth Symphony with a dedication, dated 4 November 1878 – Stremayr’s name day – which remained in Stremayr’s private possession until his death.

Bruckner’s Fifth was heard for the first time on 20 April 1887 in a transcription for two pianos in the Bösendorfersaal in Vienna. The first orchestral performance took place in the absence of the composer seven years later in a version which often falsely represented Bruckner’s intentions: the conductor shortened the large-scale work by about 15 minutes, and at the same time added an off-stage orchestra to the score in best operatic style. Since Schalk also published his version in 1896, it set the path for the further reception of the Fifth. Interest in the original form of the work was revived only through the spectacular find of Stremayr’s copy of Bruckner’s score. Since then, it seems indisputable that the Fifth appears to presage Bruckner’s appointment to the University of Vienna: the work, which Bruckner himself is said to have once described as his “contrapuntal masterpiece” is a perfect example despite its large-scale formal structures of compositional economy and movement stringency.


With Daniel Harding, who learned his trade as an assistant to conductors such as Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle, and who made his debut with the Philharmoniker when he was just 21, this exceptional work by Bruckner is in the best possible hands.

“Now more than ever!”

Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony

One can almost picture Anton Bruckner in May 1876, meticulously, from top to bottom, filling in the final staves on an enormous full-score page, then putting the pen aside, leaning back and, breathing a sigh of relief, directing his gaze towards heaven. The last double bar of the Fifth Symphony – finally he has reached it. But will the work now fulfil the hopes that its creator held out for it during composition?

Released from the crisis

Born on 4 September 1824 in the province of Upper Austria, Bruckner strove for social advancement and artistic recognition throughout his life. He achieved them both. Beginning as a village assistant schoolteacher, he went on to serve as cathedral organist in Linz before moving to Vienna in 1868 to take up appointments as court organist and professor of harmony, counterpoint and organ at the conservatory. The latter position, prestigious though it may have been, hardly sufficed to maintain the middle-class lifestyle that Bruckner had in mind for himself in the Austrian capital. He sought a post at Vienna University, which promised the musician not only financial security but also still greater renown. But the teaching staff rejected the 50-year-old’s application in autumn 1874, and Bruckner also lost his supplementary job at a teacher-training college around this time.

These setbacks triggered a mental crisis. “My life has lost all joy and pleasure – pointless and to no avail”, Bruckner lamented on 12 January 1875 to his friend and supporter Moritz von Mayfeld. And a bit later, still more depressed: “It’s all too late. It will end with my getting into debt and enjoying the fruits of my labours in jail, where my lot will be to celebrate the folly in ever moving to Vienna.” Nevertheless, on 14 February 1875, he began composing his Fifth Symphony, which would seem to be a powerful act of self-assertion. “Now more than ever!”, he may have thought to himself, as though it was a matter of proving, once and for all, what he was capable of, countering the judgments of all the sceptics as well as his own misgivings.

Unconditional desire for logic

The lofty Fifth is a singular phenomenon. Its distinctiveness lies in how Bruckner has conceived the musical procedures with such compelling internal logic that they generate an exceptionally coherent form. Themes, motifs and processes are woven into a dense network of relationships that not infrequently transcends the bounds of the individual movements.

The opening movement is unusual in that Bruckner for the first time in his career has composed a slow introduction. It begins with a hushed, wistful episode of string suspensions over pizzicati that leads, without transition, to a forceful motif dominated by the brass, culminating twice in a solemn chorale. Suddenly, in the third section, a vibrant fortissimo develops above a timpani roll. Finally, without further ado, the main Allegro section gets underway with its forceful principal theme: a descending, then ascending idea marked by sharp dotted rhythms. Its wraithlike counterpart forms a second episode in pizzicato. As this passage tends toward melodic expansion, the various instrument groups add their voices to produce an impression of symphonic splendour.

What up to now has been unfurled calmly and carefully undergoes a varied interaction of instrumentation and compositional technique. The gaps between calm and eruptive passages become extremely compressed until reaching the abrupt juxtaposition of a wild stomping rhythm and a quiet version of the chorale. All the principal ideas, but drained of energy by the events of the development, are repeated in the recapitulation; it is capped by a brief coda, which transforms the primary elements of the main theme into a majestic, persistently repeated fanfare in the major.

Conflict between surface and line: Adagio and Scherzo

The idea of a restrained introduction on pizzicato strings alone is taken up again in the Adagio, but the pace now, for the first time in this symphony, is a striding triple metre – a sort of slow-motion Ländler. This initial idyllic atmosphere lasts only briefly. Bruckner leads the proceedings by way of a romantically spacious passage and a melodic expansion supported by repeated horn chords to a broad and more intensive build-up of tension. Affecting episodes made up of ascending and descending lines on strings and gleaming brass are juxtaposed with isolated, withdrawn passages of interwoven solo instruments.

The close relationship between the two inner movements extends to their accompanimental motifs. The Scherzo is supported by figures similar to those in the preceding Adagio, but now bowed martelé and played at a more insistent tempo. This movement is unusual not just in its surprising alternations of speed but also in its abrupt dynamic contrasts between whirling fortissimoand springier sections. The central Trio introduces a folklike atmosphere, still moving forward at the same pace but feeling more relaxed because of the major mode and woodwind instrumentation.

Chorale and the art of combination

The symphony represents a nexus of relationships. In the Finale, this principle is once more strikingly apparent. Again it opens with a slow introduction, which recalls the main theme of the first movement as well as the slow movement. As a hinge between the two reminiscences, Bruckner introduces a whimsical motif: a descending octave complemented, by way of a brief, tied dotted figure, with an ascending octave a semitone higher. This notion is soon developed into a strict fugue. After its energy has gradually dissipated, a relatively lyrical section follows; its artfully woven lines over rising scales culminates in another dramatic episode. Resplendent trumpets, horns, trombones and tuba now sound a radiant chorale, echoed in the shimmering light of soft strings. It is this motif that will be developed into the chief idea of the whole Finale. A repetition of the chorale theme by solo horn introduces a new episode in which Bruckner treats his themes to numerous contrapuntal techniques.

We next discover that the chorale is also melodically and harmonically open to being combined with the principal theme. But before demonstrating this in fff unison, Bruckner inserts another phase in which the octave leap meanders nebulously through the instrumental groups, giving the impression that his planned synthesis of motifs may not be able to function after all. But then he further develops his contrapuntal art systematically to reach a higher polyphonic level: the double fugue. After the recapitulation of the flighty second theme, it becomes apparent that the theme of the first movement, too, can be similarly combined with the principal motif of the Finale. Again a mighty wave of intensification is required, then the chorale enters, widely expanded on the brass, reinforced by the dotting of the main motif as rhythmic counterpoint. The exultation continues for quite a long time: “Chorale fff until the end” writes the composer a full 52 bars before the symphony’s conclusion.

Felix Werthschulte

Translation: Richard Evidon

Daniel Harding, born in Oxford in 1975, Daniel Harding began his career assisting Sir Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he himself conducted for the first time in 1994. He later worked as Claudio Abbado’s musical assistant, and in 1996 became the youngest conductor to appear at the BBC Proms in London. That same year he also made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Berlin Festival, conducting works by Berlioz, Brahms and Dvořák. After appointments with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, he served as music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (1997 – 2003), principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (2003 – 2011), music partner of the New Japan Philharmonic (2010 – 2016) and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2017). Since 2007 Harding is music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and in September 2016 he took on the same role with the Orchestre de Paris. In constant demand in the world’s leading centres of music, he has appeared with many internationally acclaimed orchestras and conducted opera performances in houses as prestigious as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, the Vienna, Berlin and Munich State Operas and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. In 2002 Daniel Harding was awarded the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government and in 2012 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra honoured him with the lifetime title of Conductor Laureate. As a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding last appeared in May 2018, when he conducted three concerts with works by Ives, Berg and Mahler.

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