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Zubin Mehta conducts Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

08 Nov 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Zubin Mehta

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 8 in C minor (2nd Version from 1890) (98 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Zubin Mehta in conversation with Walter Küssner (8 min.)

In the annals of the Berliner Philharmoniker – which are not exactly lacking in musical highlights – the 2 October 2011 was without doubt a day to remember: that evening, Zubin Mehta celebrated his 50th anniversary conducting the orchestra. The special attraction: the programme of works by Gottfried von Einem, Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler was exactly the same Mehta conducted when he made his debut with the Philharmoniker in 1961 at the invitation of his patron Herbert von Karajan – back then in the concert hall of what is now the Berlin University of the Arts.

One of the approximately 200 performances that Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker have performed to date together, both in Berlin and on tour, was an unscheduled concert on 25 January 2014: it was an evening dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado who had died just five days before – an event close to the hearts of all participants, including Mehta who had been friends with the long-term chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1956. Mehta, who was born in Bombay in 1936 and trained at the Wiener Musikakademie under Hans Swarowsky, was made an honorary member of the Philharmoniker in February 2019 as an expression of the unique artistic connection between the orchestra and conductor. As Knut Weber, cellist with the Philharmoniker and board member of the Berliner Philharmoniker, pointed out in his laudatory speech, “No conductor has conducted our orchestra over a longer period of time, and hardly any other guest conductor has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker more often. But guest conductor doesn’t go far enough. You are many things to our orchestra, but not for a long while have you been a ʻguestʼ. Much rather a friend, role model, artistic adviser, audience favourite and musical authority”.

In the 2019/20 season, Mehta presents two programmes with the Philharmoniker: after conducting works by Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven over three evenings in late October and early November, in these Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, he directs performances of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. The work, which is dedicated to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, occupied its composer for a period of no less than six years – an effort which proved to be worthwhile, as the world premiere of the monumental, around 80-minute-long composition by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Hans Richter on 18 December 1892 provided Bruckner with one of the greatest successes of his lifetime.

“First the rules, then free composition”

Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

Anton Bruckner is one of the great mavericks among the composers. He seems to have found his way through to a totally individual musical language without any real role models, and once he had discovered this language through meticulous study, he steadily and single-mindedly developed it further, detached from contemporary trends, right up to the glorious late symphonies that were his crowning achievement. Despite writing some important sacred vocal works, he focussed his attentions on the symphony. But although his personal style was so pronounced from the outset, Bruckner did undeniably have “teachers”. Richard Wagner, for example, a composer Bruckner always looked up to and whose death he came to terms with in his own very individual way in the funeral march of his Seventh Symphony, played a not insignificant role.

If one were to sum up Bruckner’s personality in a single phrase, it seems to have been defined by violent inner conflicts and ambition: he had a very pronounced need to fulfil his musical aspirations, but at the same time he wanted social advancement and financial security. Bruckner’s conscientious reverence for composition can be explained by this dichotomy. No composer of any significance spent longer than he did learning compositional technique. After completing the then customary musical training when he was young, between 1855 and 1861, when he was already acknowledged as an accomplished organist in Linz, he took a correspondence course with the distinguished teacher of counterpoint Simon Sechter, from whom he learned the maxim: “First the rules, then free composition”. There followed further studies in practical orchestration with the Linz conductor Otto Kitzler, focussing primarily on problems of form and modern instrumentation.

Only when he had acquired these skills did Bruckner give free rein to the inspiration he had suppressed for decades, attempting his first orchestral compositions. When he set down the first symphony to which he gave an official number, he was already over 40 – older than Mozart had been when he died. It is not least because of this late breakthrough to “free” composition that the musical language straightaway displays all the characteristic features of Brucknerian writing. Its primary distinguishing feature is the extreme extent of his colossal works. His symphonies have been described as “cathedrals in sound”, and they do in fact contain music that is positively grandiose in scale, often crowned by passages of vast magnificence, which are nevertheless punctuated by church-style chorales or melodies of ravishing lyric beauty.

This is precisely what gives rise to the graded sequence of thematically distinct blocks, often separated from one another by a general pause, which is so typical of Bruckner. In a series of fresh starts, these units are varied dynamically, harmonically and above all tonally, or, as the philosopher Ernst Bloch put it: “The symphony is sonority that is only just taking shape; its form is impatience, destruction, escalation, a constant sighting as yet without lingering, absolute vision.” The wave-like course of the Steigerungen (a German term whose connotations include intensification, gradual increase in pitch, dynamics, harmonic activity, and/or tempo) finally culminates in spectacular climaxes that are mostly characterised by lavish use of the brass section. This makes Bruckner’s symphonies the longest in the history of the genre up to that point, and their proportions were only subsequently surpassed by Gustav Mahler’s contributions to the genre.

The Eighth is not only Bruckner’s largest symphony, but also the one that plunged him into the deepest depression of his life. After the triumphant premiere of the Seventh, which brought Bruckner’s breakthrough as a recognised symphonic composer, the conductor Hermann Levi, to whom Bruckner had sent the newly finished score in 1887, rejected the Eighth on the grounds of supposedly unsurmountable difficulties. He deplored the “almost templated nature of the form” and saw in the structure inadmissible parallels with the preceding work. In the end, this led to one of the central problems in Bruckner research: swayed by the criticisms of his contemporaries and driven by a desire for success with the public, he repeatedly made extensive alterations and revisions to his works, rewriting, shortening, even recomposing entire movements. There are thus two versions of the First, Second and Eighth Symphonies, three of the Third, and three of the Fourth with an additional fourth version of its finale.

So what kind of work is it that ranks among the greatest symphonies in musical history, in which the characteristic features of its composer’s work are focussed as if by a burning glass? Bruckner’s thoroughly bold harmonies, for example, are evident right at the start of the first movement, which appears to search for the home key of C minor for 21 bars – and circles the key more than it really consolidates it as the movement progresses. Furthermore, the striking “Bruckner rhythm” (combining a crotchet duplet and a triplet) plays a formative role in the first thematic group. Then as the movement progresses, there is also an example of the composer’s predilection for making use of the thematic-motivic material of the central idea. Here it can be seen in the clear relationship between the second theme and a third thematic complex and the movement’s main idea. Bruckner later extends this model to the symphony as a whole, when the key motifs of the entire work are brought together in the Finale.

Following the example of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Scherzo is placed second. In it, the delicate strains of the harps in the poetic Trio stand in marked contrast to the ponderous turning motif of the Scherzo’s outer sections. The ensuing Adagio then displays some similarities with the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony, particularly where the dramatic climax preceding the coda is concerned. It is an expressive movement with a sombre, solemn theme which, in one of Bruckner’s most enchanting instrumentational ideas, is led into brighter spheres with the deployment of the harps, before a second,cantabile thematic complex takes the helm, interrupted by solemn chorale interpolations on the Wagner tubas which give the movement (and the work as a whole) its dark ground. Finally, the Finale, the last Bruckner was able to finish, is based on a heavy main theme which is subjected to multifarious modifications in the development. In the recapitulation Bruckner brings it to a climax in radiant C major, before the main themes of all four movements are potently layered one on top of the other in the festive coda – the most powerful conclusion to a symphony Bruckner ever composed.

And yet, after the initial criticism of his work (first version: 1884–1887) Bruckner felt he needed to prepare a revision. This was completed between 1887 and 1890, and it is this version that is being performed in these concerts. The amendments firstly affect the orchestration – triple woodwind, eight horns, two harps are now used throughout. But above all, Bruckner made marked changes to the essence of the composition. This affects the coda of the first movement above all. Whereas in the first version this was still constructed as an orchestral apotheosis, in the second he made it negative with a dramatic collapse in the music – in exactly the way that was later to become a characteristic feature of Mahler’s symphonies. Bruckner’s significance for the generation of composers that followed him is only slowly becoming clear, for unique as his œuvre is, it has nevertheless left its mark on musical history – a mysteriously concealed echo of his unwavering compositional mastery.

Bjørn WollTranslation: Susan Baxter

Zubin 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 the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Zubin Mehta ends his tenure with the IPO 50 years after his debut in October 2019. From 1985 until 2017 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence. 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. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. In February 2019, he was named honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in gratitude for his long association with the orchestra. He last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker only a few days ago in works by Strauss and Beethoven. With the Israel Philharmonic he made a guest appearance at the Berlin Festival in September 2019.
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 develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

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