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Anton Bruckner (1824 - 1896)


Symphony No. 6 in A major
I. Majestoso
II. Adagio (Sehr feierlich)
III. Scherzo (Nicht schnell)
IV. Finale (Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell)

The great baroque monastery of St.Florian dominates the countryside around Linz in Upper Austria. It also dominates the life, spirit and music of Anton Bruckner.

He was born in a small village close by, where his father was organist and schoolteacher. As a youth he showed talent for music, and by the age of 20 had written a number of choral works, and was known as an organist with great skills at improvisation. For some time he followed in his father's footsteps, working as a teacher at St.Florian and composing and playing the organ in his spare time. It was not until he was 31 that he decided to make composition his career, and he studied composition with Simon Sechter in Vienna; for six years he studied during which time he composed hardly a note apart from his exercises. In 1861 he completed his studies gaining brilliant testimonials and astounding his judges at his organ examination. A few years later he succeeded Sechter in a professorship at the Vienna conservatory. During the last 25 years of his life his creativity bore fruit in the series of nine monumental symphonies for which he is most famous.

In temperament Bruckner was quite unlike his contemporary romantic composers: where they were strong-willed, independent, unconventional and agnostic he was humble, unconfident, naïve, deeply religious and respectful of all authority. He was completely out of tune with his own age, often didn't understand what was going on, and was wholly misunderstood himself. He was so lacking in confidence that self-appointed mentors helped him to "improve" many of symphonies. This has given great problems to later generations, since most of his works exist in several different versions, and it is difficult to know which (if any) Bruckner regarded as the "correct" version.

In some ways Bruckner is like the anonymous medieval masons who designed and built the great Gothic cathedrals of Northern Europe. With infinite patience, humility and skill they created colossal works of great beauty, which speak to us of peace and calm, and of the awe and glory of God. And in some ways Bruckner is very modern; his music is often like that of Arvo Part or John Tavener in its underlying calm and deep stillness - and occasionally in its sound too.

The sixth symphony was written in about 1881, but only the two middle movements were performed during Bruckner's life, in 1883. The first complete performance, albeit with several alterations and cuts, was given by the Vienna Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler in 1899, three years after Bruckner died. It is one of the shortest of Bruckner's symphonies, but is still a full 60 minutes long.

The first movement opens with a quiet pattern on the violins sounding like morse code, and a tonally ambiguous theme stirring in the bass. The theme soon crashes out on full orchestra, and is extended by a rhythmic figure. The tempo slows and a second theme is heard, first quietly on the strings and later on full orchestra. This is followed in turn by a loud fanfare-like theme on the brass, which eventually subsides to a gentle rocking figure. Bruckner now develops all three themes in the same order as before, with only the first theme in the original, faster tempo. The coda is based on the gentle rocking pattern, with the first theme weaving above in the wind and horns, while shimmering patterns move through every conceivabl&key on their inexorable way to the blazing close.

The adagio is very slow, and as long as the first movement. And like the first it has three main themes. The first is the solemn string tune at the beginning with a lamenting oboe line appearing from time to time, the second is a rich and peaceful string counterpoint, and the third a funeral march. Each theme is further developed and richly decorated. The movement ends with long and very tranquil coda, based on the first theme, but now the lamenting oboe has been stilled, and all is true peace.

The scherzo is a triple time dance, rustic and slightly menacing. The central trio section is a strange mixture of string pizzicati and horn calls in shifting keys - while the basses and horns insist the key is C, the rest of the orchestra thinks it should be A flat.

The finale highlights some of the disruptive tonal tendencies which have been at work under the surface of this symphony. It begins with an uneasy string theme, based in A minor, but tending to wander into D minor. The brass crudely insist on A major however, and give a bold fanfare-like theme. A contrasting theme in the strings leads up to another brass climax, which degenerates into a skipping figure that never really gets anywhere. The tempo slows, and the opening string theme is gravely discussed, and its rich potential for different keys explored. But after a while the brass get bored and pull us back to their big tune. The tempo picks up again, and each of the themes so far works up to a separate climax and a cut-off. The strings and wind quietly explore B-flat minor one last time, but the brass slam the door on it with the final A major statement. To emphasise the finality, the opening theme of the first movement is brought back, now unambiguously in the home key.

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