I. Allegro moderato, II. Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam
III. Scherzo, Sehr schnell, IV. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht schnell
Bruckner began work on his Seventh Symphony on September 23, 1881, exactly twenty days after completing his Sixth. At fifty-seven, he had just enjoyed his first truly important success earlier that year when, in February, Hans Richter gave a highly acclaimed performance of the Fourth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. (The Philharmonic had earlier rejected the Second and Third Symphonies.) At this point he had been teaching organ, counterpoint and harmony in Vienna for 13 years; among the many young musicians he had inspired was a teenage Gustav Mahler. The previous year (summer of 1880) Bruckner had undertaken a trip to Switzerland where he played on many great church organs but also took a train from Geneva to Chamonix, near the Mont Blanc. The view of the highest peak of the Alps must have been on his mind as he was embarking on his next monumental symphony – although Bruckner, who wasn’t particularly good with words, never said so explicitly.
Bruckner temporarily set the first movement aside to compose the Scherzo, which he must have considered an easier task. Having completed the first draft of the scherzo in July 1882, he traveled to Bayreuth to attend the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal. It was the last time he saw his idol. Upon his return to Vienna, he took up the first movement again. It is, then, hardly a coincidence that in its finished form, the opening movement is full of Wagnerian quotations – some veiled, some more overt. Yet the influence of traditional church counterpoint is equally strong.
The first movement rests on three mighty pillars, three distinct thematic groups. The first group begins with a soaring cello melody against some quintessentially Brucknerian tremolos in the violins. The second is a singing theme marked ruhig (“calm”), introduced by the woodwind. Finally, the third is a predominantly rhythmic idea, presented by strings and woodwind. These three different characters start to interact in a development section that doesn’t really “develop” in the classical sense at all. Instead of the increasing level of activity one finds in classical developments, the music actually becomes slower and more fragmented, but then it suddenly erupts in a “molto animato” section. The ascending motive of the opening is here turned upside down, its serene E major becomes a dramatic c minor, and instead of being played in the warm singing tone of the cellos, it is blasted forth by the entire orchestra, further amplified by canonic imitation. From c minor, the tonality rises through the keys of D and E flat until E major is reached again for a contrapuntally enriched recapitulation of all three thematic groups. The recapitulation ends with a fortissimo climax followed by a sehr feierlich (“very solemn”) coda. It is only here that the kettledrum is heard for the very first time in the symphony. The tremolo of the timpani lasts a full 52 measures, increasing, decreasing and rising again in volume, as the rest of the orchestra brings the movement to its stunning conclusion.
On one of the rare occasions he revealed something of his feelings in verbal form, Bruckner told his former student, the conductor Felix Mottl, about the impulse that led to the composition of the sublime Adagio of the Seventh Symphony: “One day I came home and felt very sad. The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master [Wagner] would die, and then the c-sharp minor theme of the Adagio came to me.” For this solemn theme, Bruckner used a quartet of Wagner tubas, the special instruments Wagner had devised for his Ring cycle. It was the first time another composer had employed these tubas, created to evoke the gods of Valhalla and to portray many dramatic moments involving death. Without a doubt, it was the premonition of Wagner’s death that prompted the use of these grave, yet eloquently singing instruments. Their melody is continued by the string section, the violins required to use the dark-hued G string. Structurally, the movement was influenced by the Adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth, in which a slow thematic group in 4/4 time alternates with a slightly faster one in 3/4. Bruckner’s deeply sensual second theme, which is in a major key (F-sharp major), follows a mighty orchestral surge culminating in a fortissimo passage for the entire orchestra. It is after such antecedents that the almost dance-like gracefulness of this theme takes its full effect. The Wagner-tuba theme then returns in a more elaborate form than before, with new countersubjects, varied and expanded – culminating in a glorious outburst in the bright key of G major. The second theme, a half-step higher (A-flat major), also gains in coloristic detail on second hearing. Yet the high point of the entire movement comes when the Wagner-tubas begin their theme for the third time. This time, a crescendo more astonishing than anything that has gone before brings us to the full radiance of C major, a moment of arrival marked by the work’s only cymbal crash, appearing exactly at midpoint in the hour-long symphony. [In Bruckner’s original manuscript, the cymbal part is crossed out and the words gilt nicht (“not valid”) are written over it. According to the prevailing consensus, however, those words were not written by Bruckner and therefore, the cymbal crash has been reinstated and is usually included.]
According to the authoritative Bruckner expert and editor of the symphonies, Leopold Nowak (1904-1991), the composer had progressed this far when he received news of Wagner’s death on February 13, 1883. During the “unwinding” that follows the C-major climax, a horn motive filled with extreme pain (marked triple forte) expresses Bruckner’s sadness more clearly than words could ever do.
The scherzo, as mentioned before, was composed before the Adagio. As with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the scherzo of the Seventh is in a minor key, which immediately undermines the humorous character one habitually expects of scherzos – a character that is, in fact, implied by the fast tempo and the dance rhythms. There is a fundamental ambiguity between playfulness and a certain menacing quality that comes to the fore in some harsh dissonances and the predominance of the brass. Contrary to the norm, which demands that the minor mode be softened by major at the end of the first formal unit, Bruckner modulates from one minor key (a minor) to another (c minor). A mysterious timpani solo serves as link between the various sections of the scherzo proper, as well as between the scherzo and the slower, more genial trio. The latter – which finally brings major-mode relief – begins with a singing violin melody over a long-held pedal note in the bass. Fleeting memories of the scherzo’s trumpet motive ruffle the smooth surface of the music, as some intensely Wagnerian modulations complicate the initially simple and folk-like melody. The a-minor scherzo is then repeated in its entirety.
Finding the appropriate ending was always one of the most difficult problems Bruckner had to face in his symphonies. Finales were expected to resolve all the tensions that had accumulated in the course of the first three movements and to bring about the climax of the entire work. This became harder and harder to do as symphonies reached increasing levels of complexity. By no means restricted to Bruckner, the problem was first felt by Beethoven who introduced a chorus and four vocal soloists in the last movement of his Ninth. Brahms found a very different but equally original solution when he turned to the solemn Baroque form of passacaglia to crown his final symphony, the Fourth.
Bruckner’s answer in his Seventh perplexed even some of his most enthusiastic supporters. Both the composer Hugo Wolf and the conductor Hermann Levi found certain parts of the finale “incomprehensible,” though both eventually came round to appreciate its unique beauty. There has been a lingering feeling that Bruckner had not quite managed to repeat the achievement in his Fifth Symphony, of whose magnificent contrapuntal finale Bruckner himself was proud. Even though the Seventh has its share of fanfares at the end, many commentators have felt the triumph to be less than complete. At 13 minutes against the first movement’s 22, it is much smaller even in size. The timings of the Fifth, by comparison, are: 23 minutes for the finale, 19 for the opening movement. The Eighth Symphony will restore a similar proportion with 21 minutes for the finale, and 14 for the first movement. (Of course, all these timings are approximate, and vary from one performance to the next.)
Yet the finale of the Seventh is unusual for reasons other than its length. Its structure is not the usual sonata form but something called Bogenform (arch form) in German, which means that in the recapitulation, the three thematic groups return in reverse order: A-B-C becomes C-B-A. The character of Bruckner’s three thematic groups are as follows: “A” is resolute but understated, like a biblical “still small voice.” “B” is a religious chorale with Tristan-like chromatic harmonies, while “C” is a variant of “A” where the voice becomes powerful and triumphant as the Wagner tubas are heard again. Both “A” and “C” are, by the way, closely related to the opening motive of the first movement. However, in the finale the rhythmic profile of this motive is considerably sharpened through the use of the so-called “double-dotted” pattern (the long and short notes of the pattern are in the ratio of 7:1 instead of 3:1, as they were in the first movement). In addition, by reversing “A” and “C” in the recapitulation, Bruckner allows the more subdued form of the theme to have the last word, and even though the theme gains a lot of power especially in the coda, the tempo remains emphatically bewegt, doch nicht schnell (“animated but not fast”). This is hardly a perfect apotheosis, and Bruckner clearly did not want one here. Mr. Welser-Möst insists that Bruckner, in the finale of his Seventh, anticipates the destruction of classical form as manifested in the symphonies of his protégé Gustav Mahler. As with Mahler, that destruction in turn reveals some doubts as to the possibility of creating a perfect world order by the end of the work. (Musicologist Timothy Jackson, in a study published in 1997, attempts to make the same point analytically by examining what he calls “tragic reversed sonata form.”)
The coda of the finale brings back the opening motive of the first movement in its original form, in addition to its transformations which are present simultaneously. Like at the end of the first movement, the timpani enters after a long silence with an extended tremolo over which unfold the concluding measures of the symphony.
Bruckner finished his Seventh during the first days of September 1883. Arthur Nikisch, one of the great conductors of the time, played it through on two pianos with Bruckner’s student and enthusiastic promoter, Josef Schalk. He immediately decided to perform it with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. This performance was followed by numerous others in many cities of Europe as well as the United States. The Seventh became, without a doubt, the greatest success of Bruckner’s life. The composer submitted it to King Ludwig of Bavaria, who had been Wagner’s great benefactor, and the King accepted the dedication. As Bruckner reported to a friend in Linz, Hermann Levi had called the symphony “the most important symphonic work since 1827” [the year of Beethoven’s death]. Levi called the symphony a Wunderwerk [“wonderful work”] that was the “crowning event” of his career as a conductor.