Anton Bruckner himself never heard the orchestral version of his Symphony No. 5. He was ill and bed-ridden in Vienna when it was first performed in Graz on 9 April 1894: he was 69 years old and his heart was failing him. Other performances followed in Budapest, Prague and Munich, although Vienna would only hear the Fifth on 1 March 1898, two years after Bruckner’s death.
The symphony had sat firmly on the shelf for almost 18 years before its first performance. The orchestral score was mostly complete in May 1876 and Bruckner was extremely pleased with it. He spoke with pride about his ‘contrapuntal masterpiece’, referring to the complex structure of the last movement; he had already spoken extensively about the importance of studying harmony and counterpoint in his inaugural speech as a reader at the University of Vienna in April of that year, going on to say that such studies were not, however, enough in themselves: a composer had to be able to impart life to theoretical matters. He then quoted Goethe: ‘Grau ist jede Theorie - Nur grün des Lebens goldner Baum’ – ‚‘All theory is gray – Only Life’s golden tree is green.’
The Fifth, unlike the Fourth, does not have a programme as such, even though it has been given various titles over the years such as the Tragic, the Pizzicato and the Church of Faith. Bruckner was going through a stressful period in his life at the time of the symphony’s composition — a lawsuit and problems with his salary — but the symphony as such is not a work of storm and stress. It is above all else a through-composed work, a tour de force of complex contrapuntal structure.
It has often been stated that Bruckner composed the same symphony nine times; although they vary greatly after the Third, in which he found his form, broadly-drawn similarities can nevertheless be found. In this respect, the Fifth fits seamlessly into the rest of the cycle. Like most Bruckner symphonies it is long, around 75 minutes; it also, like all the others except for the unfinished Ninth, has four movements. The first movement — in a greatly extended sonata form — always begins quietly and builds step by step to a climax. The massive blocks of music that he composes are characteristic of him: musical unities are rounded off within the movements and then followed by contrasting material. These blocks form the components of a greater whole that will only become apparent at the end of the symphony. The second and third movements are alternatingly slow and fast. The slow movement is most often a long spun-out variation on two themes that here too builds to a climax. The fast movement, the Scherzo, is an alternation between obsessive, even aggressive music and slower passages that evoke jovial folk dances. The last movement is generally in sonata form; themes from earlier movement are also often recalled. The final movement of the Fifth Symphony contains an enormous double fugue as proof of Bruckner’s contrapuntal skills.
The conductor Eugen Jochum was associated with the Concertgebouw Orchestra for many years and knew the Fifth well. He described the challenges that the symphony poses for both orchestra and conductor: ‘The climax indeed arrives in the fourth movement, but only in the final section of the movement, the chorale. The first, second and third movements all seem to be merely an immense preparation for that moment. This preparatory character is particularly appropriate to the first movement, whose introduction — an immense foundation stone — is intended to bear the weight of all four movements’. Jochum was of the opinion that a conductor must therefore propel the entire musical argument towards the concluding section of the last movement, always keeping something in reserve for its great conclusion.
Bruckner officially finished the Fifth Symphony on 4 January 1878 and asked for permission to dedicate the work to Karl Edler von Stremayr, then Minister of Religion and Education, who had supported him financially. A performance did not eventuate at that time; Stremayr asked a few years later whether the symphony could perhaps be performed privately for him at home in a version for piano four-hands, but his daughter was then taken ill and the concert had to be put off.
The symphony was not to be heard until 1887. Bruckner’s faithful supporter Franz Schalk, a violinist, conductor and later opera intendant, made an arrangement of the work for two pianos with the intention that it would be performed by his brother Josef Schalk and Franz Zottman. This, however, went down very badly with Bruckner, who opposed the project, refused to let the concert take place (although the posters had already been printed), and even threatened Schalk with the police. The quarrel was resolved thanks to the mediation of the critic Theodor Helm and the concert finally took place. Helm was not impressed by the work: he had understood that Bruckner’s intention was to deliver a ‘contrapuntal masterpiece’ in the manner of Mozart and wrote ‘Mozart, with his ideals of symmetry and of artistic proportion, would have shortened Bruckner’s colossal finale by a half’.
A phenomenon that had been observed in Bruckner’s other symphonies now also became apparent in the Fifth: the score was too complicated and too large in scale for straightforward performance under the conditions of the time. Josef Schalk had set his heart on a full orchestral performance, possibly with Ferdinand Löwe as conductor; Franz Schalk therefore began work — without Bruckner’s supervision — on a reworking of the orchestral score of the Fifth in 1892, a task that was to take him many months. He wrote to his brother in July: ‘My work on the Fifth proceeds slowly but surely. I am currently engaged on the final bars of the first movement. The creation of this reworking was enormously difficult; Löwe will not derive much pleasure from it, for I have made it a principle to maintain all the contrapuntal secondary themes. Further than this, I believe, one should not go’. The ‘reworking’ was finished one year later, in July 1893. Schalk: ‘It is only now that I have come to understand the finale of the Fifth’. On 23 November of that year the Schalk brothers were finally able to mention the prospect of a performance to Bruckner.
Although Franz Schalk had written that his adaptations were limited, in fact he had radically changed the original score. A considerable part of Bruckner’s original material had been either rendered unusable, had been changed or had simply been omitted; Schalk had even cut 122 bars from the finale. Bruckner would naturally have heard the changes immediately in performance, but the Schalk brothers were convinced that the symphony would be such a success that Bruckner would joyfully accept their reworking. Schalk had decided, to give one example, that the work demanded so much from the brass that they would not be able to play with full force in the final chorale; he therefore added eleven extra brass players for the premiere. Bruckner was also not involved with the publication of the reworked score and thus did not know of the great changes that had been made to his original.
The work was performed for the first time in Graz on 9 April 1894. Bruckner was too ill to attend. Franz Schalk wrote to Bruckner the following day:
Most honoured Master!
Reports will certainly already have reached you about the unprecedented effect made by your wonderful ‘5’.
I can only add that the evening will remain a most treasured memory, one in which I was blessed to take part, for the rest of my life. I felt myself deeply moved, and that. I wandered blissfully in the fields of eternal greatness. Those who did not hear it can have no idea of the shattering force of the final movement.
Therefore, my deeply revered Master, I lay all my admiration and most fervent enthusiasm at your feet and salute this most glorious work’s creator.
Your deeply grateful
And eternally faithful
Bruckner wrote back from Vienna:
Dearly beloved friend!
I am allowed out of my bed for a few short hours, and it is as if a tempest compels me to open my heart to you, this heart that causes me such suffering and that has left me short of breath since Easter.
Be assured of my deepest admiration for your extraordinary art and receive my unutterable thanks for the great trouble you have taken. Additional glory for your deeds will surely not be lacking! May God bless you, noble and most gifted artist!
It is impossible for me to describe the pain I feel at not being present on such a joyous occasion. I have already impressed upon the Wagner Society here that you must conduct the Fifth in Vienna! (The society’s directors have already agreed.) I too would like to hear the piece once!
Excellent and most gifted artist, with a thousand thanks and my greatest admiration!
Your old friend Bruckner
Vienna, 12 April 1894
Schalk’s euphoria was somewhat exaggerated, as the symphony received only moderate acclaim. Critic Julius Schuch: ‘A characteristic feature of this “Symphony of the Future” in B flat, as I would call it, is its episodic structure. To me, the work seemed to be the musical diary of an imaginative and gifted artist who depicts his varying moods in interesting ways’. The symphony’s second performance, in Budapest in 1895, was also not such a success. Ferdinand Löwe conducted. Josef Schalk wrote to Franz: ‘The orchestra rose in mutiny against the symphony and it was only thanks to the great involvement of such cautious souls in the orchestra as the double bass player Gianicelli that they finally played as one. The audience and the critics reacted mostly negatively’.
Translation: Peter Lockwood