After Beethoven, classical music branched off in two directions, one camp conservative, and the opposition progressive. The two competing camps became hostile towards each other, supported by their sycophantic critics who delighted in savaging their opponents. Richard Wagner with his “New German School” became the leader of the progressives, Brahms of the old school conservatives.
Born in 1824, Anton Bruckner wandered into this nasty war and had the misfortune of displeasing both camps. He was a pious country bumpkin who moved into sophisticated Vienna – the Brahms stronghold – but he was an ardent admirer of Wagner, the musical enemy. The haughty Viennese regarded him as a poorly dressed naive yokel. He frequently found himself on the compost heap of unflattering gossip. His first two symphonies were rejected by all local orchestras, and the premiere of his Third, which he dedicated to Wagner, was a disaster. The audience laughed, jeered, and walked out before it was over, leaving only a handful of people in their seats. Bruckner, tears streaming down his face, stood by himself on the podium while the musicians headed for the exits.
Supported by his deep religious beliefs, Bruckner soldiered on. He wrote his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies but was unable to get them performed. While he was working on this Sixth, however, the Wagnerian conductor Hans Richter discovered his Fourth, the Romantic, and premiered it to unexpected acclaim. At the age of 53, the dam had finally broken. Overnight Bruckner became a celebrity.
In 1891, Emperor Franz Joseph awarded him the coveted Imperial Seal and offered to grant him any reasonable request. Bruckner could have asked for a house or a state pension, but no, he asked the Emperor to prevail on the critic Edward Hanslick to treat his music less harshly in his reviews!
Bruckner reported that the opening theme of this symphony came to him in a dream. In it, an old friend came to him, whistled the tune, and told him it would make him a fortune. Bruckner jumped up, lit a candle, and put it on paper.
Bruckner wrote the second movement as a lament for his ailing idol Wagner:
One day I came home and felt very sad. It is impossible, I thought, that the Master should live much longer. And then, the C-sharp minor Adagio came to me.
He started the Adagio three weeks before Wagner’s death and finished it nine weeks later.
But how did this enormous symphony become reconfigured for a chamber orchestra? In 1918, still in the shadows of a Europe devastated by WWI, Arnold Schoenberg organized a series of 117 private concerts over 3 years featuring the works of the great contemporary composers. His team of assistants reduced their works in size to fit into limited budgets and compact venues. Schoenberg chose Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony for this treatment. Schoenberg’s series closed when hyperinflation began to destroy the Austrian economy, foreshadowing WWII.
So how did his assistants do? Were they faithful to the original? Decide for yourself!