July 14 2024 : Bruckner Bicentennial: Symphony No. 4

May 8, 2024

Peter Oundjian, conductor
Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), Op. 4

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, Romantic

Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), Op. 4

If ever there was to be theme music for turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht would surely fit the bill. The darkly romantic string sextet, later arranged for string orchestra, perfectly encapsulates the world-weary age of Freud and Klimt, Wittgenstein and Schiele.

Composed at an Austrian lake resort in the summer of 1899, the piece divided opinion. That December, Schoenberg — with help from his teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky — submitted the score to the influential Vienna Composers’ Guild, but its members refused to mount a performance, ostensibly because of its use of an improper chord (an inverted ninth). Their rejection was accompanied by some catty remarks. “Why, that sounds as if someone had taken the score of Tristan with the ink still wet and smudged it over,” one member quipped, referring to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  

But when the sextet was finally performed by the Rosé Quartet in 1902, it found some notable admirers, including Gustav Mahler. The elder composer became a fierce champion of Schoenberg over the next several years, even when he found his music difficult to understand. 

Schoenberg based the sextet on a poem from Richard Dehmel’s 1896 Weib und Welt (Woman and World), a provocative collection of lyrics blending charged sensuality, mysticism and spirituality. The composer later told Dehmel that he found his creative voice “simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me.” There are five sections corresponding to the five stanzas of Dehmel’s poem. Dehmel begins by depicting a couple walking through a dark forest on a cold, moonlit night, which Schoenberg evokes with a repeated descending figure. 

In the second stanza, the woman admits that she is pregnant with the child of another man whom she doesn’t love. “I walk in sin beside you,” she says. “I have wronged myself profoundly.” Her agitated and tender plaint is suggested by a series of frantic motives. Eventually, the man at her side forgives her and says he’ll welcome the child as his own. Bathed in moonlight, the couple embrace and walk on. The acceptance of the woman’s admission is evoked by lustrous chords and an ethereal violin melody.

Well predating Schoenberg’s status as a modernist enfant terrible, Verklärte Nacht was, and likely still is, his most popular work. He arranged the sextet for string orchestra in 1917, and further revised it in 1943. 

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, Romantic

Anton Bruckner’s breakthrough work, the Fourth Symphony signals many hallmarks of his mature style: majestic grandeur, awed silences, and intense, Wagnerian climaxes. It was the culmination of a lengthy apprentice period. 

The son of a village schoolteacher in northern Austria, Bruckner was sent as a teenager to a monastery in St. Florian to become a choirboy. A late bloomer, he spent much of his twenties and thirties studying advanced harmony, teaching elementary school, and advancing to become one of the leading organists of his day. Bruckner was well into his forties when he accepted a university teaching post in Vienna and embarked on his first real symphony. He was 57 when Hans Richter conducted the 1881 premiere of the Fourth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. 

The run-up to that performance was unpromising. Bruckner could not shake his reputation as a country bumpkin with odd manners. During rehearsals, he seemed all too eager to please. When Richter asked Bruckner to clarify what a particular note was, he clumsily replied, “Any note you please. Just as you like.” When the rehearsal was over Bruckner slipped Richter a tip. Pressing the coin in the conductor’s hand, he said, “Take it, and drink a mug of beer to my health!” Richter accepted the money, not wishing to insult Bruckner. 

Critics were divided over the Fourth, but the public cheered it so enthusiastically that Bruckner took bows after each movement. The symphony received two performances in New York, the first performance in America of any Bruckner score. Even so, the composer had revised it extensively, under pressure from colleagues who urged him to prune or re-orchestrate whole passages. Consequently, it underwent major changes between its first version in 1874 and its final incarnation in 1881.

Bruckner subtitled the Fourth Symphony “Romantic,” and he occasionally floated hints of a programmatic storyline to colleagues. It opens with a soft horn fanfare that Bruckner once said “announces daybreak” in a medieval town. He further claimed that the second theme was based on the twittering of a titmouse. Bruckner once described the introspective slow movement as a “song, prayer, serenade,” according to one letter, though he also explained it as “an infatuated youth wants to climb through his sweetheart’s window, but isn’t allowed in.” 

The rustic Scherzo begins with hunting horns and later introduces a delicate ländler.  The symphony’s 1878 manuscript describes the trio section as a “dancing tune during the hunter’s meal,” reminiscent of a hurdy-gurdy. The finale brings more stately horn solos, hushed string tremolos and glittering masses of brass chords. 

— Brian Wise

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