The great legacy left by Anton Bruckner is his symphonic cycle, although people tend to love or hate his music. The Austrian composer wrote eleven symphonies in all, but only nine have been officially numbered. Thus, for this list, the first Study Symphony in F minor and Symphony No. 0, a work which, according to Bruckner himself, “does not count”, have been omitted.
Here, Rebecca Frank rates and ranks her favorites
What is Bruckner’s best symphony?
Symphony No. 2 in C minor
The nickname of this symphony indicates why it is in last place: it is the so-called symphony of breaks, thanks to its many silences used for dramatic effect. There’s a definite sense that more could happen in this piece. It is tempting to regard this first work, begun in 1871 and premiered in 1873, as a dress rehearsal for later symphonies, though others might well find things to appreciate in its four movements. Composer Robert Simpson later noted that “the effect of its breadth and grandeur” remained with him, for example.
Symphony No. 1 in C minor
In eighth place is his first symphony. Bruckner was a late beginner when it came to symphonies, spending years studying before feeling ready to formally embark on the genre. In his forties, with the ‘Study’ Symphony behind him, he decided that this Symphony in C minor (1866) deserved to be numbered first. The influence of Beethoven is clear, but already Bruckner’s features are there, including one of his insistent scherzos. He then revised the score when he was in Vienna, but the Linz version is heard more often – and more original.
Symphony No. 3 in D minor
In seventh place is Symphony No. 3. It’s a composer’s worst nightmare: the new piece they’ve been working on for years is finally premiered, by one of the great orchestras of the world, and it’s a disaster. The musicians laugh at the music, the audience whistles, then leaves en masse until there are only 25 left. The orchestra races offstage. This is what happened during the creation in 1877, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, of Bruckner’s Third. Dedicated to his idol wagner, “the sublime, unreachable and world-famous master of poetry and music”, the symphony is often considered Bruckner’s groundbreaking work – but it was hard-earned. He began work on it in 1873, later revising it again and again until it reached its final form in 1889.
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major
His “Romantic” symphony is in sixth place. It begins with the most typical instrument of the Romantic era: the French horn. It symbolizes the hunt, so dear to German Romanticism, while tremolo strings and wind solos open a window to the natural world. Bruckner himself would later write that the first movement was filled with woodland magic, forest whispers and birdsong, while the Schubertian scherzo is a “rustic love scene and the finale a “folk feast.” “.
Symphony No. 6 in A major
In fifth place is Symphony No. 6. A vote of confidence for this concise Cinderella symphony, which may never have fully pleased audiences, but which helped Bruckner recover from the bitter failure of the premiere of his third symphony. A nervous string figure installs the four movements in their course, which takes us via an adagio both funereal and radiant, in a restless scherzo, ending with a finale that leaves questions unanswered.
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major
Symphony No. 5 occupies fourth place. An incorrigible handyman, Bruckner revised many of his symphonies. This is not the case with the Fifth. He left that 1876 score pretty much alone. Critic Michael Tanner once said that “the one you finally ‘get’ the Fifth…it’s so overwhelming that any adequate review will take you to superlatives”. And it is a wonderfully original work, in which Bruckner constructs one of his famous “sound cathedrals” in the first movement, finds an austere beauty in the Adagioswirls in the scherzo, before ending in a fiery finale.
Symphony No. 7 in E flat major
In third place is Symphony No. 3. The music for this symphony came to Bruckner in a dream. Or at least his opening theme was, revealed by a former mentor who told him the melody would make his fortune. “I immediately woke up, lit a candle and wrote it down,” the composer said. It can be heard in the mysterious and charming opening of the piece, in which the cellos carry the theme which unfolds over tremolo strings – and the symphony changed, in a positive way, the way Bruckner’s music was perceived. . The Seventh is also a tribute to Wagner, whom Bruckner finally met in 1882, a year after he began work on the piece. Bruckner claimed that the Adagio theme (which was later played at his own funeral) came to him with a premonition of Wagner’s death – he was correct a month later.
We have named Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 one of the best symphonies of all time
Symphony No. 8 in C minor
Almost top is Symphony No. 8. A reviewer at the premiere of the Eighth thought it was written in a “nightmarish hangover style”, but it has since gained a reputation as one of Bruckner’s finest symphonies – for many , in fact, its greatest. The composer himself was pleased with it – “Hallelujah! … The final is the most meaningful move of my life,” he exclaimed. Yet this success was hard-won. Bruckner began work on his Eighth in 1884 and continued to revise it until its publication in 1892 (so there is an array of versions on disc). Its mixture of terror and consolation, darkness and light makes for an intense and intensely rewarding listening experience.
And Bruckner’s best symphony is – (in my opinion!) – Symphony No. 9 in D minor
How can an incomplete symphony be a composer’s best? A good question, but this last work, left without a finale when Bruckner died in 1896, probably says all it needs to say in three movements. The piece is dedicated “to my God”; Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic. Two long movements of about 25 minutes each frame a scherzo of disturbing insistence. The elemental opening movement responds with a large-scale adagio, encompassing music that plumbs the depths of troubled angst but is also visionary. This symphony was, said the composer, his farewell to life. Posthumous completions of the finale, based on surviving sketches, exist, but even without that this symphony is a towering and satisfying achievement.
We named Bruckner one of the greatest Austrian composers