Bruckner Sixth symphony
Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera
Ira Levin, conductor
Bruckner considered the Sixth Symphony, which was composed in 1879-81, to be among his boldest works. “Die Sechste, die keckste” (“the sixth, the brashest”), as he wittily put it. The work has, nevertheless, long been regarded as something of a “stepchild,” to borrow Robert Haas’s phrase, and has always been among the least often performed of Bruckner’s symphonies. The first movement has been cited as one reason for this, as has the unconventional form of the last movement, yet the intrinsic merits of the Sixth, which abounds in superb music, should make it a general favorite among the composer’s symphonies, as it already is for many Bruckner enthusiasts. Not only is the overall design of the work both lucid and compelling, each movement contains passages of particular excellence and appeal, from the splendid second theme groups in the first, second and fourth movements and the magnificent coda of the first movement (with its “tumultuous surface sparkling,” in Donald Francis Tovey’s memorable phrase, “like the Homeric seas”), through the heart-rending keening of the oboe in the Adagio, the idealized rustic rhythms of the Scherzo and Trio, the mysterious modal theme that begins the Finale only to be shattered by the great barks from the horns that foreshadow the movement’s main theme, to the glorious return of the symphony’s opening theme on the final pages of the score.
The relative neglect of the Sixth began almost as soon as it was composed. Bruckner submitted the score to the Vienna Philharmonic, but the orchestra chose to perform only the Adagio and Scherzo in 1883, presumably because they felt that the outer movements were unduly difficult to perform and too challenging for the Philharmonic audience. The symphony was then neither performed nor published until after Bruckner’s death. Gustav Mahler led the first performance of the complete symphony, albeit with some abbreviations, again with the Vienna Philharmonic, on 26 February 1899. The score was published in July of that year. The first performance of the symphony with no cuts whatsoever was given in March 1901 in Stuttgart under Karl Pohlig.
These facts are essential to understanding the textual history of the symphony. Bruckner lovers and students, especially those of us in the English-speaking world, have long been accustomed to approach such matters in terms of the so-called “Bruckner Problem” as defined in the 1960s by Deryck Cooke and others before him, most famously Robert Haas. For more than half a century, many have considered the basic mission of Bruckner studies to be the publication, promorion, and performance of pure, “authentic” texts of Bruckner’s works, which are assumed to be those preserved in the composer’s manuscript scores, untouched by editorial interference of the sort supposedly contained in the texts of Bruckner’s symphonies published in the nineteenth century. In spite of its familiarity, this is a highly problematic position, prone not only to oversimplify the nature of the often very complicated textual situation of Bruckner’s manuscript scores and the early published scores, but also inclined to moralistic judgments about the motivations and intentions of behind the editing of these works by Bruckner’s “well-meaning” but misguided students, as they so often have been described.