Central United Methodist Church
1875 North Central Avenue, Phoenix
Central Avenue at Palm Lane
Of the nine (!) versions of Anton Bruckner’s Third Symphony, this one, played in 1874 but never published, has the most complete picture of the symphony, combining the grandeur of the first version with the shimmer of the later orchestrations. Its performance by the MusicaNova Orchestra marks only the third time this version of the symphony has been heard in concert worldwide, and the first ever in the United States. The orchestra will use a new score created by Music Director Warren Cohen from the original manuscript and notes from musical scholars worldwide.
German composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was a notorious tinkerer. He could not look at one of his completed symphonies and resist the urge to change something at a later date. Furthermore, much of his music was difficult to perform, and he had well-meaning friends who were not shy in suggesting ways that he could make it more accessible and get it performed more frequently. This probably exacerbated the tinkering tendency. To make matters worse, Bruckner sometimes allowed his friends to write these suggestions into copies of his scores, where he either accepted or rejected them. Occasionally, they would even try to sneak something by the composer if they suspected he might not like it, but they thought it was a good idea. As a result, many of Bruckner’s symphonies come in multiple versions, not all of them sanctioned by the composer.
The Third Symphony was first composed in 1873 and is dedicated to Richard Wagner, whom Bruckner greatly respected. According to several stores, Bruckner showed Wagner several in-process symphonic manuscripts, asking him to pick his favorite. Wagner chose the Third, but because they had drunk so much beer together, Bruckner later couldn’t remember which one he picked and had to write the master asking if it was “the one with the trumpet theme?” Wagner confirmed, saying “Yes, best wishes!” and the two became lifelong friends.
Wagner’s approval notwithstanding, the Third is the most revised of all of Bruckner’s symphonies, and exists in no less than nine versions. The reasons are easy to understand. In its original version, it is the longest in number of bars of all his symphonies, which made it daunting to think of performing. Bruckner did attempt a performance of it after the fourth revision (which was already somewhat cut down in length) and the concert was a fiasco, probably made worse by a limited rehearsal time and the fact that Bruckner himself conducted – he was not a good conductor.
After this, Bruckner tried to cut the work even further, probably believing that its length was the problem. Unfortunately the work did not cut easily, and he kept changing his mind about where to make the cuts. His friends and pupils the Schalk brothers tried to help, but he did not like their ideas much either. Eventually he settled on a version that was published in 1890, which cuts about 15 minutes. This version was later rejected by some Bruckner scholars as “inauthentic” because it differed from the last manuscript version that we have, which is from the previous year. That manuscript was published in the 1970s and has since been the most performed version of the piece.
It is interesting to note that with each (shorter) version of the Fourth Symphony, the work got better and more effective, but with each version of the (shorter) Third, it got worse. Some works simply cut better than others. Some people have gone back to the first version recently, most notably the French Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but few have taken notice of the 1874 revision that we’re playing. It has been performed publicly only twice, once in Germany and once in Japan; this performance by the MusicaNova Orchestra marks the American premiere. This version does not involve any cuts; in it Bruckner simply reorchestrates the work and adds contrapuntal detail that gives the work a very different quality. Bruckner stated that this version was “much improved” over the 1873 version, but when he got to the possibility of a performance three years later, he felt he needed to cut for practical reasons – and the rest is the downward slide of later versions of the work.