Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner
Symphony No. 0 “Die Nullte” WAB 100 (1869)
Arizona Premiere

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Scherzo: Presto – Trio: Langsamer und ruhiger
  4. Finale: Moderato

Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was influenced by the works of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, with whom he shared a passion:”I liked beer. We drank beer.” He spent his early adult years as a schoolteacher in Linz and as an organist for the Church of St.Florian and later had teaching posts at both the Vienna Conservatory and University where his students included Gustav Mahler, who called Bruckner his “forerunner.” Bruckner’s protracted time as a student meant that he did not compose his first major works until he was over 40 years old, though his catalog (WAB) of over 150 works includes eleven symphonies and scores of sacred choral works.

As a person, Bruckner was the furthest thing from the stereotype of the “great artist.”  Though described by some contemporaries as a modest and humble man, devoted to his work, with a deep Catholic faith, he was probably on the Autism spectrum as he was terrible at reading social cues, making him constantly socially inappropriate. He had a lifelong attraction to teenage girls for their youthful purity and virtue, and a disturbing tendency to propose marriage to many of them whom he hardly knew. Their constant rejection baffled him, though one is said to have inspired his 1851 cantata Entsagen (Renunciation),

He dressed in ill-fitting clothes, had odd obsessive tics, and spoke in a distinctive upper Austrian drawl that was the German equivalent of an Appalachian country accent. His manner towards authority was obsequious in the extreme; Liszt once said that he cringed whenever he met Bruckner because he always addressed him as “Your Excellency.” He was a religious fanatic and was obsessed with death, and used to like to view cadavers. That such a person – at once unsophisticated, profoundly conservative, and extremely odd – could have written the most original, complex and radical series of symphonies of any 19th century composer, is remarkable.

“Die Nullte”

The odd name for this Symphony comes from an inscription by the composer on the title page. In 1895, when Bruckner reviewed his symphonies in order to have them published, he declared that this symphony “does not count” (“gilt nicht“). He wrote on the front page “annulli(e)rt” (nullified) and replaced the original “Nr. 2” with the symbol “∅”.  At some point someone decided that the symbol represented the number 0 – as computer scientists do today – and the nickname was born.  The reason for this has been widely debated; some, such as the conductor George Tintner, believed that a snarky off-hand criticism by a conductor who looked at the score was the cause of his withdrawal of the work. A more likely reason is that Bruckner began his Third Symphony in almost exactly the same way in the same key and he felt that the similarities were too great to allow both works to count. A good reason for thinking this is that he originally had given the name “Symphony No. 3” to his Symphony No. 2. It was only after writing the work we now know as Symphony No. 3 that he renumbered the earlier work.

It was the last Bruckner Symphony to be published, with an edition by Woss published in 1924, the same year that the work was premiered, (Note: the slow movement of the F minor Symphony – sometimes called 00 – was published in 1913, but the whole work was only published in 1973). A curiosity is that the first recording of the work was of the Scherzo movement by Fritz Zaun, with what was called a “salon orchestra”; that is, the type of group that in its day would have played in a high-class restaurant or dance hall. Although since then there have been a number of recordings of the work, most have been in the context of complete sets of Bruckner Symphonies and concert performances of it remain rare. One could argue that were it not for the tortured history of the work, performances would be more common. It is an extremely attractive symphony, lighter and more audience friendly than the more frequently heard Symphonies number 1 and 2.

What to listen for

The opening – which does sound like the opening to Symphony No.3 – sets up a mood of expectation and a vivid rhythmic thrust. The first movement is compact, brilliant and lyrical by turns, and perfectly proportioned. The slow second movement is remarkable for its simplicity and lyrical beauty, especially the second theme, which is an inspired creation on the level with the best of the other early Symphonies. The Scherzo in the third movement begins with a dashing upward figure and maintains considerable momentum until the Trio section; some of it will remind listeners of the scherzo movements by Mendelssohn, an influence almost completely lacking in the other Bruckner symphonic scherzos. The rather sentimental Trio is an almost shocking but effective contrast. The last movement will remind Brucknerites of the finale of the 5th Symphony.  Among other things, they are the only two Bruckner finales that begin with a slow introduction. Some of the contrapuntal devices that he uses in this movement almost sound like a sketch for the later work, although in contrast to the 5th this Finale needs to move at a brisk and steady pace to bring the work to a brilliant close. Overall, this symphony is the perfect antidote for those who think Bruckner only wrote heavy, stodgy pieces that lumber awkwardly to massive climaxes. This lithe, light symphony is a work of considerable humor and muscular energy that makes its points with directness and grace.