Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Reverent and Terrifying

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major enters strangely mystical territory. The hushed intensity of its opening string tremolo seems to emerge out of silence. The first movement gradually begins to unfold from an expansive theme which, according to some accounts, came to Bruckner in a dream. It’s simultaneously serene and ghostly, reverent and terrifying. It hints at majestic, awe-inspiring, mysterious, and even frightening aspects of the sacred. In Bruckner’s music we sense the cosmic power of sound, as well as silence.

In the context of history, Bruckner, the slightly eccentric Austrian symphonist and organist (at the monastic church of Sankt Florian near Linz), links the worlds of Schubert and Mahler. Each of his nine mature symphonies represents a persistent attempt to pick up where Beethoven’s monumental and enigmatic Ninth Symphony left off, a daunting task avoided by earlier composers. At the same time, Bruckner’s symphonies, largely misunderstood by audiences when they were first performed, were a radical departure from anything which had come before. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Deryck Cooke writes:

Despite its general debt to Beethoven and Wagner, the “Bruckner Symphony” is a unique conception, not only because of the individuality of its spirit and its materials, but even more because of the absolute originality of its formal processes. At first, these processes seemed so strange and unprecedented that they were taken as evidence of sheer incompetence…. Now it is recognized that Bruckner’s unorthodox structural methods were inevitable…. Bruckner created a new and monumental type of symphonic organism, which abjured the tense, dynamic continuity of Beethoven, and the broad, fluid continuity of Wagner, in order to express something profoundly different from either composer, something elemental and metaphysical…his extraordinary attitude to the world, and the nature of his materials which arose from this attitude, dictated an entirely unorthodox handling of the traditional formal procedures. Sonata form is a dynamic, humanistic process, always going somewhere, constantly trying to arrive; but with Bruckner firm in his religious faith, the music has no need to go anywhere, no need to find a point of arrival, because it is already there…Experiencing Bruckner’s symphonic music is more like walking around a  cathedral, and taking in each aspect of it, than like setting out on a journey to some hoped-for goal. 

Let’s start off by listening to the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. Try closing your eyes the first time through. Listen attentively, staying in the moment as the music gradually unfolds. At times, Bruckner seems to turn the orchestra into a giant pipe organ. He often isolates strings, woodwinds or brass rather than mixing these colors together. Pay attention to the way musical lines fit together, forming interesting contrapuntal shapes. The Seventh Symphony’s musical architecture includes an almost obsessive fascination with inverted counterpoint (voices which mirror each other).

This performance features Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Munich Philharmonic during a 1990 tour of Japan:

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  1. Allegro moderato (0:00)
  2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam (25:45)
  3. Scherzo. Sehr schnell – Trio. Etwas langsamer (53:47)
  4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht schnell (1:05:55)


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The opening of the Seventh Symphony is rooted firmly in the home key of E major, but did you notice how quickly the first theme pulls us away from E towards B major? Even if you didn’t know what was happening specifically, you might have sensed a drama unfolding involving keys and their relationships. In the opening we get a hint of E major, the symphony’s true center of gravity, but amazingly it’s never fully reestablished until the end of the coda (23:42). That’s one reason why the moment when the music “finds E major” is so powerful. On a subconscious level we feel like we’re going home. In The Essence of Bruckner Robert Simpson describes the first movement’s harmonic structure as:

the slow evolution of B minor and B major out of a start that is not so much in as delicately poised on E major [and] the subtle resurgence of the true tonic, not without opposition from the pretender…outward resemblances such as the change from tonic (E) to dominant (B) must not deafen us to the fact that such behavior as we find in this opening section is totally uncharacteristic of sonata [form]. The slow emergence of one key, by persuasion, from a region dominated by another is a new phenomenon in the field of symphony, and the rest of this movement will be heard to reinstate E major in a similar but longer process.

For me, one of the first movement’s most strange and frightening moments is the gradual, ominous crescendo and diminuendo in the coda (21:44). Bruckner marks this passage Sehr feierlich (very solemnly) in the score. The tympani roll on an E pedal tone anticipates the movement’s ultimate resolution to E major (23:42). Listen to the incredible sonic intensity of the final bars. For a moment, focus on each individual voice…the rumble of the tympani’s E pedal, the vibrant energy of the string tremolo, the heroic statement of the opening motive in the horns and trombones, the trumpet fanfares, and the repetitive contrapuntal figure in the violins.

These are just a few highlights from the first movement. Go back and listen again, and then go on to the other three movements. If you feel inspired, share your own thoughts in the thread below.