Program Notes: Celebrating Skrowaczewski

Program Notes: Celebrating Skrowaczewski

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Full program notes:

Anton Bruckner
Born: September 4, 1824, Ansfelden, Upper Austria
Died: October 11, 1896, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 8 in C minor
Premiered: December 18, 1892

Across five and a half decades with the Minnesota Orchestra, since he fled Poland to become music director of the Minnesota Orchestra (1960 to 1979) and then conductor laureate, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski has worked as both conductor and composer. With this double focus, increasingly rare in our time, he has carried on the tradition of such great orchestral figures as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and, in America, Leonard Bernstein.

Skrowaczewski was always a daring programmer, premiering works of contemporaries such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Gunther Schuller, and conducting the gigantic symphonies of Anton Bruckner. Skrowaczewski emerged long ago as a Brucknerian of worldwide eminence, winning honors from the International Bruckner Society and building audiences for the composer on several continents.

skrowaczewski and bruckner

Bruckner’s enthralling music has resonated in Skrowaczewski’s life ever since he was a small boy. One summer day in 1931, when the seven-year-old prodigy was already composing pieces of his own, he was walking along a pretty street in his native Lwów. Suddenly, from a window above, came the music of Bruckner, music such as he had never heard before. He has recalled: “Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven—these I knew well and even had some scores of their music—but this music on that hot summer day was completely different. I was entranced. My companion, a sculptor who also played the piano, did not know what had happened to me when I stood frozen to the spot—for 20 minutes perhaps—he became very worried. Then the music finished. This was a radio broadcast, and the announcer began to talk. My friend took me home: I was as if in a trance, and I had a fever that lasted a whole day. I was very disturbed, and very curious: what was this music?”

Before long the boy found an essay about Bruckner; then he acquired a piano reduction of one of the symphonies that would accompany him throughout a distinguished musical life.

As recently as the 1950s, scarcely anyone knew Bruckner. The Nazis had claimed this humble, God-fearing Austrian Catholic as an echt German, which did not help the cause of his powerful music. Then, Skrowaczewski reminds us, came the societal upheaval of the 1960s: “Suddenly young people wanted big, strongly emotional music—symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner. Krzysztof Penderecki could write his St. Luke Passion, a work that spans an entire evening”—as at its American premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra in 1967—“and was very prophetic. It hints at those times.” Soon Skrowaczewski took Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 on tour with the Orchestra, showcasing it on university campuses. “We took risks,” Skrowaczewski recalls, “but we made a big hit with our difficult programs.”

The Bruckner Eighth has long been one of Skrowaczewski’s favorites—for its magnificent content and design, emotional depth, and capacity to show off great orchestral playing. “I walk into Bruckner’s world,” he says, “to focus entirely on the music. Early in my career I gave much attention to the shape of the performance and what the orchestra does. Later in life, I have become very emotional, not only with Bruckner, but with Beethoven and Shostakovich—all their great works that are so close to me.”

a chronicle of the symphony

“Hallelujah!—the Eighth is finished at last,” Bruckner rejoiced to conductor Hermann Levi on September 4, 1887, the composer’s 63rd birthday. He had been past 40 when he wrote his First Symphony, and now he was at the zenith of his powers. Levi’s performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in Munich had launched the composer’s fame outside Vienna. But now, despite Bruckner’s excitement, Levi was baffled by the gigantic new score for the Eighth. When other friends also felt at a loss, Bruckner—regularly plagued by bouts of depression—was devastated, and his efforts to begin work on a Ninth Symphony were stunted.

Self-effacing to a degree that mitigated against his own best interests, Bruckner devoted the year 1889 to revisions of the Eighth. Notes in his own hand record his progress until, in March of the following year, he penned the words “ganz fertig” (completely finished) on the last page. Despite all the changes Bruckner willingly made, Levi did not conduct the first performance. Nor did the brilliant young Felix Weingartner, who prepared for a Mannheim premiere but, for lack of rehearsal time, eventually gave up.

By the time the score was printed in 1892, Bruckner was a sick old man. His well-intentioned friends made all the changes they liked. Still, Bruckner was one up on them: he packed his original manuscript in a sealed parcel and directed in his will that it be deposited in the Vienna Court Library. Such foresight made possible the 20th-century editions we encounter these days. Soon Hans Richter took the work under his wing to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in the first performance on December 18, 1892—a triumph without precedent for Bruckner, who was literally crowned with a laurel wreath. “Even a Roman emperor could not have wished for a more superb triumph,” wrote the composer-critic Hugo Wolf.

Regarding editions of Bruckner’s works: the two big contenders are the Robert Haas edition, the so-called original version of 1938, and the Leopold Nowak Edition, published by the International Bruckner Society in 1955. These days, elements of both versions are likely to turn up in a performance, as is the case with Skrowaczewski: he draws from the sources that work best for him, the conductor.

the music in brief

Representing the summit of Bruckner’s art, the symphony is non-stop instrumental song. Each movement is designed on a massive scale, patiently building exuberant climaxes marked by joyful brass trumpeting. Working from a few germinal motifs, Bruckner breathes life into mighty themes, nourishing them with contrapuntal skill that would have impressed Bach himself. Time stops in a work like this, which elevates us to musical realms we may not have explored before.

allegro moderato. The first movement sketches a sober dotted-rhythm theme low in the strings. Gradually the Eighth’s tonal pillars, rooted in C minor, emerge from the mists. The most sweeping climax is reserved for the reprise, where horns and trumpet blast away at the note C until finally the movement fades desolately on a fragment of its opening idea, now barren and submissive.

scherzo and trio. Nearly everything in the second movement is spun from its opening bars, which blend a robust, lumbering tune (violas and cellos) with excited violin tremolo high above. The slower mid-section Trio unfolds a gentle theme that reveals Bruckner’s affinity with Schubert. It is cast as a violin serenade with guitar-like accompaniment—pizzicato, plucked. A horn cannot resist adding a tender line of its own.

adagio. As the longest but most sublime portion of the work, the Adagio embodies the ecstatic mysticism associated with this humble teacher of counterpoint. Here is the heart of the symphony, based on three glowing themes whose statements are intensified in the reprise. Its mood is reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan, shorn of its erotic implications.

finale. Solemn but not fast, the Finale resonates with stirring music (including a brassy, high-energy march) that builds a stunning climax. At its peak, trumpets and trombones sound the opening theme of the symphony, and a jubilant coda welds motives from the previous movements in an eloquent summation—truly the symbol of the “victory of light over darkness.”

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 8 horns (4 doubling Wagner tuben), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, 3 harps and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

 

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