Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, “Romantic”
Anton Bruckner was born 144 years before Olga Neuwirth, and only about 130 miles north of her hometown of Graz, Austria – but musically he may as well have been born on another planet. A devout Catholic and Wagner fanatic, Bruckner poured his influences and inspirations into grand cathedral symphonies, four-movement mountains cascading with huge emotions. A rocky childhood – losing his father when he was 13, being shipped off to a monastery – shaped him into an expert organist and a teacher like his father and grandfather before him. He was almost 40 when he really began composing in earnest, and 60 before it won him any acclaim. Painfully shy and deeply insecure, the lifelong bachelor, in his own way, never quite fit in, but the enormous gravity of his passion found expression in his choral music and, most notably, his eleven symphonies.
The Fourth came to him when he was 44, living in Linz and teaching music at the Vienna Conservatory, and finding some fame with his organ playing. It took him almost all of 1874 to compose the symphony he himself christened “Romantic,” and then, in classic Bruckner style, he continued to revise and rewrite it for years following. He completely replaced the third movement with the “hunting” scherzo known today, and overhauled the finale twice.
Why romantic? Bruckner, inspired by his German heroes Schumann and Wagner, had in mind a sweeping epic of chivalry and derringdo. He penciled in the “scene” he had in mind for the first movement:
“Dawn at a medieval citadel... knights sally forth from the gates on proud chargers... the wonder of nature surrounds them.” “In the first movement after a full night’s sleep the day is announced by the horn,” he once wrote in a letter to a conductor, describing the third movement as “musical entertainment of the hunters in the wood,” and in another letter as “how a barrel-organ plays during the midday meal in the forest.”
The 1881 premiere of the revised, published version of the symphony – just a few years after a depressing, poorly-attended performance of his Third – was one of Bruckner’s happiest. The Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by Hans Richter, and the crowd drew Bruckner out for a bow after each movement. He was so happy that, after rehearsal one day, he slipped a coin into the conductor’s hand and asked Richter to drink a beer to his good health.
— Tim Greiving