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Anton Bruckner: Eleven Symphonies
By William Carragan
Published 2020 Bruckner Society of America
Many composers revise their works after first composing them: Beethoven revised Fidelio more than once, Stravinsky revised a number of his early works, and there are many other examples. But the case of Bruckner is surely unique: he revised most of his symphonies not once, but several times, and the result is that there are several versions of many of them – not to mention numerous intermediate states – resulting in a situation which specialists and Bruckner fans may revel in, but which to others is a real nuisance, since it is hard to get objective advice and information about them. This book seeks to remedy this; it is titled Eleven Symphonies since as well as the nine numbered symphonies it also includes consideration of the early F minor work, often known as the study symphony, and also of the unnumbered D minor one, usually referred to as No. 0 or Die Nullte, though Carragan does not use this term. It also contains discussions of some of Bruckner’s other works, notably the Overture in G minor and the String Quintet.
For British music lovers the field was dominated for a long time, both directly and indirectly, by two publications: Deryck Cooke’s The Bruckner Problem Simplified, first published as a series of articles in 1969 and then revised and incorporated in his book Vindications of 1982, also available on line; and Robert Simpson’s The Essence of Bruckner (1966, revised 1992). Cooke was a critic and Simpson a composer; neither was primarily a musicologist and additionally both their contributions now date back more than a generation. A great deal has happened in the world of Bruckner studies since then, and my bookshelf was bulging with articles on versions of the Bruckner symphonies culled from the internet. I say ‘was bulging’ because now no longer: this new book by William Carragan has made them all redundant, though I shall continue to retain Cooke and Simpson because of their historical importance and intrinsic interest.
Carragan is a well-established Bruckner scholar: he edited the second symphony in two versions for the Collected Edition and has also contributed his own completion of the finale of the ninth, left unfinished by the composer, which has itself been revised and recorded several times. He is one of a group of Bruckner scholars, who include Benjamin Korstvedt, Dermot Gault and Paul Hawkshaw, who have been establishing a new consensus about Bruckner, which largely contradicts that set up by Cooke and Simpson.
It is commonly accepted that many of the first published scores of the symphonies were full of errors and – a more serious charge – did not really represent the composer’s intentions. First Robert Haas and then Leopold Nowak were commissioned to produced authentic scores. Cooke and Simpson were of the view, taken over from Haas, that many of Bruckner’s revisions were due to his acceding to pressure from well-meaning friends, in particular the brothers Josef and Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe. In fact, according to the blurb of this book (presumably either written by Carragan or approved by him) ‘he was felt to be very resistant to outside influence,’ and some of the cuts and changes to his scores made by the Schalks and Löwe, for example to the fifth and ninth symphonies, were made behind his back or after his death. It follows that some of these revised scores do in fact represent the composer’s final intentions and so have authority. An example is the fourth symphony, where the late revision of 1888, rejected by both Haas and Nowak as inauthentic, has recently been rehabilitated.
What this book does is to trace the different versions of the symphonies and set out the changes which Bruckner made – or at least the most important of them. This is done in the most helpful way possible, with musical examples in short score, with significant differences pointed out. You can see how Bruckner reshaped his 1874 version of the fourth symphony into those of 1878, 1881 and 1888, or of the eighth from its first version of 1887 through intermediate versions to the final one of 1892. For the ninth symphony, Carragan discusses the sketches for the unfinished finale but says absolutely nothing about either his own completion or those of others. And there is a new feature: by each musical example is a QR code, which you can read on a smart phone. You can then hear the passage in question for yourself. This is a brilliant innovation and a valuable supplement to the short scores, though I would not want to be without them. (You can also look up the examples on the book’s website, though they will not mean much without the text. I have to say that the performances used are not credited.)
Haas aimed to produce an ideal version of each symphony, which in the case of the second and eighth, and to a certain extent the seventh, involved conflating versions of different dates and even incorporating a few short passages written or assembled by himself. It may also be that Haas deliberately produced conflated scores to get around a copyright problem. Cooke and Simpson mostly approved of the Haas scores; Carragan and the other contemporary scholars repudiate those of these three works quite angrily. For them, each version, as embodied in a specific score, stands by itself. They reject not only the whole idea of constructing ideal versions but also even of assigning different merits to each of the versions. Indeed, Carragan refrains from value judgements and says ‘every version of each symphony has something wonderful and unique to offer’. He suggests that the music lover should choose three or four recordings of each symphony, preferably in different versions, and listen to them one after the other.
At this point I start to have reservations. One thing I have learned about scholarship is that there are fashions in it, and the orthodoxy of one time may be swept away in another. There have already been several such revolutions in the study of Bruckner: from the first published editions to the Haas editions based on the manuscript scores and at times conflating scores of different dates to make an ideal version, to the Nowak scores which aim to reproduce the manuscripts unchanged whatever the reasons for revisions, to the present day view that all the versions are of equal value. Ordinary music lovers may not care about different versions – this is the approach taken by John Quinn and Patrick Waller in their survey of Bruckner symphony recordings on MWI here – or they may just want to be pointed to one for each symphony. Conductors certainly have to choose, apart from Gerd Schaller who has set himself the task of recording all the symphonies in all their principal versions over the next few years. (It is not always straightforward to discover which version a conductor has chosen to perform.) In particular Carragan does not take up the distinction, put forward by Dermot Gault, between ‘integral’ cuts, deliberately decided on by the composer, and ‘concessionary’ cuts, made to accommodate the symphonies to contemporary concert conditions. It is interesting that for the first three symphonies, the earliest versions are gradually gaining ground, while for the fourth, as I noted, the final version has recently been rehabilitated. Most controversial is the eighth, where Haas’s conflated score has regularly been the favourite of conductors despite scholarly disapproval.
I do find this situation a bit odd. The disapproval of conflation seems to me a fashion like others, and in some fields it is not rejected. Gluck’s Orfeo can be performed in the original Vienna or the later Paris version but more popular is a conflation of the two, approach pioneered by Berlioz. I don’t see why this should be seen as illegitimate. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is regularly performed in a conflation of the Prague and Vienna scores. There are many more examples from opera. In a different field, the standard text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a conflation of two texts of different dates, with the odd word and half line being supplied by editors – a remarkable parallel to the Haas edition of the eighth symphony. Of course, an editor who proposes an ideal version is taking a risk and is in danger of being shot down for poor choices, but I would rather see a detailed argument against, say the Haas versions of the second and eighth symphonies, than simply be told that mixing versions is not admissible.
Still, in the context, this is a small point. There are also analyses of all the symphonies, an annotated bibliography and various other features adding to the usefulness of the book. The page format is large and the margins narrow, but this allows the musical examples to be clearly presented. It is strange that, in such a carefully produced book, the right hand margins of the text are not justified. This is an invaluable work, the current last word on the issue of Bruckner versions and it deserves to stand until, as I expect, the concept of ideal versions comes back into favour.