The Symphonies

I don’t know what it is about Bruckner’s symphonies. They move me deeply.

In this leg of my year-long project, I’d like to try to discover why, and which ones I prefer.

From his entry on Wikipedia:

“Bruckner expanded the concept of the symphonic form in ways that have never been witnessed before or since. When listening to a Bruckner symphony, one encounters some of the most complex symphonic writing ever created. As scholars study Bruckner’s scores they continue to revel in the complexity of Bruckner’s creative logic.”

Bruckner composed eleven symphonies, the first, the Study Symphony in F minor in 1863, the last, the unfinished Symphony No. 9 in D minor in 1893-1896. With the exception of Symphony No. 4 (Romantic), none of Bruckner’s symphonies has a subtitle and in the case of those that now do, the nicknames or subtitles did not originate with the composer.


Bruckner’s symphonies are scored for a fairly standard orchestra of woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two or three trumpets, three trombones, tuba (from the second version of the Fourth), timpani and strings. The later symphonies increase this complement, but not by much. Notable is the use of Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies. Only the Eighth has harp, and percussion besides timpani (though legend has it the Seventh is supposed to have a cymbal crash at the exact moment Wagner died). Bruckner’s style of orchestral writing was criticized by his Viennese contemporaries, but by the middle of the twentieth century, musicologists recognized that his orchestration was modeled after the sound of his primary instrument, the pipe organ, i.e., alternating between two groups of instruments, as when changing from one manual of the organ to another.


The structure of Bruckner’s symphonies is in a way an extension of that of Beethoven’s symphonies. Bruckner’s symphonies are in four movements.

The first movement, in 4/4 or 2/2, is, from Symphony No. 2 on, an allegro in modified sonata form with three thematic groups. The first group is mostly displayed in piano or pianissimo on a tremolo of the string instruments and is, after a long crescendo, repeated in tutti. The second group, melodious and in A-B-A’ lied form, is mostly of contrapuntal structure. The third group, mostly rhythmical and often in unison, is sometimes a variant of the first group, as in Symphony No. 4. The often extensive development is followed by a modified and somewhat shortened reprise and a powerful coda.

The second movement, mostly an adagio in 4/4, is generally in ABA’B’A’’ lied form. The first thematic group, sometime rhythmical, is developed and magnified in the second and third parts. The second group is mostly a melody in cantilena form. The adagio is put in third position in the first version of Symphony No. 2, and in Symphony No. 8 and Symphony No. 9.

The scherzo in 3/4 and in minor mode is often fiery. The, sometimes very short, trio is more melodious and often in Ländler form. The da capo reprise is, in Bruckner’s early symphonies, ending with a short, powerful coda. The revised version of the Symphony No. 4 features a scherzo – the “Hunt scherzo” – in which the outer sections are in 2/4 and in major mode.

The Finale, in 4/4 or 2/2, is, as the first movement, an allegro in modified sonata form with three thematic groups. The first group, often a kind of introduction, is followed by a second, melodious and often contrapuntal group, and a third, rhythmical and often in unison, group, which is sometimes a variant of the first group, as in Symphony No. 2. The development, often of dramatic character, is followed by a less formal reprise, which is sometimes inverted (C’-B’-A’) as in Symphony No. 7, and a coda in which the first thematic group of the first movement is magnified. In the coda of Symphony No. 8, the first thematic group of all four movements are magnified.

Those are the musicologist, technical aspects of Bruckner’s symphonies.

But, as everyone knows, music, like art, is in the eyes and ears of the beholder. All the technicalities and notations in the world can’t make a piece of music beautiful to all people.

By the way, even though I’m listening to nine symphonies, Bruckner wrote two others, which are classified and categorized (along with all his works) under a system called WAB, an acronym that stands for Werkverzeichnis Anton Bruckner. (Werkverzeichnis is German for “catalog of works.”)

Symphony No. 1 is WAB 101.

Bruckner’s other two symphonies are referred to as “Study Symphony” (WAB 99), and Symphony in D Minor (WAB 100), respectively. It’s worth clicking on the links to read about those works. For example, I found it interesting that WAB 100 was actually written between WAB 101 and WAB 102, not prior to WAB 101.

According to the Wiki entry,

In 1895 Bruckner declared that this symphony “gilt nicht” (does not count) and he did not assign a number to it. The work was published and premiered in 1924.

The way I look at it, if Bruckner, himself, did not want WAB 100 included among his other symphonies, why include it among his other symphonies? I’m a purist that way.

Plus, I did not want to include symphonies WAB 99 and WAB 100 in my project for another, far more practical reason: They are rare, and far fewer box sets contain them.

So I chose to focus on the nine symphonies that are easier to obtain, especially in complete box sets. After a lot of searching, and a couple of months obtaining, I found 16 such box sets.