Symphony No.6

Anton Bruckner

Symphony No.6 in A major

WAB106 • “Philosophic”

About this work

Bruckner completed his Symphony No. 6 in A major in September 1881. It was not performed complete during his lifetime, although in February 1883, the two middle movements were played by the Vienna Philharmonic. The first complete reading, under the young Gustav Mahler, was given on February 26, 1899, but with a number of substantial cuts and other amendments made to the score. Although a work with many fine passages, and a great deal of internal consistency, the sixth has always been regarded as somewhat imperfect; as Bruckner specialist Georg Tintner put it, it consists of "three perfect movements, and one that is somewhat problematic."

Considering the vast scale of its predecessor, the sixth is a work of comparatively modest proportions; yet it is distinguished by richly varied orchestration and hugely contrasted thematic ideas. The opening movement begins with an urgent rhythmic ostinato played by the violins; the unsettled first subject gradually gives way to a secondary theme that is altogether more lyrical in quality. The opening ostinato figure returns frequently and unaltered as the movement progresses, and becomes especially potent at the climax of the development section. During the coda, trumpets and horns challenge each other antiphonally, as if sounding across vast distances of time and space.

The Adagio which follows is Bruckner's only symphonic slow movement in conventional sonata form. The hymn-like F major opening theme suggests reverential awe in an elegiac string threnody, over which the oboe responds plaintively. A second theme lightens the texture, with a richly-hued episode for strings, but particularly impressive is the extended and yearning coda, after the manner of a funeral march. The scherzo is perhaps the most fantastical of any to be found among Bruckner's nine symphonies; whereas others are bucolic and rustic in mood, this is demonic and threatening, its fearsome tensions only assuaged during the more relaxed trio section.

The finale presents an austere, purposeful idea for the violins, on which the second clarinet comments; a contrasting lyrical melody follows. The music progresses in urgent style -- a quality emphasised by frequent gestures of harmonic ambiguity, and in a brilliant and virtuosic passage for the violins. When the long-awaited resolution arrives, Bruckner brings back the ostinato rhythm heard at the start of the symphony, along with its main first subject idea, now played by three trombones.