Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 00 (Study Symphony in F minor)

by Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 4, 1824, in Ansfelden, Austria
Died October 11, 1896, in Vienna
Composed in 1863
2nd movement premiered on October 31, 1913 in Vienna
1st and 4th movements premiered on March 18, 1923 in Klosterneuburg, Austria
3rd movement premiered on October 12, 1924 in Klosterneuburg, Austria
Performance Time: Approximately 41 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Anton Bruckner was a late bloomer among eminent composers. He completed his first numbered symphony in 1866 at age 41. (To paraphrase the Tom Lehrer song: by that age Schubert had been dead 10 years.) His path to the piece included the “Study” Symphony heard on the concert tonight. Sloth was not a reason for Bruckner’s late start, but rather a combination of insecurity and a desire to master various technical elements of composition before presenting himself as a professional symphonist.

In 1855, at age 31, Bruckner took up a position as cathedral organist in Linz and began meticulous study of counterpoint with the noted Viennese theorist Simon Sechter (with whom Schubert sought council in the last weeks of his life). Sechter forbade free composition and for some six years Bruckner ceased his own serious work. (Sechter remarked that he never had a more diligent student.) In 1861 Bruckner sought out Otto Kitzler, a conductor a decade his junior, with whom he worked for some two years on form and orchestration. After writing keyboard music and a string quartet, he turned to bigger projects, including an Overture in G Minor, a setting of Psalm 112, and the Symphony in F minor.

Bruckner composed the symphony over the course of three and a half months in early 1863 and labeled the score a Schularbeit (school exercise). He began writing the manuscript in pencil and as he gained confidence switched to ink. Since his goal was refining his compositional technique rather than producing a recipe for actual performance, he noted relatively few dynamics, phrasing, and other interpretative markings. One can nonetheless already perceive some of the distinctive characteristics of Bruckner’s mature symphonic style, a complex alchemy of liturgical influences, Baroque organ sonorities, and his recent revelatory exposure to Wagner’s music.

Nearly two years later, in January 1865, Bruckner began his First Symphony and four years after that (the chronology is not entirely clear) wrote at least parts of another unnumbered one, in D minor, now known as “Die Nullte.” Neither this Symphony No. 0 nor the F minor “Study” Symphony was performed during his lifetime. The second movement of the F minor was heard in Vienna in 1913 and the first, second, and fourth movements premiered in Klosterneuberg in 1923 with the third movement, which had previously been thought lost, first performed in the same city the following year.

Christopher H. Gibbs is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College.