February 28, 2019 - 11:17 AM

David Briggs Premieres Bruckner's 7th

By David Briggs

Editor's Note: On February 26, Artist in Residence David Briggs performed the world premiere of his transcription of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E Major. These notes accompanied the performance.

I’m very pleased to welcome you to this, the world premiere of my new transcription of Anton Bruckner’s monumental Seventh Symphony. It represents the culmination of a huge and wonderfully enjoyable project, spanning just over 6 months.

In truth, this project started with a distinctly stressful interlude. Last September, after having finalized the program at St. John the Divine several months before and in an attempt to stay two steps ahead, I drove up to our storage unit in Yonkers to unearth the score of my Bruckner Seven transcription which I made back in 2002, when I was still Organist of Gloucester Cathedral. No sign of it in the ‘Austrian/German’ box (A-H). Hurriedly I check all thirty boxes of my organ music to no avail. I search for the computer manuscript print out - it is ominously absent. The actual computer upon which I inputted the transcription now graces a landfill site in Birmingham, UK, probably buried underneath at least thirty feet of sludge. The black, plastic floppy discs have mysteriously dissipated, probably somewhere mid-Atlantic about 14 years ago when I emigrated. In any case, I can’t play floppy discs on my MacBook. So there was only one solution, to start again. But, as J S Bach once remarked, there is no better way to become fully immersed in a piece of music than to copy it out. The ‘re’-transcription took about 80 hours, so quite a labor of love, you could say, reconstructing the full score in its new guise, note-by-note. Knowing my luck, on the morning of the 26th February (today’s premiere) the original 2002 manuscript will turn up…

For the whole of his life Bruckner was an Organist and devoted catholic. His music suits the fabulous instrument at St. John the Divine perfectly - we have every resource and flexibility in terms of color and power, perhaps even more than the orchestra. I always think of Bruckner’s music as ‘big-building-music’ - these monumental arches of sound which exactly mirror the colossal architecture of the cathedral. It takes you out of yourself. And I sincerely believe that the Bruckner really benefits from the enormous resonance of the cathedral - these cataclysmic crescendos which very often terminate in mid-air and make so much more sense in a cathedral than in a concert hall.

The unique fusion of the 1911 orchestral style of organ building (E M Skinner) and 1953 American classic (the clarity and panache of Aeolian Skinner) fits this music like the proverbial glove. I believe tonight will certainly be the first time Bruckner’s Seventh has been heard in this guise in the United States and I’m hugely excited to propose it to you.

Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony occupies a special place in the composer’s oeuvre. It was the work which brought him his first large-scale success and won him acceptance in the wider musical world. With its passionate flow of feeling and the sincerity of its lament at the death of Richard Wagner, it is a mature work from the heart of Bruckner’s great second creative period. Poised between the naturalness of the Sixth Symphony and the searching drama of the Eighth it breathes and air of confident high spirits shadowed by an awareness of the seriousness of life.

Bruckner brought the Seventh Symphony to life between 23rd September 1881 and 5th September 1883, and made some substantial revisions in 1885. In January 1883 he had a premonition that his ‘master’ Richard Wagner did not have long to live. The news of Wagner’s death reached him while he was working on the score of the Adagio: the huge climax had been done, and all that remained was the closing section at rehearsal letter ‘X’. This became transfigured into a profoundly moving lament ‘in memory of the dearly beloved, immortal Master, now departed this life’.

The original manuscript of the Seventh Symphony rests in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. It embodies Bruckner’s original text and also the many modifications made by Josef Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe in January 1885: “We have gone through the the score of the Seventh with Bruckner, discussing some changes and improvements”. It seems that Bruckner was happy, indeed grateful, for these amendments - indicating a certain sensitivity and perhaps an innate vulnerability. One cannot imagine Gustav Mahler authorizing such changes by others!

The first orchestral performance took place on 30th December 1884, conducted by Arthur Nikisch, in the Town Theater at Leipzig, a concert intended to raise funds for the construction of a monument to Richard Wagner. The work was Bruckner’s first major triumph, and his reputation as a symphonist spread all around the world.

I hope you will enjoy my re-casting of one of the greatest orchestral masterpieces of the end of the C19th. One of my intentions is to prove that the St John the Divine organ has as much, if not more, color, flexibility and power than the full symphony orchestra. And, very importantly, we have the acoustic - and I hope through these two media, I can channel Mr Bruckner’s intentions with honesty and a degree of integrity and energy.

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