Which is the best Bruckner symphony?

Rebecca Franks shares her personal ranking of all nine masterpieces by the great Austrian composer, Bruckner

Bruckner best works
Published: August 1, 2022 at 3:53 pm
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The great legacy left by Anton Bruckner is his symphony cycle, even if there’s a tendency for people either to love or hate his music. The Austrian composer wrote eleven symphonies in all, but only nine were officially numbered. So for this list, the early Study Symphony in F minor and the Symphony No. 0, a work which Bruckner himself said ‘does not count’ have been left out.

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Here Rebecca Frank rates and ranks her favourites

Which is the best Bruckner symphony?

Symphony No. 2 in C minor

This symphony’s nickname hints at why this is in last place: this is the so-called symphony of pauses, thanks to its numerous rests used for dramatic effect. There’s a definite sense more could happen in this piece. It’s tempting to think of this early work, begun in 1871 and premiered in 1873, as a dress rehearsal for the later symphonies, though others may well find things to enjoy in its four movements. Composer Robert Simpson later noted that ‘the effect of its breadth and grandeur’ remained with him, for instance.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor

In eighth place is his first symphony. Bruckner was a late starter when it came to symphonies, spending years studying before he felt ready to launch himself officially into the genre. In his forties, with the ‘Study’ Symphony behind him, he decided that this C minor Symphony (1866) deserved the accolade of being numbered his first. The influence of Beethoven is clear, yet already the Bruckner hallmarks are there, including one of his insistent scherzos. He later revised the score when he was in Vienna, but the Linz version is more often heard – and more strikingly original.

Symphony No. 3 in D minor

In seventh place is Symphony No. 3. It’s a composer’s worst nightmare: the new piece they’ve been working on for years is finally premiered, by one of the world’s great orchestras, and it’s a disaster. The musicians make fun of the music, the audience hisses, then leaves in droves until only 25 are left. The orchestra races offstage. That’s what happened at the 1877 premiere, by the Vienna Philharmonic, of Bruckner’s Third. Dedicated to his idol Wagner, ‘the unreachable world-famous sublime master of poetry and music’, the symphony is often seen as Bruckner’s breakthrough piece – but that was hard won. He began work on it in 1873, before revising it again and again until it reached its final form in 1889.

Symphony No. 4 in E flat major

His ‘Romantic’ symphony is in sixth place. It begins that most typical of Romantic era instruments: the French horn. It symbolises the hunt, so beloved of German Romanticism, while tremolo strings and woodwind solos open a window on the natural world. Bruckner himself later wrote that the first movement was filled with woodland magic, forest murmurs and bird songs, while the Schubertian scherzo is a ‘rustic love scene and the finale is a ‘folk festival’.

Symphony No. 6 in A major

In fifth place is Symphony No. 6. A vote of confidence for this concise Cinderella symphony, which may never have fully enjoyed the public’s love, but which helped Bruckner recover from the crushing failure of his Third Symphony’s premiere. A nervous string figure sets the four movements on their journey, which takes us via an adagio at once funereal and radiant, into a restless scherzo, ending with a finale that leaves unanswered questions.

Symphony No. 5 in B flat major

Symphony No. 5 is in fourth place. An incorrigible tinkerer, Bruckner revised many of his symphonies. Not so with the Fifth. He left this 1876 score pretty well alone. Critic Michael Tanner once said that ‘one you finally “get” the Fifth … it is so overwhelming that any adequate account of it has you reaching for superlatives.’ And it is a wonderfully original work, in which Bruckner builds one of his famed ‘cathedrals of sound’ in the first movement, finds austere beauty in the Adagio, whirls up a storm in the scherzo, before ending in finale with a blazing conclusion.

Symphony No. 7 in E flat major

In third place is Symphony No. 3. The music for this symphony came to Bruckner in a dream. Or at least its opening theme did, revealed by an old mentor who told him the melody would make his fortune. ‘I immediately woke up, lit a candle, and wrote it down,’ the composer said. It’s heard in the mysterious and lovely opening to the piece, in which the cellos carry the theme that unfolds over tremolo strings – and the symphony did change, positively, how Bruckner’s music was viewed. The Seventh is also a homage to Wagner, whom Bruckner finally met in 1882, a year after he began work on the piece. Bruckner claimed the theme for the Adagio (which was later played at his own funeral) came to him along with a premonition of Wagner’s death – he was proved right a month later.

We named Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 one of the best symphonies ever

Symphony No. 8 in C minor

Almost top is Symphony No. 8. One critic at the premiere of the Eighth thought it was written in ‘nightmarish hangover style’, but it’s since gained a reputation as one of Bruckner’s finest symphonies – for many, in fact, his greatest. The composer himself was happy with it – ‘Hallelujah! … The finale is the most significant movement of my life,’ he exclaimed. Yet that success was hard won. Bruckner began work on his Eighth in 1884 and carried on revising it until its publication in 1892 (so there’s an array of versions on disc). Its blend of terror and consolation, dark and light makes it an intense – and intensely rewarding listening experience.

And Bruckner's best symphony is - (in my opinion!) - Symphony No. 9 in D minor

How can an incomplete symphony be a composer’s best? A fair question, but this last work, left without its finale when Bruckner died in 1896, arguably says all it needs to say in three movements. The piece is dedicated ‘to dear God’; Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic. Two lengthy movements, each around 25 minutes’ long, frame an unsettlingly insistent scherzo. The elemental opening movement is answered by an adagio on a grand scale, encompassing music that probes the depths of troubled angst yet is also visionary. This symphony was, the composer said, his farewell to life. Posthumous completions of the finale, based on surviving sketches, exist, but even without it, this symphony is a towering and satisfying achievement.

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We named Bruckner one of the greatest Austrian composers

Authors

Rebecca Franks
Rebecca FranksJournalist, Critic and former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine

Rebecca Franks is the former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine and a regular classical music critic for The Times. She is currently writing her first children's book.

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