and the Three-Theme Exposition
Contributing Editor, Anton Bruckner Collected Edition, Vienna
Vice-President, Bruckner Society of America
Published in the Bruckner Journal, March 2017
Everyone first becoming familiar with Anton Bruckner’s music learns that he regarded the outer movements of his symphonies to be simply of two parts. Analysts recognize the first part to comprise the exposition of classical sonata form, but with three themes instead of the usual two, while the second part constitutes the development, recapitulation and coda. In this paper I investigate the possible sources for that compositional method as it might be employed in other nineteenth-century symphonies. The database contains detailed structural analyses of the outer movements of all eleven Bruckner symphonies and the Quintet, as well as of 87 symphonic movements, overtures, and tone poems of 29 other composers, with dates of composition from 1800 to 1872 (the composition date of Bruckner’s Second Symphony) and beyond.
The idea of a three-theme exposition
In Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg (1947, rev. 1977) the many-talented Dika Newlin has this to say (p. 90): “Bruckner has often been credited with introducing a ‘third theme’ into the exposition of the symphonic sonata form. This statement must be subjected to much qualification. The codetta section which, following the subordinate theme-group, closes the exposition of the classical sonata, is quite likely to have an independent theme or motive of its own, though that is not always the case… We may assert that, here as elsewhere, Bruckner did not invent a new symphonic conception but rather expanded the classical frame. It goes without saying, however, that the ideas he expressed always became completely his own by reason of his artistic personality and will, whatever their historical sources may have been. Thus, the tutti unisono, which was originally a stock operatic gesture and as such passed into the classical symphony, in Bruckner’s hands becomes the hallmark of the codetta theme, which is of energetic, forceful character, and which (again following classical tradition) is likely to be related to the principal theme… After introducing a powerful motive of this kind, Bruckner likes to close his exposition in a thoughtful, meditative mood, for contrast.” Consulting other writers, we find that Donald Francis Tovey, in his notes on the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies (Essays in Musical Analysis, vol. 2, pp. 69–84, 1936), does not mention the concept of a third theme, but he does call attention to the third themes as he walks his way through the music. Robert Simpson in The Essence of Bruckner (rev. ed. 1992), has longer essays written in much the same style on all the numbered symphonies, and explicitly uses the term “third theme” only twice: on page 80, discussing the finale of the Third, he writes “The third theme is an impressively disjointed unison”, and on page 174, where in the discussion of the first movement of the Seventh, he says of the unison theme that it “should not be regarded only as a ‘third subject,’” having in mind a particularly resourceful use of it in the development. Yet he certainly has the three-theme idea in mind. Derek Watson says on page 74 of Bruckner (1975) that “a third thematic group becomes steadily more important and like the other two groups is composed of strongly contrasted material, although in some cases it is thematically related to them. In the finale of Symphony no. 2 the pattern of transition from exposition to development, which Bruckner follows in every succeeding outer movement, emerges. After a gigantic cadence marking the end of the first main section of the movement, the music remains still for a moment, ruminating gently on the foregoing thematic material, and so the development begins with slowly unfolding energy.” This quiet passage is of course the real codetta, and at that place in the Second there is a striking quotation of the F Minor Mass which in the earlier version is placed also at the end of the recapitulation, before the long coda. Watson’s “gigantic cadence” at the end of the third theme group is never conclusive, though; it requires a quiet codetta to resolve the structure of the exposition before the development can begin. The common practice of symphonic composers is to have a loud codetta with frequent internal repetitions conclude the exposition strongly; in this respect Bruckner’s method is distinctively his own, as we shall see. And in his own Bruckner, Hans-Hubert Schönzeler states on page 150: “A novelty with Bruckner is the great importance given to the third subject. This usually occurs near the end of the exposition and is sometimes a completely new theme, sometimes closely related to earlier material. The idea of such a third or ‘coda’ subject was not new—Beethoven had already introduced it in his Eroica—but never before had it been given such prominence.” Among authors writing in German, Wilhelm Zentner on pages 89–91 of Anton Bruckner (1946) discusses the characteristics and function of the three theme groups in explicit detail, and the redoubtable Max Auer, on page 227 of Anton Bruckner, sein Leben und Werk (1941), analyzes the first movement of the Second using the letters A, B, and C to represent the first, second, and third theme groups, accompanied by an analysis with the same divisions as mine (with measure numbers from Haas), although in other analyses he uses the three letters rather differently but still comprehensibly. Table 1 shows Auer’s analyses of the first and fourth movements; the measure numbers are of the mixed score prepared by Haas, which is what Auer had at his disposal. In the analysis of the finale, there are three anomalies: Auer made the development start too late, Auer began the reprise too late, Auer took Haas’s vi-de to cut the codetta at the end of the recapitulation, but none of the other Haasian cuts.
Table 1. Analyses of Bruckner’s Second Symphony
|A||g-moll||in §1 (A1)||251|
Erwin Doernberg in The Life and Symphonies of Anton Bruckner (1960) uses this terminology consistently, starting on page 125, in discussing the highly unusual situation in the first movement of the First Symphony. And finally Werner Wolff in Anton Bruckner, Rustic Genius (1942) on pages 163–165 writes: “The introduction of an additional secondary theme to the usual single secondary theme contributed to making the movements not only larger but also polymorphic. This item was not absolutely new with Bruckner. Some writers have pointed out that the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony also has three themes. I do not agree with them. What is actually new in Bruckner’s symphonies is the amplification of the exposition, wherein the two subsidiary themes are given their own development to such an extent that one would better speak of two subsidiary sections within the exposition.”
The basic character of the exposition is well laid out by these authorities and many others, although in modern analysis we use the terms “first theme group”, “second theme group”, and “third theme group” rather than “principal” and “subordinate” or “subsidiary”, while reserving the designation “codetta” for the quieter closing passage, rather than, for example, Auer’s “Episode”. Aside from certain melodic resemblances which in individual cases may or may not exist, the theme groups are totally distinct, often separated by pauses, especially at the beginning of the second group. The first theme group or Einleitung (in Bruckner’s terminology) begins with an ostinato against which a melody appears and is developed. In many cases a second theme appears in the first theme group, still in the tonic; this theme can be a loud, developed restatement of the opening theme or a completely different idea. The second theme group or Gesangsperiode is a lyrical passage which is itself in three sections, the middle of which is somewhat contrasting. Occasionally two melodic ideas are combined contrapuntally in a quite ornate texture. The third theme group or Schlußperiode usually begins very strongly, often in unison, and after some thematic evolution a gentle, new melody ends the exposition quietly. The distinguishing features include these: (1) the themes do not blend into each other, (2) the third theme group does not have a valedictory character, and (3) the codetta grows out of the third theme group while becoming completely independent of it. We can be quite sure that this pattern is followed in the outer movements of symphonies 2 through 9, including the first movement of the Quintet, and the finale of the Ninth as demonstrated in any reasonable completion. But as to whether the first three symphonies, the F minor, the First, and the D minor, also follow this pattern, an argument must be made just as it must for the other over 80 cases in the database. In the present study, the positions of onset of each theme were determined in the course of analysis, the points of measurement being the beginning of the first group or A1, the second theme of the first group or A2, if it exists, the beginning of the second group or B1, the second theme of the second group or B2 or alternatively the third group C if either exists, and the codetta or K. The positions are expressed as percentages of the entire exposition, extending from the beginning of the movement or the end of the slow introduction if there is one to the onset of the development. No attention is paid to the recapitulation in this study, as it is often shortened or extended and heavily developed at the composer’s free option, especially so in Bruckner’s later works. The onset positions are determined sometimes by measure count, sometimes by measure count corrected using idealized metronome markings differing from group to group, and often through measurements of recorded performances. The source details of each analysis and the full analytical charts of each movement are given below.
During the study I felt that a precursor to Bruckner’s three-theme exposition would be one in which there is room for a third or C theme to exist, but the music which actually exists at that point might or might not have the character of one of Bruckner’s C themes. For example, there is no doubt that in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, the Sinfonia Eroica, there is room for a third theme. Indeed the B1 theme begins in B flat at 34 percent of the way through the exposition, with another lyrical theme in B flat at 69% and the codetta at 81%. But nobody hearing the B2 theme would think for a minute that it is of the Bruckner cast, or fulfills the function of one of Bruckner’s third themes. That is not only because it is a quiet lilting melody, not a stentorian unison; even more importantly, in the Beethoven the codetta is a triumphant prolongation of the B2 theme, being welded firmly to the music preceding it, not a still, meditative, independent gesture as in Bruckner’s formal procedure. Thus we may say that the Eroica possesses the potentiality of the use of a C theme, but not the actuality of it. The first movement of Beethoven’s Eighth is of a similar structure, the B1 theme being at 36% and a distinctive, rhythmic B2 theme lying at 50%, but the latter is firmly welded to an early codetta lying at 67%, very unlike Bruckner’s procedure. By contrast, the outer movements of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony and the first movement of the Ninth have B themes starting at 50%, 56%, and 50% respectively and even the major event in the Ninth at 64% is connected to the codetta at 83%. The finale of the Beethoven Seventh has almost exactly the same proportions.
It has been frequently said, by such people as are quoted above as well as others, that Bruckner was the first to take on the creative challenge of the first three movements of the Beethoven Ninth. In order to evaluate this idea, we need to look first at Bruckner’s own outer movements, applying to them the criteria which we will use to determine the affinity of Bruckner’s structures to those of the other movements in the database. Table 2 displays the results of calculations for the outer movements of Bruckner’s Symphonies 2 through 9; the three early symphonies will be placed with the other composers’ work, as it is not self-evident that they have three-theme expositions. Columns are established for two themes in the first group and one theme each in the second and third groups, concluding with the codetta; these are respectively A1, A2, B, C, and K. The numbers represent the percentage of the total exposition at which those themes or theme groups begin. The first movement of the Eroica is appended for comparison.
|Table 2. Bruckner’s symphonic expositions|
|Bruckner||Sym. 2 Blomstedt||1872||1||1||14||34||54||88|
|Bruckner||Sym. 2 Blomstedt||1872||4||0||12||29||62||83|
|Bruckner||Sym. 3 Blomstedt||1873||1||1||13||51||76||87|
|Bruckner||Sym. 3 ideal||1873||4||0||7||18||74||95|
|Bruckner||Sym. 4 ideal||1874||4||0||11||40||75||91|
|Bruckner||Sym. 5 Zander||1878||1||2||12||23||85||90|
|Bruckner||Sym. 5 Zander||1878||4||0||16||58||82|
|Bruckner||Sym. 6 ideal||1881||1||1||13||28||74||91|
|Bruckner||Sym. 6 ideal||1881||4||1||14||35||71||95|
|Bruckner||Sym. 7 ideal||1885||1||1||12||28||72||92|
|Bruckner||Sym. 7 ideal||1885||4||0||18||67||92|
|Bruckner||Sym. 8 ideal||1887||4||1||23||53||86|
|Bruckner||Sym. 9 (Carragan)||2016||4||2||18||32||75||94|
|Beethoven||Sym. 3 Eroica||1804||1||0||22||34||69||81|
For symphonies by most composers the listing for A1 is zero because the A or A1 theme usually starts at the beginning of the exposition, after the slow introduction if there is one. But Bruckner characteristically places his main themes at a point (often just two measures) after the start of an ostinato of some sort. The column for A2 is only filled when there is an explicit second idea in the first theme group. This idea could be a new thought, as in movements 2/4 (finale of the Second), 3/1 (first movement of the Third), 3/4, 4/1, 4/4, 6/4, 8/4, 9/1, and 9/4, or instead a louder and re-orchestrated version of the initial theme, as in 2/1, 5/1, 6/1, 7/1, and 8/1. Or there might be no such event, as in the early symphonies, 5/4, the quintet, 7/1, and 8/4, the finale of the early D minor symphony being a notable exception. The B1 theme always reflects the firm establishment of a new tonality, classically in the dominant or the relative major. But with Bruckner, starting with 2/4 and 3/4, the B theme can begin in quite a remote key, the shift to the dominant or relative major being deferred to the C theme, and in 5/1 moved still later to the codetta K. The column headed C is of course Bruckner’s characteristic third theme, a melody or series of melodies independent of the B theme and distinct from it, followed by a codetta which is itself independent. In the main database and in the following Table 3 consisting mostly of symphonies not by Bruckner, this column is headed B2, pending resolution of whether the theme following B1 could be regarded as a C theme of Brucknerian character. The K column identifies the first theme with regular phrasal repetitions or with some other feature that seems valedictory or codetta-like. For both movements of Bruckner’s symphonies 2 through 9 this is a separate, detached phenomenon, with the exception of 6/4 where the codetta is only marked by the arrival of the bass on the new tonic, E.
Are there any precursors?
Table 3 shows calculations for the 32 movements in the database by other composers, in which the B or B1 theme occurs earlier than 44% of the way through the exposition. The analyses were of precisely the same type as those carried out for Table 2. Here also are included results for the six outer movements of Bruckner’s first three symphonies, composed before his move to Vienna, which for now are not assumed to have true C themes.
Table 3. Expositions of symphonic movements by other composers
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 5 Zander||1878||4||0||16||58||82|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 3 ideal||1873||4||0||18||74||95|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 7 ideal||1884||4||0||18||67||92|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 5 Zander||1878||1||2||12||23||85||90|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 8 ideal||1887||4||1||23||53||86|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 6 ideal||1881||1||1||13||28||74||91|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 7 ideal||1884||1||1||12||28||72||92|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 8 measures||1887||1||1||14||32||62||82|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 9 Carragan||2016||4||2||18||32||75||94|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 3 Eroica||1804||1||0||34||69||81|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 4||1806||4||0||35||61||84|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 6 ideal||1881||4||1||14||35||71||95|
|C. M. von||Weber||Euryanthe||1823||—||0||19||35||77|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 8||1812||1||0||11||36||50||67|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 2||1802||1||0||13||39||54||78|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 4 ideal||1874||4||0||11||40||75||91|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 1||1800||1||0||20||40||68||77|
|Anton||Eberl||Sym. E flat major||1805||1||0||16||40||68||80|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 4||1806||1||0||41||63||75|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 4 measures||1874||1||1||29||41||71||91|
|Anton||Bruckner||Sym. 9 measures||1891||1||4||24||42||73||96|
|Anton||Eberl||Sym. E flat major||1805||4||0||25||43||58||65|
|W. A.||Mozart||Sym. 41||1788||1||0||46||67||83|
|C. M. von||Weber||Oberon||1826||—||0||6||46||68||94|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 6||1808||1||0||20||48||67||88|
|Leopold||Damrosch||Sym. A major||1878||4||0||48||82|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 2||1802||4||0||10||49||78|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 7||1812||1||0||23||49||69||83|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 8||1812||4||0||29||49||70||92|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 5||1808||1||0||35||50||75||88|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 7||1812||4||0||26||50||65||87|
|Ludwig van||Beethoven||Sym. 9||1824||1||0||11||50||64||83|
I shall now consider the case of each of these movements, starting with the case of the earliest onset of the B1 theme, which is the first movement of Mendelssohn’s first symphony for full orchestra. (Note that no fewer than five of the Bruckner movements in Table 2 have earlier onsets!) My remarks will be brief, but there will always be at least an implicit judgment as to whether the movement being considered could be a true precursor of Bruckner’s three-theme technique. These notes should be regarded as guides for listening, and all of these compositions, even the most unjustly obscure, can be heard on You-Tube. You have your assignments.