Reconstructing Bruckner’s Tempos

William Carragan
Contributing Editor, Anton Bruckner Collected Edition
Vice-President, Bruckner Society of America

American Record Guide, November-December 1996

[with some supplementary notes from 2017]

Reconstructing Bruckners Tempos
Musikverein Vienna – via Flickr: Aya Sakurazuka

On January 13, 1995, Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in a most remarkable all-Bruckner concert. The program included the dramatic anthem Germanenzug (The Germans’ Campaign), the première of Paul Hawkshaw’s new edition of the early Psalm 146, the pastorale Abendzauber (Evening Magic) for tenor soloist, humming chorus, horns, and yodelers, and the Fifth Symphony in the famous (or notorious) Schalk version of 1894. For an old Bruckner hand like me—indeed for the whole audience—the program was full of interest and provocation. But just as interesting was Botstein’s proposal that a style of Bruckner performance existed in former times, with quicker and more flexible tempos, and climaxes handled with grace rather than bombast. According to Botstein, this early style might have been a casualty of Bruckner’s endorsement by the Third Reich, an impressive, monumental, triumphalist interpretation being more in keeping with the uses to which it was then being put. Botstein then proceeded to conduct the Fifth, especially the first movement, very fluently but at a vertiginous speed. After I got over my shock, I began to see the virtues of his approach, and by the time the wonderful chorale arrived at the end, with Schalk’s (or the composer’s?) amazingly successful supplemental reorchestration, I was quite ready to entertain thoughts of an earlier, leaner, more Schubertian performance style for Bruckner. However, I was not sure when and how such a change from early-lean to modern-heavy might have taken place, and I resolved to undertake a tempo study of some of the symphonies to try to find out.

The Fourth

I had first to choose a symphony with an extensive recording history, going back into the 1930s, which had copious and explicit tempo indications in the first published score to serve as a basis for evaluating changes. I decided to work with the Fourth, which was recorded by Böhm in 1936, Eugen Jochum in 1939, Walter in 1940, Furtwängler in 1941, and Kabasta and Knappertsbusch in 1944. Nearly 100 commercial recordings of this symphony, in five major versions, have been made since! [that is, up to 1996]

The first published version of 1888 derives from a manuscript prepared by Franz Schalk (first three movements) and Ferdinand Löwe (finale) and then given to Bruckner for his comments and revisions. Bruckner entered many modifications in his own hand, including extensions of ideas proposed by Schalk and Löwe. When he was finished, the score was taken to the publisher, Gutmann, with perhaps some final adjustments by Schalk and Löwe. (My source for this history is Benjamin Korstvedt of the University of Iowa [now at Clark University], whose dissertation was devoted to this subject.) In the Finale, in which lay my principal interest, the Löwe score contains metronome markings at the beginning (half note = 72) and also at the great unison theme at the first climax (half note = 66). Then explicit directions call for exact half-tempo at the second theme (around half note = 33), with stepwise changes to somewhat faster tempos during the second theme group. At the third theme, the tempo of the unison theme (66) is to be re-established, and the tempo of the very beginning (72) is to be resumed only at the mysterious onset of the development. The manuscript specifications of this tempo scheme, at first in Löwe’s writing, are continued through the movement in Bruckner’s own hand. Do any of the recorded versions carry out these instructions? No!

Still, the earliest performances show some influence of the 1888 tempos, even when the conductor was using the newly-published Haas edition of 1936 which did not include the metronome markings or the half-tempo specification. Tempos tended to be brisk, though nobody made the great distinction between the tempos of the first and second theme called for by Löwe. Then, about 1953 or 1955, tempos started to become slower, particularly at the great unison theme near the beginning, and at the coda. In the last 40 years, the slowing has become extensive and inexorable, even in the work of a single conductor. For example, at the beginning of the coda, Walter used 56 in 1940 and 48 in 1960; Masur used 61 in 1975 and 46 in 1993; Barenboim used 46 in 1973 and 42 in 1992, and Klemperer, with a very fast 73 in 1951, slowed to 68 in 1954, 62 in 1961, and 56 in 1966. By contrast, Eugen Jochum remained roughly constant between 48 and 43 in five performances from 1939 to 1975, while the general downward trend is confirmed by Celibidache (1974?) and Muti (1985) at 39. At the same time the unison theme has in modern performances become so distended and pretentious as to lose all shape and interest. I presented these results in a paper at the Bruckner conference at the University of Manchester in England in the spring of 1996. That paper included the following sentence: “This downward trend, already seen in whole-movement timings and conclusively shown in individual tempos, cannot proceed much further without fatally damaging the symphony.”

A great virtue of the Löwe tempo scheme is its clear delineation of the structure of the exposition: first theme fast, second theme slow, first theme fast again. Those requirements cannot be ignored without lessening the capacity of the form to carry the listener along. I do not mean to suggest here that the listener must be trained so as to appreciate explicitly the details of formal analysis. Rather, the composer and the interpreter must collaborate in order that the listener may hear the composition most effectively. Thus the composer must create a simple, self-consistent, and complete system of tempo indications, and this obligation is particularly incumbent when the forms are large. In this respect Bruckner’s manuscripts, which have been used as the basis of the Collected Edition, are essentially private, unedited documents, with rather few tempo indications. Only the first publications, largely ignored by the editors of the Collected Edition, contain enough tempo indications to tie up all the loose ends and bring out the form successfully.

To present out these points at the Manchester conference, my friend Aaron Snyder and I prepared a composite tape, taking excerpts from several performances to recreate the Löwe tempos. The result has a combination of stern dignity and warm, flexible lyricism that added up to much more than the individual excerpts might lead one to expect. We used recordings by Dohnányi and Janowski for the first and third themes, and Walter (1960) for the second theme. Dohnányi’s steady grandeur, Janowski’s meteoric intensity, and Walter’s gentle urbanity together made a remarkable listening experience. Maybe someone will soon put it all together in one performance! Meanwhile, I recommend strongly the purchase of these three recordings (move quickly on the Janowski; despite our Editor’s favorable review, it has been remaindered), as well as the Kabasta, the Andreæ, the 1963 Konwitschny, the Mehta (never on CD), the Ormandy, the Milan Horvat recording (presented under the macaronic pseudonym “Denis Zsoltay”), and the wonderful Böhm reading of 1936. Of course the Furtwängler performances of 1951 are essential, and the Knappertsbusch recordings, while not in any way reflecting Löwe’s overall scheme (even though he was using that score!) have an earthy integrity that is irresistible. Where are the modern conductors with their digital recordings? Not in the same league, I am sorry to say.

An incidental result of the study was the demonstration that National Socialism had nothing to do with the change of tempos from fast to slow. Conductors with Nazi sympathies played both fast and slow; so did stern anti-Nazis! If the Nazis wanted more monumentality in their Bruckner, at least in this symphony there was not sufficient time during the 12-year history of the thousand-year Reich to develop such a tradition. But, as we shall see here and elsewhere, other symphonies have different histories.

The Sixth

The Sixth is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps dating from my conversion to Bruckner in 1951 while reading Donald Francis Tovey’s two splendid essays, on the Fourth and the Sixth. As with the Fourth, the first publication of the Sixth contains a few significant tempo indications not present in the manuscript. That edition was prepared before Bruckner’s death by Cyrill Hynais, though it was not published until 1899 by which time Josef Schalk had made many adjustments, particularly to the oboe parts. The tempo indications are rather more modest in number than in the Fourth. The most important ones are those for the first, second, and third themes: Majestoso, Bedeutend langsamer, and Gemässigtes Hauptzeitmaß, etwas breit.  The first word means “grandly” but a moderately quick (allegro) tempo is implied.  The second theme is to be played “significantly slower”, the third at a tempo slightly slower than the beginning and “rather broadly”. Although the first two indications are present in the editions edited by Haas and Nowak, the designation indicating that the third theme is to return nearly to the opening tempo is missing. Yet this instruction is essential for the bringing to life of the form of the first movement..

We do not have many early recordings of the Sixth, but in my own library I have two scores that offer some early information. One is a copy of the Universal-Edition printing of the Hynais score of 1899, which at one time belonged to Kapellmeister Heinz Norfolk in Vienna, and at another time belonged to H. Huber, probably also in Vienna, and in it someone entered time indications every 15 seconds from the beginning of the first-movement recapitulation to the movement’s end. My friend Mark Kluge checked the published records of the Vienna Philharmonic, and found that there was a broadcast concert of the Sixth conducted by Franz Schalk in 1927. It would be fascinating if these notations were in fact relics of a Schalk performance! Certainly they are quite early, and they correspond to no recording of the Sixth that has ever been made. They conclusively indicate a sharply faster third theme. The other score is a copy of the Haas score signed on the first page of music by none other than Paul Hindemith in 1952 at Linz, when he conducted the Sixth there. On the facing page someone kept a record of the movement timings for both the performance and the rehearsal, and these timings reflect an extremely rapid reading.

Recordings that have third themes at a tempo comparable to that of the first theme include those of G.L. Jochum (1944), Henry Swoboda (1951), pseudo-Hans Swarowsky (1960), Rafael Kubelík (1971 and 1981), Wolfgang Sawallisch (1981), Christoph von Dohnányi (1991), and Daniel Barenboim (1994). The Barenboim has been extravagantly praised, but I think the Dohnányi is even better, with a distinctively faster third theme in a very bright and elegant performance. The Sawallisch has usually gotten bad reviews, based on the confused ambience and a certain rough-hewn quality to the playing; but I enjoy it for its good overall organization. Answering an internet request I made for comments, David Lampson wrote to me that “Sawallisch’s reading of the first movement is energetic—full of intensity and passion. Even with the brisker tempo, the introduction of the theme brings a dark, almost mystical feel to the music. Klemperer’s approach is entirely different. With a more relaxed tempo, the deliberate rhythmic pulse that opens the movement evokes majesty, while the treatment of the thematic material brings to mind the romantic notion of the grandeur of nature. At times pastoral, at others dynamic, Klemperer’s vision is wide open and un-mysterious.”  The Klemperer recording to which he refers is the EMI from 1964, where the performance starts very slowly, continues with one of the faster second themes, and barely speeds up at all for the lumbering, heavy third theme. As for the ending of the movement, Lampson says: “Sawallisch’s is a nearly violent climax, a resolution to all the energy that has been building in the movement. Klemperer’s is noble and magnificent.” For me the Dohnányi is outstanding, equalled only by the old Henry Swoboda reading and the three glorious Kubelík performances. Kubelík conducted it in this country in Cleveland and Chicago, at least. (The Editor [Donald Vroon] has a tape of the Cleveland [later issued by the orchestra in a special commemorative set], and the Chicago Symphony has issued theirs on their own CD label. There is also the older recording on Originals with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.)

The issue here is not one of creeping slowness, but instead whether the third theme is to be fast. And certain conductors make it so, with no other indication of familiarity with the oft-derogated but still-valuable Hynais score. Some other performances that do not get much faster at the third theme still make enough of a difference there for a new world to be created. One of these is Georg Tintner’s recording with a Moravian orchestra—a performance that bodes well for the huge forthcoming Naxos series. (Tintner plans to record all symphonies in all versions! As I write this article [1996] he is recording my forthcoming edition of the early Second from manuscript parts.)

The Eighth

The finale of the Eighth has three metronome markings. They are present in the Nowak editions of both the 1887 and 1890 versions, the composite Haas edition, and the first published edition of 1892.  One occurs at the beginning (half note = 69), one is at the second theme (half note = 60), and one is at the recapitulation of the second theme (60 again).  Every conductor of this symphony in every edition and at every time has seen these indications, but do they follow them? No, not ever in recorded history! Most curious is that although only in the rare 1892 score is there an indication for the third theme to return to the initial tempo, most conductors do get faster there. But they rarely come anywhere near the tempos they use for the opening theme, which can be as fast as 94. To my mind such hurtling tempos, at which the trumpeters have no chance of playing their fanfares cleanly, falsify the movement totally, no matter how exciting they may seem at the moment. At present I know of only two recordings in which the opening is performed slower than 70. These are the Knappertsbusch studio performance of 1963, an exact half note = 69, and Klemperer’s 1970 performance on EMI, an astounding half note = 63. This particular Klemperer performance is outrageous, not only for his molasses-like tempos throughout, but also for his cuts in the finale; he excises the codetta and three quarters of the development, as well as the entire third theme group in the reprise. Klemperer’s reading of this symphony with the Cologne orchestra has none of these faults and is one of my favorites. Koussevitzky has similar cuts, but they were necessitated by the 50-minute length of the radio presentation for which the recording was made. In both cases it is too bad we do not have complete recordings, because the concepts behind the performances are interesting and stimulating. (It is even sadder to see that fifty years later, public radio stations have almost universally adopted a dumbed-down hour-by-hour format that pretty much eliminates Bruckner, Mahler, and much of Shostakovich while benefiting nobody except the station administrators.)

The 1963 Knappertsbusch performance was described by the redoubtable Jack Diether in American Record Guide as “just like slow motion,” and “a bore, but a magnificent bore”—perhaps partly because after directing the first theme at exactly the specified tempo of 69, Kna goes on to the second theme at 42 instead of 60. The recording that comes closest to the 69-60-69 contour specified in 1892 is Takashi Asahina’s with the New Japan Philharmonic on Fontec 9054. Of similar character are the Neeme Järvi, the Furtwängler at Vienna in 1954, and the Furtwängler at Berlin (Titania Palast) in 1949; then Kubelík, Berlin Karajan and Vienna Karajan in 1988, the fine López-Cobos, one of his best, the Vienna Schuricht, and Horenstein. Some will be troubled to see Karajan on this list; he comes nowhere near the short lists for the other symphonies. Karajan does tend to play everything legato, which is particularly irritating in the scherzo. Many listeners would rather have the tempos wrong and the articulation and the mood correct. The 1944 Karajan (Prussian State Orchestra) is extremely slow, but over the years Karajan’s Eighth grew steadily faster, tending to come closer to satisfying the demands of the score. The performances of Bruckner symphonies with Hans Knappertsbusch as conductor are endlessly fascinating and enriching, even though they satisfy hardly any tempo criterion one may be able to establish. With little of Furtwängler’s intellectual approach, they still have a personal quality of earnestness and lyrical grace that overwhelms any objection one may have to the occasional sloppy entrance.

Other performances of interest must include the Mravinsky, now available in the second large set of CDs (the Ninth was in the first set), the Suitner, a splendid reading well received by Jerry Fox elsewhere in this issue [November/December 1996], and the Eichhorn. Asahina’s Eighths are his best work, and the more recent recordings seem to contain somewhat better orchestral playing than the earlier ones. The Fontec set of Symphonies 4, 5, 7, and 8 is lavishly presented and quite attractive.

In the finale of the Eighth, the performance of the first theme at 69 and the second theme at 60, returning imperceptibly to 69 as the third theme approaches, would produce a far more authentic allegro feeling than the frequent present practice, which is to start with a minute-and-a-half of hysterical activity at 88 and then begin another slow movement at a tempo of 46. One must remember that Bruckner, a symphonist among symphonists, revered and imitated Beethoven, and Beethoven concluded his symphonies with robust allegros. Robert Simpson’s commendation of Sergiu Celibidache for transforming the finale of the Fourth into another adagio is misplaced. It is possible, of course, to see beauty in a performance at any speed, but I should think that the beauty that proceeds from the composer’s own specifications might have a chance to be greater and more profound.


I am grateful to David Aldeborgh of Poughkeepsie, New York, the founder of the Bruckner Archive [now carried on by John Berky], and to Mark Kluge, both strong supporters of the first published editions, for supplying many recordings not in my collection, and to them and to Aaron Snyder, Benjamin Korstvedt, and Paul Nudelman for helpful suggestions.

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