Symphony No. 3 (Bruckner)

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Symphony No. 3
by Anton Bruckner
Bruckner opdracht.jpg
Dedication to Wagner
Key D minor
Catalogue WAB 103
  • 1872 (1872)–1873 (1873):
  • 1876 (1876)–1877 (1877):
  • 1889 (1889):
Dedication Richard Wagner
Recorded 1952 (1952) Gerd Rubahn, Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester
Movements 4
Date 16 December 1877 (1877-12-16)
Location Vienna
Conductor Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 3 in D minor, WAB 103, was dedicated to Richard Wagner and is sometimes known as his "Wagner Symphony".[1] It was written in 1873, revised in 1877 and again in 1889.

The work has been characterised as "difficult", and is regarded by some as Bruckner's artistic breakthrough.[2] According to Rudolf Kloiber, the third symphony "opens the sequence of Bruckner's masterpieces, in which his creativity meets monumental ability of symphonic construction."[3] The work is notorious as the most-revised of Bruckner's symphonies, and there exist no fewer than six versions, with three of them, the 1873 original version, the 1877-78 version, and the composer's last thoughts of 1889, being widely performed today.


Bruckner wrote the first version of the symphony in 1873. In September 1873, before the work was finished, Bruckner visited Richard Wagner, whom he had first met in 1865 at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in Munich.[4] Bruckner showed both his Second and Third symphonies to Wagner, asking him to pick one he preferred. To Bruckner's delight, Wagner chose the Third, and Bruckner dedicated the symphony to the master he highly respected. After getting home, Bruckner continued to work on the symphony, finishing the finale on 31 December 1873.[5]

According to an anecdote, Bruckner and Wagner drank so much beer together that, upon arriving home, Bruckner realized that he had forgotten which symphony Wagner had chosen. He wrote a letter back to Wagner saying "Symphony in D minor, where the trumpet begins the theme?". Wagner scribbled back "Yes! Best wishes! Richard Wagner." Ever since then, Wagner referred to Bruckner as "Bruckner the trumpet" and the two became firm friends. In the dedication, Bruckner referred to Wagner as "the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music".

The premiere of this Symphony was given in Vienna in 1877. The conductor was to be Johann von Herbeck, but he died a month beforehand so Bruckner himself had to step in and conduct. The concert was a complete disaster: although a decent choral conductor, Bruckner was a barely competent orchestral director: the Viennese audience, which was not sympathetic to his work to begin with, gradually left the hall as the music played.[6] Even the orchestra fled at the end, leaving Bruckner alone with a few supporters, including Gustav Mahler. (The score was later owned by Mahler; his widow Alma Mahler ensured she took it with her when fleeing the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 for the United States.)[7]

Stunned by this debacle, Bruckner made several revisions of his work, leaving out significant amounts of music including most quotations from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and Die Walküre. The original 1873 score was not published until 1977.


The symphony has been described as "heroic" in nature. Bruckner's love for the grand and majestic is reflected especially in the first and last movements. Stark contrasts, cuts and forcefulness mark the signature of the entire composition.[8] The signal-like trombone thema, heard at the beginning after the two crescendo waves, constitutes a motto for the whole symphony.[9] Many typical elements of his later symphonies, such as the cyclical penetration of all movements and especially the apotheosis at the coda of the finale, which ends with the trombone thema, are heard in the Third for the first time.[10]

The symphony has four movements:

  1. Gemäßigt, mehr bewegt, misterioso (Moderate, more animated, mysterious) (also Sehr langsam, misterioso) — D minor
  2. Adagio. Bewegt, quasi Andante (With motion, as if Andante) — E-flat major
  3. Scherzo. Ziemlich schnell (Fairly fast) (also Sehr schnell) — D minor, ending in D major. Trio in A major
  4. Finale. Allegro (also Ziemlich schnell) — D minor, ending in D major


The symphony requires an instrumentation of one pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.


According to widespread opinion, the Third can be regarded as Bruckner's artistic breakthrough. In it, the "real and complete Bruckner" comes into expression for the first time.[11] According to Rudolf Kloiber, the third symphony "opens the sequence of Bruckner's masterpieces, in which his creativity meets monumental ability of symphonic construction."[3] However, the difficult work has never received general critical acceptance. Especially the question of the different versions and their judgement is still as open as ever.[12]

Despite being very critical of this Symphony, Robert Simpson quoted a passage from the first movement, rehearsal letter F, in his own Symphony No. 9. Simpson later modified his critical view (expressed in the 1966 edition of his The Essence of Bruckner) after encountering the 1873 version, which he described in a programme note for the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1987 as '...a great work – not perfect by any means but possessing a majestic momentum the later revisions altogether destroyed.'

Symphony No. 3 was a favorite of conductor Hans Knappertsbusch.


The 1873 version was the version that Bruckner sent to Wagner for his approval. It is available in an edition by Leopold Nowak (published 1977), which is based on Wagner's fair copy. It was first performed by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in Australia in 1978.

Bruckner revised it in 1874. As described by Carragan in its presentation paper "Three between Two",[13] the 1874 version is, movement for movement, of the same length and structure as the 1873 original version, but there are many passages, particularly in the first movement, with major changes in texture (canonic imitation) and orchestration. The 1874 version has been premiered and recorded by Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva.

The 1876 Adagio is available in an edition by Nowak which was published in 1980.

The 1877 version, which was first published without Scherzo coda by Oeser in 1950, was republished with the Scherzo coda of 1878 by Nowak in 1981. A transcription of this version for piano duet was prepared by Gustav Mahler and Rudolf Krzyzanowski.

The 1889 version was published by Nowak back in 1959.

The first published version of 1890, edited by Rättig (Vienna), remains controversial because it hasn't been ascertained how much it reflected Bruckner's wishes, and how much it was influenced by Josef and Franz Schalk.


The first commercial recording of part of this symphony was made by Anton Konrath with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1928. It featured only the scherzo and trio.

The oldest complete performance preserved on disc is by Eugen Jochum with the Hamburg State Theatre Orchestra from 1944.

The first commercial recording of the complete symphony was made in 1953. The recording, from a live concert, was issued by the Allegro-Royale label with the conductor "Gerd Rubahn" (pseudonym for Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt).[14] This historical recording has been remastered to CD (CD BSVD-0114).

The 1890 Rättig edition is generally used by the older conductors of the LP era, such as Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Carl Schuricht conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

With the dawn of the CD era, the 1877 and 1889 versions, as edited by Nowak, were more commonly used, by conductors such as Bernard Haitink and Karl Böhm.

Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra for Warner Classics was in 1983 the first to record the 1873 version. Georg Tintner conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra followed 15 years later on the Naxos label. As Tintner writes, "this work as originally conceived suffered by its progressive mutilations more and more, and we should take the time to play and to listen to this amazing original."[15]

Gerd Schaller first recorded the 1874 version, edited by William Carragan, with the Philharmonie Festiva.

To facilitate comparison of the different versions, Johannes Wildner conducting the New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia, in a studio recording (SonArte/Naxos) offers multi-disc sets. Naxos includes both the 1877 and 1889 versions while SonArte includes all three of the 1873, 1877 and 1889 versions.


  • Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen (editor): Bruckner Handbuch. J.B. Metzler'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung and Carl Ernst Poeschel Vergal GmbH, Stuttgart, 2010, ISBN 978-3-476-02262-2
  • Rudolf Kloiber: Handbuch der klassischen und romantischen Symphonie. Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden, 1964, ISBN 3-7651-0017-X


  1. ^ Ethan Mordden, A Guide to Orchestral Music: The Handbook for Non-Musicians. New York: Oxford University Press: 211, 1980. "Bruckner himself called his Third the "Wagner" Symphony because he was hoping for Wagner's support in some small way, such as being permitted to dedicate the score to him."
  2. ^ Hinrichsen, p. 164. Das "schwierige Durchbruchswerk", quote from Peter Gülke: Brahms. Bruckner. Zwei Studien. Kalles u.a. 1989.
  3. ^ a b Kloiber, 1964: So eröffnet die Dritte die Reihe der Brucknerschen Meisterschöpfungen, bei denen sich Erfindungskraft mit monumentalem symphonischem Gestaltungsvermögen paaren.
  4. ^ Kloiber, p.250
  5. ^ Hinrichsen, p.152
  6. ^ Korstvedt, Benjamin M. (2000). Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Cambridge University Press, pp. 65–66
  7. ^ Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, p. 166
  8. ^ Hinrichsen, p. 162
  9. ^ Hinrichsen, p. 155
  10. ^ Hinrichsen, p. 152
  11. ^ Hinrichsen, p. 151. Hinter dieses Werk gab es kein Zurück mehr, und allgemeiner Einschätzung nach ist in der "Wagner-Sinfonie" (vgl. Briefe I, 153) der "echte und ganze Bruckner als fertige und abgeschlossene Erscheinung" erstmals zu finden".
  12. ^ Hinrichsen, p. 163
  13. ^ William Carragan, Three between Two – The Evolution of Brass Writing in Bruckner’s Third Symphony, 1873–1889
  14. ^ The “Gerd Rubahn” Symphony No. 3 (Updated July 8, 2013)
  15. ^ Leaflet of Tintner's recording of the 1873 version, Naxos CD 8.553454, 1998

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