Anton Bruckner's String Quintet

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Anton Bruckner's String Quintet in F, written between December 1878 and July 1879, was premièred in Vienna on 17 November 1881.[1] The work, together with the earlier String Quartet in C minor (1862), represents Bruckner's only contribution to the chamber music repertoire. The quintet was highly criticised by Bruckner's contemporaries Johannes Brahms, who himself cultivated the string quintet genre on three occasions (1882, 1890 and 1891), and the Austrian critic Ernst Décsey in 1920, and was also questioned by later scholars such as Hans Redlich in 1955, who accused Bruckner of being rather ‘incapable of keeping ... within the boundaries of this restricted [chamber] medium',[2] and Mathias Hansen in 1999, who asserted that the work contained an imbalance between the symphonic and chamber style.[3] This selection of criticisms reflects Anton Bruckner's traditional association with large-scale instrumental and choral forms, and particularly the symphonic idiom: ‘Bruckner is remembered primarily for his symphonies and sacred compositions'.[4] A consideration of Bruckner's collected works reveals an oeuvre heavily weighted in favour of genres which employ large-scale orchestral and choral forces, as in the nine symphonies and the three published masses, as opposed to the relatively small output of material for chamber ensembles and solo keyboard.[5]

This academic approach to Anton Bruckner's String Quintet in F is derived from a performance of the work by the Platnauer Ensemble, with whom I played as an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford, at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, in December 2008. Having played other quintets by composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Dvořák, after playing through the Bruckner quintet my ensemble and I were particularly fascinated and intrigued by the diversity of generic styles contained in Bruckner's engagement with the quintet idiom, and vowed to at least attempt to produce a comprehensive academic study of the work.

Therefore, it is the contention of this thesis, which is submitted as a contribution to the award of Master of Music at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, as part of the University of Glamorgan Group, to consider Bruckner's string quintet from a spectrum of musical perspectives, such as historical, autobiographical and generic context, conventional thematic and harmonic analysis, historical reception of the work, its relationship with Bruckner's other works, the analysis and comparison of contemporary recordings of the quintet, and a discussion of its position within the twenty-first-century performance repertoire. As such, this study will be structured into chapters, as follows:

I. Introduction, Historical & Compositional Context

II. A Proposed Analysis of the String Quintet in F

III. Historical Reception and Criticism

IV. Recorded Performances Analysed and Compared

V. Contemporary Status of the Quintet and Conclusive Discussion

Initially, I will profile the status of the string quintet in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, contextualise the genesis and compositional process of the quintet, discussing why and where Bruckner produced the work, to whom it was dedicated, and the conditions of its original performances and published editions. I will then establish how the respective movements of the quintet function by means of interaction between the five solo instruments, through a detailed examination of Bruckner's treatment of structure, thematic material and harmony, in addition to his exploitation of the quintet idiom. Continuing, I shall engage with a spectrum of critical assessments of the work, considering value judgements based on symphonic or chamber expectations, or indeed both. In both the second and third chapter I shall address the quintet in a general context, but, in order to harness the length of this thesis, apply focus to the Adagio. In my fourth chapter I shall discuss the revival of the quintet into the modern performance canon, and consider the performance style and success of four recordings, by the Alberni Quartet with Garfield Jackson (1999), the Fine Arts Quartet with Gil Sharon (2008), and the orchestral arrangements of the Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (1999) and the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony (2002). I shall offer a comparative performance analysis of each of these four recordings, drawing inspiration from Carolyn Abbate's insightfully thought-provoking article ‘Music - Drastic or Gnostic?'.[6] Ultimately, my aim is to judge Bruckner's String Quintet in F on the basis of its unique generic identity and what I believe to be its convincing functionality, and to both examine and document its rising position within the performance canon, in order to offer a riposte to the question posed by Elisabeth von Herzogenberg to Johannes Brahms, her former piano teacher, in January 1885: ‘has Bruckner's Quintet really had such a success?'.[7]

[1] L. Nowak, ‘Preface' (trans. R. Rickett), in L. Nowak (ed.), Streichquintett F-dur & Intermezzo D-moll, Anton Bruckner: Sämtliche Werke Band Vol. 13 No. 2 (1963).

[2] H. F. Redlich, ‘Bruckner and Brahms Quintets in F', Music & Letters, 36/3 (July 1955), 253-258.

[3] M. Hansen, ‘Bruckners “Ton”: Das Streichquintett im Umfeld der Symphonien', in A. Riethmüller (ed.), Bruckner-Probleme: Internationales Kolloquium 7.-9. Oktober 1996 in Berlin (1999), 97-103.

[4] P. Hawkshaw and T. L. Jackson, ‘Bruckner, Anton', in L. Macy (ed.), Grove Music Online [accessed 01-12-2009].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Carolyn Abbate, ‘Music - Drastic or Gnostic?', Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Chicago, 2004), 505-536.

[7] Quoted in Redlich, op. cit., 257.