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String Quintet


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I. A Proposed Analysis of the String Quintet in F

If the only thing Bruckner had ever written for string instruments had been the slow movement to his string quintet, his reputation would have been secured for all time. The entire work is so admirable that it is hard to believe that its creator had little familiarity with string chamber music. Though true, it is hard to credit that Bruckner did not know Beethoven's late string quartets at the time he wrote this work. Its harmonies are quite unique and characteristic of Bruckner's love of harmonic seconds and half tones. As a result, the intonation is at times quite difficult to get right but even amateurs need to overcome these so as to make the acquaintance of this magnificent work. The first movement, Gemäßig, entirely avoids the usual Allegro mood one expects to find in a first movement. The plastic main theme is full of yearning and developed at great length until the entrance of the lyrical second theme, which conveys almost unimaginable bliss. The second movement, Scherzo, is highly syncopated though here, as opposed to its appearance in his symphonies, it is gentler and has a melancholy, contemplative mood to it. The trio section is closely related to the old-style minuet though it is full of feeling. The aforementioned slow movement, Adagio, takes one directly to heaven. This is music of affirmation and there is no sense of resignation to an inevitable and unwished for fate. The tonal color is quite unique, especially when the cello falls silent. The main theme of the finale, Lebhaft bewegt, has a staccato motif over an organ-like underpinning. The slower delightful second theme is a real piece of Austrian folk music and the variations on it are very pleasing.[1]

Above is a useful aesthetic and dimensional introduction to the String Quintet in F, as expressed by the prominent German musicologist Wilhelm Altmann, who lived between 1862 and 1951. A facsimile of the 1926 Universal Edition miniature score of the quintet is included as an appendix, and it is suggested that one experiences both the score and its realisation before engaging with the content of this thesis. It is not the purpose here to provide a rigorous analytical discussion, however, what follows is a proposed structural overview of the four movements of the work, which will be followed by a detailed examination of the Adagio.

Moderato (F minor)

1 - 98


1 - 72

Primary Subject Group

73 - 98

Primary Subject Group

99 - 170


171 - 273

Recapitulation and Coda
Scherzo (D minor)

1 - 62


63 - 82

Più lento

83 - 119


Trio - Più lento


Da Capo 1 - 119

Vivace- Più lento -Vivace
Adagio (G flat minor)

1 - 18

Primary Subject Group

18 - 34

Transition I

35 - 56

Secondary Subject Group

57 - 66

Transition II

67 - 82

Simultaneous Recapitulation/Elaboration of Primary Subject Group

83 - 138

Simultaneous Recapitulation/Elaboration of Secondary Subject Group

139 - 167

Simultaneous Recapitulation/Elaboration of Primary Subject Group

167 - 173

Coda: Tonic (G flat minor) consolidation by restatements and dominant implications

Finale (D flat minor à F major)

1 - 16

Primary ‘Quartet' Theme (Vivace)

17 - 32

Contrapuntal Quintet Theme (Im Tempo etwas nachgebend)

33 - 70

Cantabile Theme (Langsamer)

71 - 108

Agitato imitative theme

109 - 114

Simultaneous Recapitulation/Elaboration of Cantabile Theme

115 - 158

Synthesis and Elaboration of all themes

159 - 195

Recapitulation of Primary ‘Quartet' Theme and concluding fff cadential flourish


According to Leopold Nowak, the third movement of the String Quintet in F, the Adagio, was composed between 10 and 31 March 1879.[2] Initially, I will establish how the Adagio functions by means of interaction between the five solo instruments, through a detailed examination of Bruckner's treatment of structure, thematic material and harmony throughout the movement, in addition to his exploitation of the quintet idiom. In the following chapter, ‘III. Historical Reception and Criticism', I will engage with a spectrum of critical assessments of this particular movement, considering value judgements based on symphonic or chamber expectations, or indeed both.

Timothy L. Jackson has documented how throughout his career ‘Bruckner considered sonata form to comprise of essentially two (rather than three) large spatial units, whereby the exposition is one element and the development and recapitulation together form the other'.[3] Bruckner, according to Jackson, referred to the development and recapitulation of the opening movement of Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1894) as ‘the second part', or ‘2. Abtheilung'.[4] Table 1, overleaf, displays how the Adagio convincingly functions as a two-part movement. In harmonic terms, Bruckner creates a divide between the respective sections by travelling further from the tonic and its mediant, which form the basis of the first section, to keys such as D minor and E flat in the second section. The thematic treatment in the respective sections further supports the notion of two-part division in the Adagio, with thematic material being presented in an original context between bars 1 and 66,[5] but with the juxtaposition of recapitulation with regeneration, or development, throughout bars 67 to 173.

Table 1 - Analysis Diagram

Bar Reference

Structural Position



Tonal Function

Thematic Function

1 - 18

Section 1

Primary Subject Group

Tonic (G flat minor) established (bar 13)

Exposition of themes A (violin I, bb. 1-9) + B (violin I, bb. 10-12)

18 - 34

Transition 1

G flat minor à

B flat minor

Link subject groups + consolidate B

35 - 56

Secondary Subject Group

B flat minor consolidated (bars 56-57)

Exposition of themes

C (viola I, bb. 37-41), D (cello, bb. 51-4) + E (cello, bb. 55-7)

57 - 66

Transition 2

Tonic preparation (implied V7c at bar 66)

Links Sections 1 + 2 and consolidates A

67 - 82

Section 2

Recapitulation/Elaboration of primary subject group

Tonic (G flat minor) à G flat major)

Recapitulation and imitative treatment of A

83 - 114

Elaboration of Secondary Subject Group and Climax 1 at bar 107.

Durchführung style modulatory passage. Concluding with D minor preparation (bar 114)

Elaboration of Secondary Subject Group themes

115 - 138

Recapitulation/Elaboration of Secondary Subject Group and Climax 2 at bar 135

D minor initially, before Durchführung style modulatory passage at bar 138: E flat minor cadence

Recapitulation combination, and contrapuntal treatment of themes

139 - 167

Recapitulation/Elaboration of Primary Subject Group and Climax 3 at bar 141

Tonic (G flat minor)

Contrapuntal and sequential treatment of A and B

167 - 173


Tonic (G flat minor) consolidated by tonic re-statements and repeated dominant implications (second violin)

Derived from theme and accompaniment C. Diminished seventh leap and accompaniment reinstatements decrease

William Caplin has argued that composers typically condense and adopt a lesser degree of formal and motivic complexity within slow movements, in order to limit duration. Thus they are ‘inherently simpler' than other string quintet movements.[6] Although constructed in a binary fashion, Bruckner's Adagio, in opposition to Caplin's argument, includes the exposition (e.g. bars 1-18), elaboration (e.g. bars 83-114) and recapitulation (e.g. bars 139-167) of thematic material, revealing a full compliance with the fundamental procedures of sonata form as propounded by Arnold Schoenberg.[7] Thematic material from Bruckner's exposition areas ( 1, bar 1, and 2,[8] bars 37-8) is presented in different tonal areas, in sequence ( 3,[9] bars 61-2), in inverted imitation ( 4, bars 99-101), and in progressive diminution ( 5, bars 169-73. Here the rising major sixth of 2 is progressively compressed in the second violin).

Bruckner's juxtaposition of thematic elaboration and recapitulation in the second section of the Adagio stands in parallel with the earlier quintets of Mozart, allegedly ‘the first to exploit fully the … possibilities of the medium… successfully and consistently'.[10] For example, in the Adagio ma non troppo of the String Quintet in G minor, K. 516, Mozart excludes an independent developmental section, choosing instead to progress directly from the exposition (bars 1 - 37) to the recapitulation (bars 38 - 82). However, prefiguring the Brucknerian approach, Mozart's recapitulation features both the reinstatement and regeneration of material from both the primary and secondary subject groups, and thus manifests the integration of two elements of the sonata principle, elaboration and recapitulation.

Hans Hubert Schönzeler has argued that Bruckner considered the traditional architecture and procedures of sonata form ‘a mere starting point, which he filled out, moulded and fashioned to suit his own particular requirements'.[11] Schönzeler's viewpoint can be confirmed by an examination of Bruckner's formal construction in the Adagio. Table 1 refers to a sequence of three points of climax, at bars 107, 135 and 141 respectively. At bar 107 the inversion of a secondary theme (originally presented at bar 55) is presented strongly in the bass, whilst the remaining four voices have the same dynamic marking of fff. On the second quaver of the bar, when all five instruments are being played, the pitch range extends two octaves and a perfect fifth, which represents the greatest range thus far in the movement.

At bar 135, whilst the pitch range (maximum of two octaves and a major third) and dynamic markings (ff) are less than before, the use of homophony to present the secondary theme maintains the climactic strength ( 6 - bar 135, below). Finally, at bar 141 Bruckner recapitulates bars 14-34 climactically by means of an ff unison trill in the violins, whilst the lower strings play in dense homophony ( 7). The first beat of bar 141 contains the greatest pitch range in the entire movement, at two octaves and a major sixth.

Bruckner's use of a climactic sequence in the latter stages of the movement creates a sense of teleological progression. The thematic organicism central to sonata form is utilised to create a dramatic, linear gradient throughout the movement until the respective points of climax. In contrast to the resolution of tension associated with the traditional tonic recapitulation, Bruckner's procedure creates an alternative region of arrival within the ‘Adagio'. The reiteration (through a three-point succession) of climax, before the gradual dissipation of texture, dynamics and thematic significance throughout the final passage (bar 150 onwards), reflects Bruckner's use of a climactic sequence in the latter stages of the movement to create a sense of apogee, as opposed to the traditional resolution.

The adoption of teleological and motivically interactive compositional processes in the nineteenth century, with roots in works such as Beethoven's fifth and ninth symphonies, was common. Ernest Newman has documented how the climactic region of the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - the two maximum points of dynamic, ff, which occur between bars 74 - 84 - features motivic material directly derived from earlier in the movement.[12] In a similar fashion, Beethoven's Allegretto ma non troppo from the Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 reaches a teleological elaboration of the syncopated chord progression of the exposition codetta (see s 8 and 9).[13]

By the time Bruckner was composing his string quintet, the positioning of musical climaxes became imperative to the progression of a movement. Notably, the climaxes of the Beethoven and Wagner examples above are positioned in close proximity at 83% and 76% through the Allegretto ma non troppo and the Prelude respectively.[14] Newman argues that ‘Wagner unconsciously obeys that natural law of structure that brings in the climax at a point about two-thirds of the time-distance between the beginning and the end'.[15] In the Adagio of the String Quintet in F Bruckner positions the three points of climax at 62%, 78% and 82%, respectively. Interestingly, the first point of climax (bar 107) occurs at the ‘Golden Section', the Greek numerical constant of 0.6180 (4 d. p.).[16] This proportion, which has been widely cultivated by architects, artists and musicians, is manifest in works such as the De Divina Proportione (1509) of Luca Pacioli and Leonardo da Vinci, or reflected in the structural proportions of Debussy's La Mer (1905),[17] and is believed to produce ‘harmonious proportions' and maximise aesthetic experience.[18] The composition of three individual points of climax results in the creation of an extended climactic region, lasting almost a quarter of the Adagio, revealing the presence of a Schubertian ‘heavenly length', a musical device which allegedly interested and influenced Bruckner.[19] Simultaneously, Bruckner cleverly initiates his climactic passage at the point governed by Newman's ‘natural law of structure', but incorporates teleological prolongation by the sustaining positioning of the remaining two climaxes.

Harmonic Analysis

Similarly to Bruckner's manipulation of the traditional thematic functions of classical form, harmonic relationships are exploited in order to enhance the linear progression. A detailed harmonic analysis of the first section reveals how Bruckner exploits the availability of a wide range of keys, such as E flat minor and B flat major (transition 1). Harmonic freedom is also signified by the use of a fluctuating B flat centre during the secondary subject group, through the Schubertian procedures of modal switches and tertiary relationships, and the more adventurous use of harmonic colouring found in the work of Wagner. Theme C, introduced by the first viola at bar 37, is emphatically diatonic and outlines an essentially triadic progression, accentuating the tension between the flattened and raised third degree. A simple presentation of the key areas explored in the secondary subject group and the second transition displays the remote key relationships employed by Bruckner. The implication of chromatic or Neapolitan relationships (e.g. the chord of Db major originating as the Neapolitan chord of C major) results in an expanded palette of key relations:

bar 34 - B♭major/minor

bar 51 - C major

bar 53 - D♭ major

bar 57 - B♭ major/minor

bar 61 - Transition, preparing G♭ major

By employing distant and frequently fluctuating key relationships during the Adagio, Bruckner produces tonal instability, a tension-building device used by predecessors such as Schubert, and also Beethoven, in the Bagatelle, WoO 60 (1818) and Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808), with the ambiguous (C minor/E flat major) tonal identity of its opening motivic gesture. Freed from the conventional assembly of harmony and thematic material, Bruckner's formal approach to the Adagio can be comprehended through Dahlhaus's definition of a schematic form - one ‘sustained exclusively by the quality of the initial idea, the individual character of which compensated for the conventionality of the overall outline'.[20] In the case of the Adagio, the ‘initial idea' is the gradual, yet continuous, gradient of tension leading to the climactic sequence.

[1] Handbuch für Streichquartettspieler (Berlin, 1931)

[2] L. Nowak, op. cit.

[3] P. Hawkshaw and T. L. Jackson, op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] With the exception of the two transitional passages (bb. 18-34 and bb. 57-66), in which thematic material is recycled to link subject groups and reinforce the primary subject group. James Webster (‘Sonata form', in L. Macy [ed.] Grove Music Online [accessed 01-12-08]) documents the traditional reuse of central thematic material in both codas and transitions.

[6] W. Caplin, Classical Form (1998), 209.

[7] A. Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition (1967).

[8] The conventional clef distribution, as in 1, will be assumed unless otherwise stated.

[9] The clef distribution for this example is violin 1 and violin 2 (treble) and viola 1 (alto).

[10] Cliff Eisen, ‘String quintet', in L. Macy (ed.), Grove Music Online (Accessed 01-12-09)

[11] H. H. Schönzeler, Bruckner (1970), 75.

[12] E. Newman, ‘The Prelude', in R. Bailey (ed.), Prelude and Transfiguration from ‘Tristan und Isolde' (1985), 153 - 161.

[13] Both s 8 and 9 are presented as piano reductions, with the conventional treble (upper line) and bass (lower line) distribution.

[14] Percentages have been calculated in relation to the total number of bars per movement. For example, the Allegretto ma non troppo contains 102 bars. The region of climax is initiated with the crescendo mid-way through bar 84. Bar ‘84.5' as a percentage approximates to 83%.

[15] E. Newman, op. cit., 153 - 161.

[16] R. Tatlow, ‘Golden number [golden section]', in L. Macy (ed.), Grove Music Online (accessed 01-12-09).

[17] R. Howat, Debussy in Proportion: A Musical Analysis (1983).

[18] R. Tatlow, op. cit.

[19] G. E. Arnold and E. Agate, ‘The Different Versions of the Bruckner Symphonies', The Musical Times, 78/11 (1937), 17 - 20.

[20] C. Dahlhaus, ‘Issues in Composition', in C. Dahlhaus (ed.), Between Romanticism and Modernism: Four Studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century, trans. Mary Whittall (Berkley and Los Angeles, 1980), 44.

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