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11 October 2016

"Symphonic boa-constrictors"?

Anton Bruckner died 120 years ago this week (11 October 1896).

A late starter, he only began to compose seriously at the age of 37. Arguably one of the most innovative composers of the second half of the 19th century, he is remembered primarily for his eleven symphonies and sacred compositions.


Johannes Brahms famously had no great love for his contemporary. In a veiled reference to their scale and uniqueness of harmony, he dubbed Bruckner's late works “symphonic boa-constrictors”. By contrast, Richard Wagner effused “I know of only one composer who measures up to Beethoven, and that is Bruckner”.

The affection was mutual. One of Bruckner’s best-known works, the Seventh Symphony, was written between 1881 and 1883 and revised in 1885. On 14 February 1883, however, work on the end of the second movement was interrupted by news of Wagner’s death. The closing bars went on to become Bruckner’s lament on the passing of the “Meister aller Meister”, who he had last seen in summer 1882 at the première of Parsifal in Bayreuth.

Performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig on 30 December 1884, the première of the Seventh Symphony brought Bruckner the greatest success he had known in his life.  Pictured below is an extract from an early draft of the finale (British Library MS Mus. 1810).


Sketch of the Finale of Anton Bruckner's Seventh Symphony (British Library MS Mus. 1810) 

The sketch as a whole contains the equivalent of bars 71 to 104. We can learn something of Bruckner's compositional process from this fragment. The music for bars 71 to 92 is notated at twice the speed of the final version, and that corresponding to bars 89 to 92 occurs earlier in the position of 85 to 88.

The manuscript found its way into our collections as a result of the generosity of Oliver Neighbour (1923-2015), one of the outstanding music librarians of his generation. He devoted virtually his entire professional life to the British Library, where his major contribution was to build and develop the collections of printed music. However, “Tim”, as he was invariably known to friends, was also a private collector, assembling a personal collection of music manuscripts during his long life.

With characteristic modesty, he quietly gave this material to the British Library in 2007, saying it consisted of “odd pages or sketches” that would “fill a few gaps”. In fact, Tim’s collection contained some two hundred manuscripts of composers such as Clementi, Donizetti, Berlioz, Puccini, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as Bruckner. 

It is with gratitude that we showcase this fragment here to celebrate Bruckner’s anniversary.