It’s my prerogative. Wait. Is it my prerogative?

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner circa The Fantastic Moustache Epoch

How much can, or should, a personal choice influence a conductor’s decisions? These kinds of questions are often asked about tempi, dynamics, balances, etc., but what about in the broader context of something like a performing version? How does one, for example, choose to do the Cooke completion of Mahler 10 vs. the Carpenter vs. the Wheeler vs. the Mazzetti? All the research in the world is likely to lead you to the same place: get some guts and pick something already.

This question came into my head recently while being engrossed in Bruckner’s Third Symphony. The murky history of Bruckner’s various performing versions needs little explanation; it’s like trying to decide which Oprah to use based on weight. Short of playing pin-the-tail-on-the-performing-version, conductors are left with mountains of research, counter-research, anecdotes, hearsay, and innuendo to make their calls. Surely, at some point, “I like this one” becomes an acceptable answer.

Consider the now controversial order of movements in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Originally conceived with the Scherzo to precede the Andante, it was reversed by the composer after the premiere. Then I think it switched back, then maybe back the other way again, then his wife got a note I think, then maybe Mengelberg said something or other, and by that time Mahler’s been dead 50 years and we’re counting on the man-who-shook-the-hand-who-shook-the-hand of the Man himself. Large quantities of research have been made as to what should be done, with prominent scholars and conductors leading their troops to one side of the debate or the other armed with 20 pages of printed PDF files and biographies and the kind of pseudo-intellectual superiority that made Beethoven scratch out Napoleon’s name on the Eroica.

The truth is that either order was performed by the composer or with his approval. They are both valid in the context of their own history. When it comes time to pick the version you are going to use, don’t try and bullshit yourself into reasons why you went the way you did. Just make your decision with conviction and stand by it. By all means, level with the audience that there are multiple ways to skin the present cat, but if you have placed all your energies into your decision and its being executed in the best possible fashion, it’s all good.

Back to Bruckner 3. There are four major revisions to Bruckner’s original: 1877, 1878, 1889, and 1890. Overwhelmingly, conductors tend to go with the 1889 Nowak version, with quite a few less preferring the 1878 Oeser revision, still fewer using the 1890 Schalk version, and the fewest of all employing the 1877 Nowak edition. What are the reasons for a given conductor choosing a given version? The 1889, the most popular, has major revisions in the orchestration that bring it much closer in feel to the later symphonies. The 1877, the least popular, dispenses with the Wagner quotations, clips the Finale, and is the only one to have the coda in the Scherzo; its orchestration still maintains some of the rougher (that being an extremely relative term, especially for Bruckner) sonorities and textures of Bruckner’s earlier symphonies.

On the off chance anyone who is unfamiliar with Bruckner or conducting or anything else is reading this, I should point out now that it isn’t even as simple as the previous paragraph. There are, of course, revisions of revisions and changes made to previous changes in the same edition. But short of either ignoring Bruckner altogether or plugging in the toaster while you’re in the tub, these are the sorts of things successful conductors or losers like myself think about.

How can we possibly ever know what Bruckner himself wanted, what he didn’t want, what he himself omitted from scores, what he struggled and relented to?  It seems like a fool’s errand.

This is where personal preference takes over, whether we care to admit it or not. If I’m ever fortunate enough to conduct the Third, I will be using the 1877 Nowak. I will be doing this because I think the Scherzo coda is the best minute of the whole symphony. I hate Bruckner’s friends for trying to make him think he should excise it. I hate Bruckner for agreeing to it. I hate Vienna for booing Bruckner’s bad conducting at the premiere.  Most of all, I hate the fact that it seems to have disappeared from every performance I’ve heard of this piece in the last 5 years.  I lose out on some Wagner quotes, but the finale actually feels more cohesive in the shorter version. 

What in the world is not to love about that coda?  Those raw sonorities?  The fact that at some point (probably 1877) that was the only version of the piece that was performed?  Look at that moustache in the picture up there…you’re telling me that guy doesn’t want a rocking Scherzo coda in his tune?  Get outta here…

I don’t want to play God.  But maybe He has good taste in Bruckner symphony performing versions.

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