On this upcoming Friday at 8:00, Symphony Hall will witness a significant musicological event: the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s massive, 84-minute Eighth Symphony. On evidence from the scores, Artistic Director Benjamin Zander will be restoring the tempo scheme honored in Bruckner’s time (the 1890s), particularly in the finale. No previous performance anywhere in the last 80 years had attempted to do this. The reasons for that situation emerge from history.
Shortly after the founding of the Collected Edition of the works of Anton Bruckner in 1929, the editors Robert Haas and Alfred Orel made the universal decision to allow only material written in manuscript by Bruckner or a recognized copyist to be used in the new publications. The entire venture was spurred by the new realization of the very serious difficulties amounting to wholesale reorchestration in the first publications of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies which had been prepared respectively by Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe in 1896 and 1903. These difficulties did not come to universal knowledge until the early 1930s, and at that time, correcting them became the principal impetus for the whole Collected Edition.
At that time many tempo indications and nuances which had been a prominent feature of the first publications were eliminated, even though many of them had been demonstrably closely overseen by Bruckner himself. Bruckner had for many years been very sparing in indications of tempo nuance, although he was clear and detailed with dynamic indications and the different conventions of phrasing used by winds and strings. Accordingly detailed instructions for overall tempos and nuances were placed in the first publications, using a vocabulary strongly reminiscent of the editing language of the Wagner operas, with words and phrases like “belebend” (more animated), “gedehnt” (stretched out), and “immer ruhiger werdend” (gradually becoming slower) which Bruckner himself never had used.