Editing Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony
An interview with Dr Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs
by Len Denham 

Lee Denham [LD]: Dr Cohrs: You are the editor of the new Anton Bruckner Urtext Gesamtausgabe (ABUGA), Vienna, for which you have so far edited Symphonies 4, 5, 6 and 7, as well as the Requiem and the Missa solemnis. This month, the premiere recording of newly edited score of the Seventh Symphony is going to be released by Sir Simon Rattle, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps we could start by talking about yourself – how did you become an editor? Most people involved in the study of music become performers, or recording executives, but…- and why Bruckner? 

Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs [BGC]: I should really start at the beginning and answer your second question first. Like, I’m sure, many of your readers, I first encountered Bruckner via records, although my very first experience was not a good one, being Klemperer’s EMI recording of the Eighth – I just didn’t understand how a conductor could cut so much music from the finale! Thereafter it was Giulini, with the Second and Ninth Symphonies, the Third with Szell, number Four with Ormandy, the First with Abbado, the Fifth with Kempe, the Seventh with Bruno Walter (a stunning finale) before ending up at the beginning with Klemperer once more in the Sixth. At the same time, I also started to study the scores, following them as I listened to my LPs, so was amazed that what I read in them often differed from what I heard on the recordings. From the very beginning, I found Bruckner’s music so profound and fascinating that it very soon became an obsession and I dedicated much of my time, skills and spirit to exploring this fascinating cosmos that was slowly, but inexorably, drawing me in. 

That said, when I started conducting youth orchestras, I was able to include small Bruckner pieces, arranged and edited by myself. Around the same time, I also started to write about Bruckner – as a music journalist, critic, author of concert and record notes, as well as giving lectures at musicological conferences. Noted scholars such as Harry Halbreich, Peter Gülke or Andrew McCredie suggested I should then further develop my talent for musicology, and the latter even invited me for extensive postgraduate studies under his tutorship at the University of Adelaide, which I finished after one year with a diploma. 

It therefore became increasingly clear to me, during my long training as a musician (flute, voice, piano), conductor and scholar, that the individual goal of my professional life would be to mend what I perceived to be the huge gap between practical musicianship and musicology. I always disliked the line “I am only a musician, not a scholar” which, for me, is a rather poor (and even lazy!) excuse for not exploring the individual musical handwriting and language of any composer. Therefore, to this day, I tremendously admire those conductors and musicians who incorporate philological, as well as historical and editorial work on the music they perform, in particular Adriano, Antony Beaumont, Peter Gülke, Hartmut Haenchen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Thomas Hengelbrock, Christopher Hogwood, David Lloyd-Jones, Roger Norrington, Jose Serebrier and Martin Yates, amongst others. 

However, it was my involvement with the unfinished finale of Bruckner’s Ninth and working on its completion with Nicola Samale and later also John Phillips (from 1986 to 2012), that required an increasing amount of philological study and biographical research, which finally opened doors to further professional engagements: In 1995, the MWV Bruckner Complete Edition gave me the opportunity to edit several volumes and the critical report of the Ninth Symphony, which appeared in 2000. After that, I also received invitations from several orchestras to conduct Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and its finale, so by my mid-thirties I had finally established myself internationally as a scholar, editor and conductor. Today I am in the happy position to have made my passions a profession – even if I always wish I could conduct more, instead of preparing new Bruckner Editions, which is extremely time-consuming. Nevertheless, my next conducting project will include new string arrangements of rare Bruckner works, to be premiered in concert on 1 September 2024, in Peine (North Germany), which is to be recorded live for the Bruckner anniversary. My biggest wish though, even if only once more during my lifetime, would be to conduct and record Bruckner’s completed Ninth Symphony with a major orchestra. However, before you start expecting yet another “new version of the finale”, this would be of my own ‘conductor’s arrangement’ of the entire Ninth, which is not intended for publication, as I don’t wish to compromise my earlier team comrades Nicola Samale and John Phillips, nor their own ‘official’ new revision – and if I don’t live to perform it myself, it will be burned together with me at the end… 

LD: There will be many people wondering why yet another edition of Bruckner’s symphonies is needed – after all, there are quite a few of them already. How would you respond to that and what are you hoping to achieve with your own edition? 

BGC: Well, first of all, you need to remember that formal editorial principals and practice have moved on considerably since Robert Haas in the 1930’s and Leopold Nowak in the 1950’s – so much new information has appeared since then, as well as our renewed interest and understanding of historically informed performance practice, meaning that it therefore makes much more sense than you may have otherwise have thought to produce a new edition – especially in the way we have done it, in what we have deliberately labelled as “scholarly-practical new editions”, which will also be extended to versions of works by Bruckner that have remained unedited until now. 

The underlying principle has been to address the many instances in Bruckner’s oeuvre which simply do not allow a “the one and only” solution and our belief therefore that conductors and musicians should better be offered options, instead of imposing to them a purely philological approach. For this reason, variants, alternatives and revised individual movements will not be published separately in the ABUGA, but wherever possible included in situ within the same volume, as appendices, or in ossia (an alternative passage which may be played instead of the original) notation. 

This will be achieved by using a colour-coded notational system which nonverbally conveys an insight into the decision-making process of the editor as well as into the developmental process underlying the genesis of the work. Bearing in mind the reduced legibility of multicolour representation in the smaller study score format, the volumes will therefore be published in two fundamentally different types: 

In the so-called “Sourcetext” (in large format), differing colours and symbols identify items adopted (or omitted) from the sources, along with all relevant special features (interventions by other hands, paste-overs, erasures etc.). A legend supplied on the first page of the score reveals the colour assigned to each source. Philologically based supplementations appear in red, performance practical suggestions by the editor in blue. The editorial report (which accompanies the Sourcetext score only) includes an explanation of the sources, a chronology relevant to the work as well as, depending on the volume in question, further appendices, tables and facsimiles. 

The “Urtext“, on the other hand, is the end result of the editorial work in the form of a large full score as well as a smaller study score. Here, all source information has been omitted, while the editorial supplementations in red or blue are retained. In addition to the Sourcetext, the Urtext includes a comprehensive foreword as well as an explanation of the genesis of the sources and clarification of performance practice. Problems relating to the critical revision and to editorial decisions, for which the colour-coded representation provided by the Sourcetext is insufficient, are explained in the Urtext in an additional, traditional text commentary. The commentary items in both Sourcetext and Urtext are assigned so-called “hand signs”, which are numbered separately for each page. In this manner, conductors can study the Sourcetext separately (in the form of the app or printed volume) and mark up the Urtext to use as a conducting score for own interpretation. 

I do therefore have to pay tribute of Alexander Hermann, who not only offered me the chance to become Editorial Director of this new Bruckner Complete Edition in 2010, but has also underwritten the project having spent the previous twenty-five years publishing the Johann Strauss Edition Vienna, where every single work by Strauss was published and edited in a fashion that has set new standards. The aim of the new Bruckner edition is to build upon these standards in conjunction with a team of co-editors and helpful colleagues (musicians, conductors and scholars) who would form an advisory board – indeed, our project was kindly supported by the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who agreed to become the patron of our new edition, a position that upon his passing was assumed by Sir Simon Rattle, who went on to premiere the first of the new scores in 2015, the Seventh Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The enforced lockdown due to Covid could have been a disaster for our project, since we were unable to proceed with our planned publication and sale of study scores, but instead we took the opportunity to revisit what we had learned so far and effectively begin the project again with even greater focus. So in 2021, the Fourth Symphony appeared as the first volume in this new revised layout, and we will rework all of the preceding volumes this way too with the aim of them all being finished and published by end of 2024. Our aim is to have, before end of 2023, the Fourth available on sale as a multi-coloured, large-format Urtext score and Sourcetext score, as well as electronically too via an app, in an entirely new development by the Hermann Publishing Group, which offers features and possibilities so far unknown to musical editions. 

LD: One of the first of these to be recorded was the Sixth Symphony, performed live by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle, who has also been, since 2019, the Patron of the Bruckner Edition, Vienna. It has attracted some criticism for its especially fast opening movement for which the composer instructed should be taken “Majestoso”. Why do you think Bruckner marked it thus, rather than “Majestätisch” and why do you think the “controversially swift“ tempo adopted by Maestro Rattle to be correct? 

BGC: Maybe the more correct term would have been ‘maestoso‘, although I think this merely refers to the general character of the music and not so much the tempo. In my opinion, I think Bruckner’s main aim with this movement is to convey that he wanted the music to have a ’solemn‘ character more than anything else – indeed, you can quite clearly see on the original manuscript that he had erased a more precise tempo indication where only the word ’vivace‘ (lively) is legible and then just wrote “Majestoso” over it. I don’t usually enjoy Bruckner when it is too fast and fiery, but we need to look at the metronome markings in his autograph score that gives a minim = 72 for the first theme, a 50 for the second theme, and then put it into context with Bruckner’s own world – which would include the finale of the Eighth Symphony that is marked as “solemn, not fast” with minim = 69. However, most conductors take the opening of the Sixth as minim = 58, or even slower. For me, I think the biggest misunderstanding of the tempi in the first movement of the Sixth is that the initial tempo should also be its general principal tempo. However, in fact this initial tempo is limited to only the exposition and recapitulation of the first theme group, as well as the closing measures of the coda, in which Bruckner’s own indication ‘Tempo wie anfangs’ (i.e. as in the beginning) at letter Z is usually ignored, because most conductors cannot make any sense of it. So I think Simon Rattle attempts to address this and, to my mind, gets it right – but remember, this is not really that radical as he is hardly the first to take the opening movement at this tempo: Roger Norrington, Mario Venzago, Gerd Albrecht are a handful of others that I can remember off the top of my head who have all reached similar interpretive conclusions too. 

LD: What are your thoughts then on the argument that the metronome marks in the autograph score are clearly in a different hand, and some scholars seem to think that they were added posthumously by Cyrill Hynais, who claimed Bruckner’s authority for them. 

BGC: Oh it is undoubtedly the handwriting of Hynais; there is no question about that. However, we must also remember that Hynais was the one whom Bruckner himself had entrusted with supervising (i.e. editing) the print edition of this symphony. Speaking as an editor myself, it is almost beyond all doubt that Hynais must have discussed something as basic as tempos with Bruckner and therefore would not have dared to have included those metronome markings in the manuscript without otherwise having had these conversations. Don’t forget, as well that, although It may be true that the movement was not ‘performed’ during Bruckner’s lifetime, the entire symphony was apparently played in a “Novitätenprobe” (i.e. a test reading for the upcoming new season) of the Vienna Philharmonic under Wilhelm Jahn in 1882 and even though Jahn then decided to perform only the inner movements in concert the following year, the composer was present on both occasions and so would have been aware of any problems had his intentions with the music not have been realised. So I think those metronome indications by Hynais are as close as we can reasonably get to Bruckner’s own thoughts.

This is not to say that everything is clear-cut and there aren’t problems. After signing the contract with the publisher, Eberle, enabling them to print Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6, as well as other pieces, the publisher then set to work in chronological order which meant, unfortunately, that by the time they got to the Sixth Symphony, Bruckner was dead. Not only does that add a layer of ambiguity to the process but, apparently, Josef Schalk added his own changes and suggestions to the galley proofs of the Sixth Symphony behind Hynais’ back, even though Hynais’ name appears as the only editor. As a consequence, when we were preparing the Urtext edition, we completely ignored Schalk’s additions as being highly unlikely to have been discussed with Bruckner himself. You must remember that Bruckner worked with Schalk on the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, but not the Sixth – perhaps with good reason. So instead, the ABUGA edition of the Sixth used the autograph score as the main source for the edition, with the Schalk additions merely discussed in the accompanying text. 

LD: Since you mention that you normally don’t enjoy Bruckner to be ”too fast and fiery” may I ask what your thoughts are on interpreters who take Bruckner including this symphony, particularly slowly, such as Sergiu Celibidache? 

BGC: You always have to ask yourself first “too fast in relation with what?”: Remember that a chosen tempo can often be influenced by the size of the hall, the number of players, the instruments, the general mood during the concert, the insights of the conductor, his own mood of the moment, etc … So we should never generalise regarding tempi as it is all relative. 

That said, I was lucky enough to hear Celibidache in Munich at precisely that concert which was later released by EMI on CD (the only Bruckner Sixth he ever did at all) and, in a way, it was one to bend the knee to – after the slow movement the whole audience was so quiet, one could hear a pin drop). Nevertheless, for me, it was indeed too slow and not entirely coherent, even if arguably the interpretation was appropriate for the giant Gasteig concert hall, that has over three thousand seats, and therefore necessitated a huge band with over ninety string instruments, double woodwinds and brass (six trombones and two tubas). In particular, I found the tempi in the outer movements quite lifeless, even if I think that of all his late Munich recordings of Bruckner, this Sixth Symphony is perhaps the most convincing. I sometimes wonder if, in his later years, Celibidache might have misunderstood, or at least not paid enough attention to, Bruckner’s tempi for the outer movements, given his preoccupation with a slow and solemn style more appropriate to church music, with the result of downplaying the importance of the tactus principle for the interpretation of Bruckner’s music (i.e. the inner tempo relationships based on the interwoven motivic connections and the metrics of the formal structures). 

However, I must also concede that I consider some of Celi’s live performances from the Sixties and Seventies as representing some of the finest Bruckner recordings we have – in particular his Fourth from 24 September 1969 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, his Fifth with the SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart (November 1981), his magnificent Eighth with the same orchestra (November 1976) and his Ninth with the RAI Turin Orchestra (May 1969). For instance, his speech-like approach to the declamation of the principal theme of the final movement of the Fifth Symphony was incredibly original and only further explored by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2004 – and to this day I don’t know any recording of the Eighth, in which the phrasing of the second theme group of the first movement has been interpreted so rightly and convincingly as in Celi’s Stuttgart recording. I believe that most of the problems with current Bruckner interpretations seem to be caused not only by ‘inappropriate tempi’, but above all a misunderstood style of playing: Too much sostenuto, too much vibrato, the quick tempi too fast, the slow tempi too ponderous, no speech-like phrasing, no heavy and light measures – these were so incredibly important to Bruckner that he even checked heavy (= odd) and light (= even) measures by inserting his famous metrical numbers. I just cannot believe so many modern interpreters overlook this last point. 

LD: Could you elaborate on the significance of this? 

BGC: There is a fascinating book, which I consider to be perhaps one of the most important ever written on Bruckner’s method of composing – although unfortunately it has never been translated into English – called ‘Metrik und Form bei Bruckner’, by Wolfgang Grandjean (published 2001 by Hans Schneider,Tutzing). Grandjean thoroughly examined the background of Bruckner’s formal structures by analysing his music-theoretical education, based on the treatises by Simon Sechter, Ernst Friedrich Richter, Johann Christoph Lobe and Adolf Bernhard Marx. He then showed how Bruckner, after his studies, developed his own personal “metrical theory and practice”, further developed in the revision phase of his first numbered symphonies between 1875 and 1878, finally leading to his “musical architecture”, being first laid out in Bruckner’s famous opening lecture in music theory at the Vienna University, sketched on 25 November 1875. 

Grandjean described Bruckner’s metrical numbers as an essential aid to controlling the formal disposition of measure periods, sections and form of the movements of a work as well as the weighting of the measures within the periods, thus creating a hierarchy of heavier and lighter measures, which Grandjean described as the ‘heavy-light-pendulum’. Basically, Bruckner’s metrical system is a falling one: heavier measures are followed by lighter ones, not vice versa. Hence, odd measures are ’good ones’ and heavy, even measures are ’bad ones’ and light. Due to this, the smallest measure is not a single bar, but a dyad of two bars, alternating in a metrical pendulum of heavy and light. As a consequence, a heavy, odd measure must finally end each movement. Furthermore, there is always a correlation between metrics and harmonics, and the fabric of the measure periods within a movement constitutes a syntactical hierarchy. So the metrical numbers constitute both a quantitative-numerical and a qualitative-emphasising moment. 

One task of the conductor is to analyse all these structural elements and then realise them in their interpretation. The abovementioned second theme group from the first movement of the Eighth is a good example: Celibidache has correctly figured out the metrics of the initial measure period so that one clearly can hear the heavy-light, heavy-light emphases throughout. Most other conductors wrongly interpret them the other way round – light-heavy, light-heavy… As a result, the correct ‘declamation’ of the music becomes a sine qua non in the interpretation of Bruckner’s music, and here too many conductors fail, simply because they ignore this critical point, with the result that the music is no longer able to sing and breathe naturally. It is for this reason that I find Bruckner interpretations so often these days just awfully dull, boring and meaningless. Listen to any interpretation of the Fifth, for instance – in the finale, after the slow introduction, when the principal theme starts in fugato, with most interpretations all the notes are played equally, with all the extra accents and the implied declamation hardly being observed at all – and then one opens the score and finds Bruckner wrote the music completely differently as it sounds in almost any average performance – though, not so with Celibidache, Harnoncourt, or Daniel Harding. 

LD: What are your thoughts then on Furtwängler’s style with this composer, so fluid and fiery? 

I have to confess – and I’m afraid that many of your readers may be disappointed in me for saying this – that Furtwängler has never been one of my favourite conductors. I just find his inner cosmos to be almost alien to me – also as a composer. I tried hard for a long time to come closer to his symphonies for instance, but his music just doesn’t open up to me and nor does his music-making touch my heart as much as many of his contemporaries such as Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, Fritz Reiner, Charles Munch, Carl Schuricht, or glorious John Barbirolli. However, I do very much admire and appreciate his life-long devotion to Bruckner, as well as his enthusiasm for the first critical editions. (How sad that his plans to perform Fritz Oeser’s arrangement of the Exposition from the unfinished Finale of Bruckner’s Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic was torpedoed by Viennese Brucknerians; imagine if we had a surviving recording of that today.) Of his Bruckner recordings, I do admire his Sixth very much (the last movement is one of the most volcanic of all, even faster than that of Norrington), but of course the first movement is missing. As for his various tapings of the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth, I think there is too much Romanticism and rubato in his approach, concentrating on the singing line that ignores speech-like phrasing and declamation – which was not Furtwängler’s cup of tea, anyway. He also adopted so many of the (in my eyes not only unnecessary, but often misleading) tempo nuances as suggested by Schalk and Löwe in the first print editions even in his recordings of the later Haas, Orel, or Nowak critical editions. Similarly, he seemed to have totally overlooked the importance of the tactus principle, not only in Bruckner, but also Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. Some moments in his Bruckner recordings (like the climax and coda of the Adagio from the Seventh Symphony) sound truly overwhelming, and one can always sense the incredible magic that was there in the audience from his live recordings, but still his music-making never moves me – although there is one surprising exception: the deep sadness at the end of his recording from Sibelius’ En Saga always knocks me over completely whenever I listen to it. However, what I really find fascinating is his Wagner – maybe he was just a more convincing opera conductor than a concert conductor (for me two entirely different professions, which require very different talent and personality)?

LD: Turning to your new edition of the Seventh Symphony (released in September 2023 in its premiere recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle), could you elaborate a little upon the actual ”original scores”? I understand there is one from 1883 that remains unpublished, with a further revised version from two years later that was apparently heavily influenced by Arthur Nikisch, Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe. 

That is a misunderstanding, based perhaps on the fact that some of those relevant sources are no longer extant. After finishing the Seventh, Bruckner had, as usual, arranged for two copies to be made – one to be used for copying the orchestral parts, the other one for the preparation of piano scores. Unfortunately, these two copies and the handwritten performance materials have been lost (unless they have survived to this day in unknown private hands). However, as the Seventh was premiered and performed so soon after its completion (in Leipzig under Arthur Nikisch and in Munich under Hermann Levi), I suspect that if these lost materials did come to light again, all they would most likely reveal would be some minor alterations and corrections that had been copied into the parts, as well as into the autograph score. 

The Seventh was the first of Bruckner’s symphonies to be premiered and printed shortly after its completion – in less than two years, in fact: it was finished on 5 September 1883, premiered 30 December 1884 and performed again 10 March 1885, with the score and parts published in Vienna in December 1885. However, the score copies were apparently not available in Vienna when Bruckner, Ferdinand Löwe and Josef Schalk prepared the first print edition together, so that the autograph score instead had to serve as an engraver’s copy. In spite of this, all the evidence indicates that Bruckner was more than happy to regard this as the ‘final text’ of his Seventh Symphony, which has been widely performed since 1886, including five times at various locations in Bruckner’s own presence before his death in 1896. So even if a score copy would turn up which faithfully presents the autograph score as it stood in September 1883, I am convinced there would only marginal differences, if any at all, so would hope nobody would label it ‘version 1883’, or similar. 

LD: Do you think then that the Seventh is probably Bruckner’s least ”problematic” scores, at least of the symphonies ? 

In a way yes, because there is only one ‘original version’, and that is the one that Bruckner himself actively supervised and finalised as a first print edition, hence, our new Urtext Edition basically represents this text. To be frank, with all this evidence I just cannot understand the attitude of other editors (such as Robert Haas) to ‘reconstruct’ earlier layers of the autograph score, or even suppress some of its musical text just because it survived in the hand of Josef Schalk, or Karl Aigner (one of Bruckner’s copyists). 

As its main sources, our Urtext refers to both the autograph score, as well as the 1885 Gutmann Edition, corrects some obvious errors of the latter, and at some rare points re-introduces alternative readings from the autograph. Additionally, we have consulted Karl Muck’s full score, the eminent conductor who was also Bruckner’s friend and who at some points suggested variants, discussed them with the composer, and, if Bruckner approved,  painstakingly included and dated them in his score. All alternative readings in the Urtext are offered as being optional for the conductor, given as an ossia in small type above the main text, and thoroughly documented in the commentary. In doing so, we hope to introduce a fresh, open-minded perspective, granting performers more freedom and offering options, which I believe is a departure from editors in the past. For example, the vexed question over the use of percussion at the climax of the Adagio in the Seventh Symphony (timpani, cymbals and triangle added by Bruckner following a suggestion by Schalk after the Leipzig premiere) is of course included in our Urtext, but some of the known doubts about it are explained in the introduction and commentary, so that the conductor can now make an informed decision with what to do. Previously, for example, Haas had the percussion simply ‘edited away’, so if conductors wished to use it, they had to manually include it in the notes of their performance materials.. 

LD: Which symphony is next? 

BGC: The Third – but I think you will be rather surprised by which of its versions it will be, so I won’t tell for now. 

LD: And when can we expect to hear this?

BGC: Well, you have to imagine what a huge task it is to develop a comprehensive chronology and examine all sources for the Third Symphony, not to mention the actual editorial work. Therefore, I just can’t give you a specific date here – but it will be premiered once more by Sir Simon Rattle. 

LD: Ben, we wish you well with your future editing and conducting projects, and on behalf of MWI, thank you for your time.