Last night at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented “Opus Posthumous,” a concert devoted to works that were not first performed until after the deaths of their composers. These included an opera overture by Franz Schubert to an opera never published or performed in his lifetime, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 00 (a study symphony he composed but did not consider suitable for performance), and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 1, which was composed for entry into a composition contest. Dvorak sent his only copy of the handwritten manuscript, which was never returned to him, and the work was long thought lost, only to show up years later in a bookstore where it was purchased by somebody who shared the composer’s surname but was not a relative. The piece was first performed long after the composer’s death, and then in an abridged version.
This was a very pleasant concert of 19th century romantic music, but none of the works is an imperishable masterpiece. Indeed, my opinion after the concert was that Dvorak was lucky the piece was not played when it was written, because it could have impeded his career. The orchestration is amateurish in places, creating a heavy and clotted effect, and the development of the themes is unduly repetitious. Some good ideas are just buried under clumsy orchestration, unfortunately.
Dvorak and Bruckner were late bloomers as mature symphonists. Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, but published only the last five, and until mid-20th century, most music lovers would say their favorite was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 5, the “New World Symphony.” By the time I was learning about classical music in the 1960s, it was usually identified as Symphony No. 9 (old “No. 5”), as by then the earlier unpublished symphonies had been edited and published in a complete edition of Dvorak’s music. But the first four symphonies are rarely performed, as he really didn’t hit his stride until “old No. 1,” which is now known as Symphony No. 6. Old No. 2 became Symphony No. 7, Old No. 3 became Symphony No. 5, and Old No. 4 became Symphony No. 8. This is all ancient history for the generation of classical music lovers following me. With Bruckner, there is last night’s Symphony No. 00, then his first published Symphony, No. 1, then Symphony No. 0 which comes before Symphony No. 2. Bruckner was very self-critical and withheld pieces from publication if they didn’t meet his high standards. Bruckner’s situation is complicated by his tendency to revise, abetted by some of his younger supporters who thought his music would be more readily accepted if he would just shorten things! So there are multiple versions of most of the published symphonies, including so many versions of Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4 (two completely different versions of one of the movements are floating about) that one can easily lose count.
Last night’s Bruckner was a pleasant student work that shows few signs of the mature composer. Indeed, it sounded much like the Schubert overture that came before it on the program.
There’s nothing seriously wrong with any of these pieces, but none of them stand to become part of the standard orchestral repertory, as they are put in the shade by other works of the composers. The ASO played them all very well under Leon Botstein’s direction, as members of the audience had a rare opportunity to hear works by major composers that they are not likely to get to hear in live performance ever again! This is central to the ASO’s mission under Botstein’s leadership. To cast light in dark corners….