Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 in B flat stands at the fulcrum of his symphonic output. Among his most intellectually daunting creations, the Fifth has never attained the popularity of the Fourth or Seventh symphonies, and its complexity proved a barrier to performance during the composer's lifetime. It was given only twice, and then never as Bruckner intended.
As is typical of the composer's works, Bruckner's Fifth was the product of a lengthy gestation. Work began on the great Adagio on February 14, 1875; then came the opening movement and Scherzo, with the monumental Finale reaching completion in May 1877. Even then, however, Bruckner was not satisfied, and he was not finished with his modifications until January 4, 1878. He dedicated the work to Carl von Stremeyr, Austria's enlightened and sympathetic minister for education and culture, who had been instrumental in helping Bruckner secure a professorship at Vienna University.
This is the only Bruckner symphony to begin with a slow introduction, and the opening motif is heard again at the start of the finale. The devotional atmosphere of the outset leads to an Allegro of raw power; its ostinato dotted- rhythm figure eventually gives way to a more subdued secondary idea, beginning with pizzicato strings. Dialogue between horn and flute heralds the development section, though again the relentlessness of the dotted motif becomes obsessive. It even continues to dominate the colossal coda.
The oboe begins the languid, deeply eloquent Adagio, against a triplet accompaniment from pizzicato lower strings. The rhythmic connection between this supporting device and the beginning of the first movement Allegro only becomes clear when the second theme arrives, cast in rich, deep harmonies for full strings. As the movement continues, the two thematic groups are reviewed in turn, as Bruckner explores their contrapuntal possibilities to the fullest. Most of the Scherzo's material has already been heard previously in the symphony, and the links with the pizzicato opening of the slow movement, now presented at a much faster tempo and now played arco (with the bow), soon become apparent. The trio section affords effective contrast, and brings a shift in key from D minor to the symphony's home key of B flat.
Many commentators discuss the influence of the finale of Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony upon the last movement of Bruckner's Fifth, though in fact the resemblances hardly extend beyond the opening of the movement. Whereas Beethoven reviews themes from earlier in his work, and then dismisses them, the germinal thematic idea of Bruckner's finale derives clearly enough from the major themes that have gone before. What follows is an extraordinarily masterful display of contrapuntal skill; this sonata movement also contains an astounding double fugue, though three distinct main ideas are present. The last of these, a nobly expansive chorale for full brass returns to crown the mighty resolution of the symphony, in its unforgettably powerful coda.