BEHIND THE MUSIC
I’ve never been a fan of Bruckner’s music.
This stems partly from ignorance (how often do you hear Bruckner’s music on the radio or in concert?) and partly from the perception that all his works are a tribute to his devout Catholicism (true, although his Ninth Symphony is the only one that’s explicitly dedicated to God). Like Robert Stove (in Anton Bruckner and God), I agree that Bruckner’s music is something people either love or loathe, although in my case it wasn’t loathing, just indifference. His symphonies are also very, very long, although you may be surprised to learn that Mahler’s are longer. There used to be a stock response at Fine Music to the nervous question of the first-time presenter, “What shall I do if I’m alone in the station late at night and the next presenter fails to show?” Answer: “Stick on a Bruckner symphony!”
Almost everyone who ever knew Bruckner reports that he was seriously weird. He died a virgin, not surprising when we learn he had a habit of proposing marriage to ladies whom he scarcely knew, not to mention keeping lists of teenage girls he fancied. There are apocryphal stories about his death-obsession. As well as becoming a frequent visitor at funeral parlours and cemeteries, viewing the bodily remains of total strangers, he ‘fingered and kissed the skulls of Beethoven and Schubert’ when their corpses were exhumed and moved to Vienna’s Central Cemetery. From our modern perspective, it’s clear that Bruckner suffered from a form of OCD, a condition that led him not only to write down the prayers he said each day, but to count the bricks and windows of buildings, even the numbers of bars in his gargantuan orchestral scores, making sure their proportions were statistically correct.
Bruckner spent his youth helping his school teacher/organist father, although he succeeded more as an organist than as a school teacher. After exhausting the teaching resources of the nearby monastery at St Florian, he sought out a formidable Viennese polyphony professor named Simon Sechter, who in some ways was as obsessive as Bruckner, having written 5,000 competent but extremely boring fugues. By his late 30s, Bruckner had become a superb organist and had composed Ave Maria. This is the piece where he stopped being a student and started being a master.
Unfortunately for Bruckner, he was not any more famous in his late 40s than in his early 20s. He had already written several symphonies, including two that remained unknown until long after his death: the so-called Symphony no 0 (Die Nullte) and the Symphony no 00. Die Nullte is, in certain passages, about as light-hearted as Bruckner’s style ever became.
These symphonies were not being performed or published and he had made nothing to speak of from his choral efforts. Then something totally unexpected happened: he discovered Wagner’s music. To the amazement of all who knew him, Bruckner tracked down Wagner at his home, showing him two scores he had written, the Second and the Third Symphony.
The Second Symphony left Wagner unimpressed, simply telling Bruckner, ‘Very nice’, and leaving it at that. To quote Bruckner himself: “It did not seem bold enough for him ... Then he took the Third Symphony, and with the words ‘Look! Look! I say! I say!’, he went through the whole first part, mentioning most particularly the trumpet.”
This was unsurprising, because if any Bruckner piece was going to appeal to Wagner, the Third Symphony was it. For one thing, Wagner, like Bruckner, was haunted by the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the same key. The indeterminate muttering of the strings, the atmosphere of expectancy and of menace, and above all the use of just one chord stretching on and on as if it would never stop: this was Wagner’s favourite Beethoven passage and it was also Bruckner’s. In Bruckner, Wagner recognised a kindred spirit.
The Guardian’s music critic Tom Service argues that Bruckner’s peculiar brand of musical obsessiveness opened up a new musical and spiritual terrain and produced visions of grandeur that are at once ancient and modern. “You hear that in the opening of the Fourth Symphony’s final, fourth movement — a chilling, dehumanised orchestral landscape in sound; in the emotional desolation of the Seventh Symphony’s slow movement, a tribute to the recently dead Wagner; and throughout the three completed movements of the Ninth … the music has the irresistible power of a force of nature rather than a subjective, personal scream.”
For newcomers to Bruckner’s orchestral oeuvre, there is also the question of editions. During his lifetime, Bruckner’s symphonies were often cut or edited, leading to numerous revisions and the existence of various editions. There are five symphonies (nos 1 to 4 and 8) for which there is effectively more than one version. Unfortunately, a detailed discussion of each symphony is beyond the scope of this article.
Find out more about Bruckner’s symphonies by listening to the twice-monthly series beginning on Friday 6 July at 3pm and 20 July at 2.30pm.
This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Fine Music Magazine. Click here to read the current issue online now.