Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
A mediaeval artisan might easily have kept a daily recordof how many different prayers he prayed and how often he repeated them. For a composerof the nineteenth century, with its belief in unstoppable progress and human supremacy,to behave in this fashion is certainly unique. But Anton Bruckner, thoughaccepting the ham1onic and orchestral achievements of the Romantic period, didjust that; he did not really belong to his time. Even less did he fit in withthe Viennese environment into which he was transplanted for the last 27 yearsof his life. The elegant and rather superficial society he encountered theremust have thought the naive, badly dressed fellow with the 'wrong' accent a ratherpathetic oddity.
Bruckner had indeed come from a very differentbackground. The little village in Upper Austria, Ansfelden, where his fatherwas a schoolmaster, was not far away from the great and beautiful monastery ofSt Florian. The young Bruckner followed in the footsteps of his father for ashort time; but St Florian possessed one of Europe's finest organs, and youngAnton, whose talent for music was discovered early, became an organist. Theexperience of hearing and playing this magnificent instrument became central tohis whole life. He spent many hours there, practicing and improvising, andeventually his playing was so exceptional that he made successful tours of Franceand England as an organ virtuoso. He had lessons in theory and composition, andstarted composing fairly early in life, but he felt the need for moreinstruction in counterpoint and became for several years a most diligent pupilof the famous Simon Sechter, visiting him every fortnight in Vienna, Many yearsearlier and shortly before his death, Schubert had also wanted to studycounterpoint with Sechter, but of course he was wrong; most of his life workwas already done, and works such as his early Mass in A flat showed himin no need of such lessons.
Sechter forbade Bruckner to compose a single note inorder to concentrate entirely on his innumerable exercises, and here Bruckner,who had in the meantime advanced to the post of organist at Linz Cathedral,showed one unfortunate trait of his character, perhaps acquired as an altar-boy:utter submission to those he considered his superiors. He obeyed. But when hehad finished his instruction with Sechter and took lessons with the conductorof
the local opera, Otto Kitzler, who introduced him to themagic world of Wagner, music poured out of him Now forty, Bruckner composed hisfirst masterpiece, the wonderful Mass in D minor, followed by two othergreat Masses, and Symphony No.1. His reputation reached Vienna and hewas appointed to succeed Sechter as Professor of Music Theory.
Bruckner had ample reason to regret his move from Linz to Vienna. He, the fanatical admirer of Wagner, was innocently dragged into therather silly conflict between the followers of Brahms and those of his belovedWagner. So he made many enemies, most cruel of whom was the critic EduardHanslick, whom Wagner caricatured as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger.
But though adversaries did him harm, his friends and admirers hurt his worksmuch more. All his young students were gifted Wagnerians and they thoughtBruckner's music needed to sound more like Wagner, and that it needed other'ministrations' such as large cuts as well. They considered their belovedMaster to be a 'genius without talent.'
Many of those misguided admirers, such as Artur Nikischand Franz Schalk, became famous conductors and they set about making theseenormous scores acceptable to the public - and it must be said that the master,who was desperately anxious to be performed, often agreed and sometimes evenbecame an accomplice to their mutilations. But he also left his original scoresto the national Library with the comment 'for later times.' His own insecuritymade him constantly revise his works, especially Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Asa result, we are confronted in many cases by several versions of the same work.
Sometimes the later versions are a definite improvement, as with the Fourth Symphony;and sometimes, in my opinion, the first version is superior, as with the Second
and Third Symphonies.
One who deals with eternal things is in no hurry, andtherefore performers and listeners must also allow plenty of time. WhereasMahler, who died three years before World War I began, was the prophet ofinsecurity, 'Angst' and the horrors we live in, the deeply religious Bruckner singsof consolation and spiritual ecstasy (Verzuckung) - but not exclusively.
In some of the Eighth and most of the Ninth Symphonies, he expresses agony,perhaps doubt.
Bruckner's music touches the innermost recesses of thehuman soul. In this way he reminds me of Dostoyevsky. This quality is probablythe only thing the compulsive gambler and epileptic sinner has in common withthe celibate 'country bumpkin.'
Symphony No.3 (Original version, 1873)
The rather superficial question conductor Otto Dessoffdirected at Bruckner, who had submitted the first movement of his Symphony No.
0 to him: 'But where is the main tune?', had wonderful consequences: ourcomposer used the same beginning in the strings as background for one of hisgreatest main tunes, the famous start of the Third Symphony (the trumpet callwhich Wagner admired so much). This enormous work (Bruckner's largest)underwent several 'improvements' by well-meaning students and also by theinsecure master himself (the 1877 and 1888/89 versions are commonly playedtoday, especially the latter). Only in 1977, 103 years after its creation, wasthe original published by Leopold Nowak It was fortunate that this original waspreserved in the dedication copy to Wagner 'To the unreachable world-famousnoble Master of Poetry and Music'.
To my mind this work as originally conceived suffered byits progressive mutilations more and more, and we should take the time to playand to listen to this amazing original. It is not only very long but itpractically overflows with brilliant ideas. But not exclusively his own. His naivequotation from the works of his beloved master does not disturb me; exceptperhaps the quotation from the second act of Lohengrin where neither thewords 'Gesegnet sollst Du schreiten' (Blessed shall you stride) nor its rather trivialmusic are worthy of Bruckner.
A noble horn melody follows the trumpet call of thebeginning. Two rhythmic outcries downward in the whole orchestra are answered softlyby the strings; then the beginning returns. Afterwards the second violins playagentle second melody. The whole orchestra intones now a loud four-note phrase,replied to gently by strings and woodwind. A quotation from the Miserere
of his D minor Mass concludes the exposition. The music in thedevelopment gradually increases in intensity and leads to a triple-forte tutti
statement of the trumpet beginning The listener is led to believe it is the beginningof the recapitulation but this is not the case and the development