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 acomposer of the nineteenth century, with its belief in unstoppable progress andhuman supremacy, to behave in this fashion is certainly unique. But AntonBruckner, though accepting the harmonic and orchestral achievements of theRomantic period, did just that; he did not really belong to his time. Even lessdid he fit in with the Viennese environment into which he was transplanted forthe last 27 years of his life. The elegant and rather superficial society heencountered there must have thought the naive, badly dressed fellow with the"wrong" accent a rather pathetic 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, practising 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 A-flat Mass showed him inno 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 analtar-boy: utter submission to those he considered his superiors. He obeyed.
But when he had finished his instruction with Sechter and took lessons with theconductor of 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 Eduard Hanslick,whom Wagner caricatured as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. But though adversariesdid him harm, his friends and admirers hurt his works much more. All his youngstudents were gifted Wagnerians and they thought Bruckner's music needed tosound more like Wagner, and that it needed other "ministrations" suchas large cuts as well. They considered their beloved Master 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 even becamean accomplice to their mutilations, but he also left his original scores to theNational Library with the comment "tor later times." His owninsecurity made him constantly revise his works, especially Symphonies Nos.
1-4. As a result, we are confronted in many cases by several versions ofthe same work.
Sometimes the later versions are a definite improvement,as with the Fourth
Symphony; and sometimes, in my opinion, the firstversion 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 religiousBruckner sings of consolation and spiritual ecstasy (Verzuckung) -butnot exclusively. In some of the Eighth and most of the Ninth Symphonies, heexpresses 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 (according to hisown testimony he raped a thirteen-year-old girl) has in common with thecelibate "country bumpkin."
Note: In the recordings in this series the SecondViolins are placed on the right of the conductor, for the antiphonal effectbetween first and second violins that Bruckner expected to hear.
Symphony No.5 in B flat major
Things looked promising when the 44-year-old provincialorganist settled in
Vienna. He had a job teaching harmony, counterpoint and organat the Conservatorium. He also taught at the Teachers' Training College forwomen (at that time the sexes were separated in education). His Mass in Fminor was performed successfully, and he represented Austria at anorganists' meeting in
France and two years later in London; his organ playingwas a triumph. On his return to Vienna a catastrophe waited for him: he had todefend himself against the accusation that he had spoken "rudely" totwo girls at the College. Though he was exonerated, the management transferredhim to an all-male class, which was later abolished; so Bruckner not onlysuffered profound humiliation but also a severe decrease in his already rather meagreincome. His letters of that period are full of gloom and hopelessness. Heregretted having moved to
Vienna and longed for his former job as organist at LinzCathedral. Even so, every year he poured out yet another remarkably originalsymphony.
In the gigantic and heroic Symphony No.5 in B flatone looks in vain for the slightest bit of self-pity. His great predecessorBeethoven also suffered, with even more reason, from much self-pity, andsometimes also exaggerated the gravity of his finances; but his music is alsototally free of it, as though these masters put their works through a purifyingfilter. How different from some other important composers like Mahler and Tchaikowsky,whose self-pity may well have been one of the mainsprings of their inspirationand musical expression.
The Fifth Symphony, the most intellectual of allBru