Thursday, June 21, 2012

Music of the Great Composers – Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

The second in a pair of musicians (Franck being the first) who were best known during their lifetimes as organists (who were born two years apart), though they are remembered these days for the music they composed for other instruments, is the Austrian, Anton Bruckner.

We come to the case of Bruckner as great composer with a little reluctance as he was during his lifetime so self-effacing that he was often criticized for allowing others to take undue advantage of him, even to the extent of revising his music to suit their tastes. Though there are some difficulties posed by these revisions, many of which were authorized by the composer, there is something that is actually distinctive enough about Bruckner's musical style that he has gained admirers around the world almost as the central figure in a kind of cult of this often forgotten or unrecognised master; there are those who love Bruckner's music with some degree of fanatical attachment, often of a particularly mystical cast, whilst there are also those out there who simply can't stand his music very much, if at all.

I personally cannot claim to be in either camp, though at one time I was among the doubters. Acquaintance with Bruckner's later symphonies brought me around to his unique position in music; of the inevitable culmination of classical style centred as it had been in Austria, cloaked in the Romanticized Catholicism of the late 19th century, as it certainly lived there among the country people from whom Bruckner sprang in the relative isolation of a small town outside Linz. 

Bruckner was born here
The brief details are that Bruckner came of what we'd consider a rustic lower middle class background (his parents were teachers and he became one as well). His father died and his mother put him in school where he did well. He always did well in school, adapted himself easily to the requirements of authorities and doggedly pursued his goals including later in life the writing of his symphonies.

St. Florian, where Bruckner studied
and later became an organist

Bruckner as a young man

There is always something patient, workmanlike and monkish about Bruckner. He was a lifelong bachelor, but had notorious attractions to young teen aged girls, much of which may have been overly romanticised over the years. He was also quite well known to like drinking beer. There isn't really anything particularly celebratory about his character or memorable about his personality. Bruckner was never mean, he took advice perhaps too easily from those of stronger personalities, but certainly by the end of his life, Bruckner gained a commanding position in Austria's principle music school, the Vienna Conservatory, from which to offer tremendous influence on the younger generation of composers who would contribute to the late flowering of musical romanticism in Vienna, sometimes called the Second Vienna School. We would really have to include Bruckner, along with Brahms, as the masters who re-ignited acute interest in musical composition there from the 1880's onward, until the First World War brought it all to an end.
Professor Bruckner

Of Bruckner's music, we can say that it was a mixture of techniques borrowed from Richard Wagner (Bruckner is said to be a “post-Wagnerian”) and used as a great organist / improviser might have used them; orchestra used as organ, complete with great swells and deep quietness, rarely complete silence. Rather than melodic themes, which one might remember or call to mind later, Bruckner likes to take a musical phrase, sometimes called an episode in musical terms, and stretch it through repetition, into unexpected tone centres, using harmonies that are familiar to those familiar with Wagner's music; the late romantic symphonic sounds, big orchestration, huge brass ensembles, strings which can pierce the heavens and move the earth, etc. There is frequently little advance warning where any of these episodes will lead, so that listening carefully to a Bruckner symphony is a bit of an adventure, if one can stay focused and interested.

What one may remember from Bruckner symphonies are strange places where something unusual is brought to the attention, either an odd combination of instruments, a strange phrase, some weird sideways harmonic progression, always delivered as if the one who wrote it was relating some scenes from an epic saga or heroic adventure and faithfully just doing his job of relating the details. Regardless of criticisms and claims to the contrary, there is something consistent and persistent in his work; when Bruckner finished one symphony, he would quietly begin the construction and scoring of his next, whether he ever hoped to have them performed in his lifetime or not.

Sometimes they were actually performed during his lifetime, and got reviews like this one from Eduard Hanslick, the champion of the music of Brahms, upon hearing Bruckner's third symphony:

...his [Bruckner's] artistic intentions are honest, however oddly he employs them. Instead of a critique, therefore, we would rather simply confess that we have not understood his gigantic symphony. Neither were his poetic intentions clear to us … nor could we grasp the purely musical coherence. The composer … was greeted with cheering and was consoled with lively applause at the close by a fraction of the audience that stayed to the end … the Finale, which exceeded all its predecessors in oddities, was only experienced to the last extreme by a little host of hardy adventurers.”

The last three Bruckner symphonies are probably his best known works, but let's introduce our readers and listeners to one of these other huge symphonies. It's rare to find any You Tube tracks that feature anything as long as a typical Bruckner symphony in one track, but here's one. It's his less well known Symphony #6 in A Major (well it passes into many keys but I guess it starts and ends there). It is played here by the San Francisco Symphony, Herbert Blomstedt conducting. Maestro Blomstedt seems to have chosen this symphony to perform with a number of great orchestras.

Bruckner Symphony #6 in A Major (completed in 1881)

I: Majestoso
II: Adagio. Sehr feierlich
III: Scherzo. Nicht schnell — Trio. Langsam
IV: Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

The San Francisco Symphony is conducted by Herbert Blomstedt in a live performance.

You may notice that this symphony follows classical form, though that form is itself stretched so as almost not to be easily comprehended. We also note in passing that the year this symphony was completed marked the same year Brahms' monumental second piano concerto was premièred and the year in which Béla Bartók was born. This symphony was first performed after the composer's death in 1899 by Gustav Mahler, who we will later encounter as one of the chief beneficiaries of Bruckner's musical legacy.

Vienna Conservatory of Music


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