German conductor Christian Thielemann and musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perform during the traditional "New Year's Concert" in Vienna, Austria, on January 1, 2019. (Photo by HERBERT NEUBAUER / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT (Photo credit should read HERBERT NEUBAUER/AFP via Getty Images)
On Music

Bruckner: Anton … and on

Bruckner and the German soul

This is a warning of heavy weather ahead. Next year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Anton Bruckner with incoming gales of his symphonies, nine of them numbered and two marked “0” and “00”. To add to the confusion, the symphonies exist in as many as nine different editions made by misguided fans and headstrong conductors.

The real Bruckner (below) is not easily identified. The acidulous conductor Hans von Bülow called him “half simpleton, half genius”, which is not far from the truth. Johannes Brahms dismissed his works as “symphonic boa constrictors”. The Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick put down his eighth symphony as a “nightmarish caterwauling”.

The British wit Thomas Beecham “noted six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages” in another symphony. It was all too easy to kick a composer who was shambolic, inarticulate and pathetically vulnerable.

Much to my surprise, i find myself looking forward to the Bruckner year, launched by a round-the-world symphonic cycle pedalled by Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Success in Bruckner depends on blind conviction and this team is not known for self-doubt.

My own ears were opened to Bruckner by Klaus Tennstedt, a maestro in the simpleton-genius mould who delivered in the last three symphonies a seamless synopsis of all German music, from Schütz to Schumann. You came away from Tennstedt’s Bruckner in a mystic maze.

No matter what it meant, the music was overwhelming, as were Carlo Maria Giulini in the ninth symphony, Claudio Abbado in the fifth, Herbert von Karajan in the seventh and the Viennese New Zealander Georg Tintner, who recorded the set for Naxos with an assurance that outshone Daniel Barenboim’s sleek efforts with the superior Chicago Symphony. I emerged from these listenings not quite loving Bruckner, but marvelling at his unique access to the inner recesses of the German soul.

bruckner the man is unedifying. Of peasant stock raised near Linz, he played the village organ, studied in cloisters and reached Vienna unpublished in his mid-30s, by which age Mozart and Schubert had completed their life’s work.
As a university teacher, he lived on bread and cheese, unable to afford sex or marriage. A diaried lust for adolescent girls confirms his emotional immaturity. God had given him a talent, he said, for which he would some day be called to account.
He was unquestioningly Catholic, impossibly naive. Summoned on stage to receive applause, he slipped the famous conductor Hans Richter a few coins by way of a tip. When the Vienna Philharmonic premiered his third symphony, Bruckner stood helpless, baton in hand, waiting for the concertmaster to tell him when to start. He inscribed the score to Richard Wagner, who was embarrassed by his sycophancy.

Gustav Mahler, in his third symphony, wanders woods and meadows where Bruckner walked first. Bruckner once shared his cheese sandwich with the starving student Mahler. The fourth symphony runs over the hour limit, leisurely or unendurable according to taste.

They treat Bruckner as a German peculiarity, like potato dumplings, tough on the digestion

Skip the fifth and sixth if you are in a rush. The seventh is where Bruckner delivers epiphany — a landscape that is suspended between earth and heaven, at once close and unattainable. “Since Beethoven, there has been nothing like it,” said Arthur Nikisch, who conducted the Leipzig premiere.

bruckner composed the seventh in 1882 on his way home from Bayreuth, where the Master received him with compliments. Months later, on Wagner’s death, he turned the finale into an act of national mourning. Hearing Bruckner’s seventh on Reich radio in January 1945 was a signal to conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler that he needed to flee Berlin before the final collapse.

The eighth symphony, madly long at 90 minutes and maddeningly slow, has a hypnotic effect on the converted. “Once in a lifetime,” is how the Boston Globe headlined Tennstedt. In the ninth, Giulini counterposed Bruckner’s faith in heaven with Mahler’s desperate desire to stay on earth, manifest in an almost identical melody in the finale.

Bruckner did not live to finish the movement — about 100 bars are by other hands — but its grandeur is proof to central Europeans that Bruckner belongs on the same pedestal as Brahms. English-speaking music lovers generally dissent. They treat Bruckner as a German peculiarity, like potato dumplings, tough on the digestion.

The coming year’s conductors have impeccable credentials. Thielemann modelled himself on the ethereal Furtwängler, who extolled Bruckner and mistrusted Mahler. Andris Nelsons in Leipzig was taught by Mariss Jansons, a subtly understated Brucknerian. Yannick Nézet-Séguin was an assistant to Giulini. And Franz Welser-Möst grew up in Linz, a horn’s call from Bruckner’s tomb.

What remains to be seen is whether Bruckner endures at his own estimation as a channel of God’s will and the German Geist, or whether his music can be made relevant to all humanity. Beethoven takes us forward symphony by symphony in a journey of constant evolution. Brahms lays down structural tracks to Schoenberg’s modernism and Mahler hurls down moral thunderbolts.

Bruckner, meanwhile, sits stolidly in the mainstream, hardly advancing, limited as his life’s experience, unshakeable as his faith. Two English conductors, Colin Davis and Simon Rattle, sought universality in Bruckner, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Rattle’s 2012 Berlin recording of an expanded version of the Bruckner’s ninth finale opens horizons not previously accessible to the curious mind, vistas that suggest a greater Bruckner may yet burst through the bicentennial floodgates in the next year. I, for one, definitely hope so.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover