Who’s Afraid of Anton Bruckner?

Birthday musings for a bumpkin.

Nobody, probably. Anton Bruckner, or as I once precociously dubbed him “that Austrian bumpkin,” is probably the least fearsome of composers, unless you might be a college undergraduate taking a music appreciation class. I memorably sat behind one such unfortunate during a concert during my junior year. It was Bruckner 4; whichever version or mashup it was on that occasion is lost to the ages. No one in the audience was readier than she for that final movement to be over, and no one in the audience was more demonstratively annoyed that she when the brief pause before the recapitulation turned out to be the falsest of friends. (Heavy sigh; flop back into chair.) I confess I wasn’t that far removed from her reaction. The Fourth Symphony, apart from the rollicking swagger of the scherzo, remains something of an annoying puzzle to me.

Bruckner, for all of his musical verbosity, is hardly a name one hears among “favorite” composers, pace those diligent and admirable scholars currently at work on Bruckner and a new Bruckner edition. There is, however, much about Bruckner one would deem as canonically “canonical”—Central European, male, long-winded, obsessed with virginal beauty and death—and much of this has been part of his often bizarre legacy.

My own relationship to Bruckner’s music is and, I think, always shall remain ambivalent. He is one for whom the sardonic shiv “lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour” may be better suited than Wagner. (The quote is normally sourced to Rossini in various iterations and I wonder if Rossini ever heard any Bruckner…)

Anton_Bruckner_silhouette_Otto_Böhler
One of Otto Böhler’s silhouettes of Bruckner, 1914. The composer was a frequent subject of Böhler’s caricatures.[
Indeed, I frequently find the moments in Bruckner better than the larger wholes. One spot always worth sitting through the entire movement for myself is the coda to the first movement of the Ninth Symphony. (The movement as a whole is among the more enjoyable.) I hesitate to apply any programmatic description to it, and indeed, while the slow swell to a cataclysmic brass chorale seems programmatic, I can’t really put a specific image to it. I really just get caught up in it. And enjoy it.

There is a special place in my heart for the entirety of Bruckner’s Eighth. My first experience was triply special, as it was the first time I met the late Chicago critic Andrew Patner, and few can equal the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner under Bernard Haitink. I was also lucky enough to go with Andrew backstage to meet the maestro, a firm but polite figure of composure. This was the second go at a live Bruckner after the aforementioned fitful Fourth, and the difference was astounding. This was a work of greater menace and mystery, particularly in the Adagio, one of those rare creations that seems to stop and inhabit a time all unto itself. (The same goes for the Andante of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.) Of complete sonorous contrast is the final movement, again expressing something I can only put the word “cataclysmic” to, for whatever reason.

Yet when the Eighth finishes, I’m back where I started. What to do with Bruckner, especially in the contemporary moment when solemn hours (literally) by a dead, white central European seem to be particularly out of place, or inappropriate to continue to foist on audiences, at least in America. Why take up so much time (literally) when there are plenty of contemporary composers, especially women and those of color, shut out of many of the major concert halls? Is it time he be put aside? Whither the bumpkin?

The one rationalization I frequently hear for Bruckner is that his demands of time are beyond the contemporary “diminished” capacity for patience. I admit this is true—I’ve frequently sat through subsequent concerts in which I have the heretical thought, “Can’t we skip to the next track? This is interminable.” (Such was a recent experience with Muti and the CSO, a concert mired by many external circumstances.) Yet I am not convinced that patience for the grandiose is either an essential or even a forever-absent virtue. There is something refreshing about giving one’s ears and experience over to a performance which tests perception, but the performance must itself rise to the occasion as well. As with Beethoven, over familiarity with the composer can breed contempt. And as I’ve often said of Beethoven, at least one or a handful of seasons without might be the best thing. Such rhetoric might seem to exacerbate the already “precious” nature ascribed such music, but as we are in a moment where the cultural past is hardly ever past, a caesura in the listening does not mandate a full stop. Or perhaps a full stop is not out of order.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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