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…)

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.

Hanswurst in der Wüste, or Jochanaan Reconsidered

Put on your veils and lay out your silver platter. It’s a feast day.

Olive Fremstad in ‘Salome,’ 1907. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under the Creative Commons License.

Today (August 29) is the feast day of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which for a Straussian like me, brings it back to Salome. For all of his importance to the plot of the piece, I have always found Jochanaan, as Oscar Wilde rechristened the prophet for his own stage text, one of its most impenetrable figures. (The varied spellings and pronunciations of the name in discussions outside the opera are another matter altogether.) Part of that opacity rests with the score, which cloaks the imprisoned saint with thematic and orchestral material which stands in direct opposition to the more harmonically salacious goings-on elsewhere in the palace of Herodes. In his “Reminiscences” on the premieres of his operas, Strauss identified the bitonal contrasts of “Herodes–Nazarener” as a guiding principle. These two come into conflict following the debate of the five Jews, where the two unnamed Nazarenes appraise Herodes of Christ’s progression across the region, something which scares him even more than Jochanaan. Yet as the Nazarenes statements pick up material already introduced earlier in the previous scene by Jochanaan, his own presence can be plotted on that Herodes–Nazarener axis. Furthermore, his musical language is more or less always defined by and serves as a refraction of Christ, a figure who never appears in the drama but lingers unseen on its peripheries and influences the action indirectly.[1]  As evinced by his first words “Nach mir wird Einer kommen,” Jochanaan as a character is less concerned with immediate reality and one that instead abnegates the present as a herald of the future.


Strauss’s own view of Jochanaan was far from sympathetic. One cannot neglect to mention the composer’s resolute atheism, which frequently resulted in overly righteous figures being the objects of musical disdain. (Hence, the debate of the five Jews in the opera, which takes their few lines in Wilde’s text and spins it into a cacophonous fugue.) As Strauss wrote to Stefan Zweig in May of 1935, “In Salome, I wanted to compose the saintly Jochanaan more or less as a buffoon [Hanswurst]. For myself, such a preacher in the desert, who what’s more feeds on locusts, has something unutterably comic about it.”[2] Strauss’s choice of “Hanswurst” as a comparison is highly specific, something lost in Max Knight’s rendering of the term as “clown” in his translation of the correspondence. The term “Hanswurst” reaches back to the early modern period, signifying as a buffoonish peasant character in German-speaking street theatre (to the chagrin of reformers like Gottsched and Neuber) and later evolved into in an insult. The character/name of Hanswurst has no real equivalent in English parlance, though it does combine elements mostly associated with Arlecchino and Pantalone in the commedia dell’arte tradition.


While it may seem incidental, is there something more in this “Hanswurst” connection? Of the principal characters, only Herodias regards Jochanaan as an utter clown given the impenetrability of his statements and his more obvious insults towards her person and family. Indeed, it may seem that there is not a bit of the buffoon in him since Jochanaan, at least as implied in the text and scant stage directions in the score, comports himself with the most nobility in the opera, albeit with great vehemence. This vehemence, however, may be the clue. The negating energy of Jochanaan could be read as an over-fermentation of Schopeanhauerian renunciation, emblematic of a philosophy with which Strauss stood in considerable critical negotiation throughout his life. This connection cannot, however, be credited solely to Strauss since the circumstances and dialogue of the character originate with Wilde’s original play. How this is realized in music, however, is solely Strauss’s achievement. Again, in his “Reminiscences,” Strauss singled out the harmonic end of how the characters stood opposed in the opera as itself opposed to the more rhythmic means of differentiation utilized by Mozart. Compared with Herodes, however, Jochanaan is a model of measured notes. (For what it’s worth, the Hanswurst character is also seen as a distant relative of Wagner’s comic antagonist Sixtus Beckmesser, another character who tries to assert his nobility and dignity in both the public and but consistently comes up short on all counts.)


Part of the challenge with Jochanaan also resides in the quality of his expression. He spends the majority of the opera out of sight, a disembodied voice, speaking in what the other characters regard as prophecies or indecipherable riddles of no substance. (Like Mahler’s St. Anthony, the congregation goes swimming along the way it has been for a long time.) When he does emerge from the cistern, his statements fall along formulaic lines in rebuking the royalty of Judea and denouncing the princess Salome. This is again a convention set up by Wilde’s original text, as is the character’s abrupt silence just before the Dance of the Seven Veils. In the opera, however, this silence is all the more pronounced because of the importance of vocal utterance to the medium, a phenomenon exacerbated in the passage where Salome anxiously awaits the sound of his cry as Naaman the executioner approaches him.


Production choices offer a range of approaches to the character of Jochanaan and the questions he provokes. A notable example occurred in Daniel Slater’s 2015 production at Santa Fe Opera, which made the palace cistern a major site of the stage action for the confrontation scene between Salome and Jochanaan as well as the Dance of the Seven Veils. Here again Wilde’s original text provided the point of departure. In a passage not set by Strauss, the two soldiers on the terrace and the Cappadocian discuss how Salome’s own father was imprisoned in the cistern for twelve years before being strangled. The staging of the Dance in the production by Seán Curran as a Freudian dream depicted the king’s murder and the gradual sexual encroachment of Herodes upon the young princess. One wonders how the bifurcation of the dramatic space in the work would be served in a production by Katie Mitchell, whose use of simultaneous spaces opens up veritable (and literal) chambers of meaning.


Essential Listening

Unsurprisingly, my playlist for this post consisted of various renditions of the Dance of the Seven Veils. My favorite recording remains my first: Kempe’s excerpt of the work with the Dresden Staatskapelle for EMI. Kempe sadly never put Salome to disc in the studio, but there is a lone recording of a live performance at the Chorégies d’Orange in 1974 with Leonie Rysanek in the title role. For all my love of Solti’s recording for Decca, the precision of key moment in the Dance become obscured in the thickness of the aural texture, though the ascending scales in the xylophone part at rehearsal “e” are admirably debauched.


More noteworthy, however, are the surviving public recordings of the Dance of the Seven Veils by Strauss himself. Three are orchestral: a lesser-quality version on the Brunswick label with Strauss conducting an anonymous orchestra from 1921 (the woodwind parts are ascendant to the point of making it sound like a bizarre polka), and more substantial versions with the London Symphony Orchestra from 1921 with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1928. (There is also a collection of excerpts recorded with the Vienna Staatsoper from 1942.) The most fascinating, however, is the version for piano which the composer recorded for Welte-Mignon in 1905, available on both the Teldec and Naxos labels. (A version uploaded to YouTube can be found here.) It is a piano performance as only a composer could give, not strictly reproducing a piano reduction but envisioning the work on a distinct single instrument. Wundervoll.


[1] Such a reading might provide a good retcon/rationalization for one of the more resilient stories in the production lore of Salome, that the German Empress insisted that the Star of Bethlehem appear at the end of the opera for the Berlin premiere. A symbol of spiritual catharsis over Salome’s corpse? Perhaps. Strauss said that the heroine’s descent should inspire Mitleid, a word normally translated in operatic literature as “compassion” thanks to its place in the prophecy in Parsifal, but in the context of Salome possibly better realized as “pity.”

[2] “Ich wollte in Salome den braven Johanaan [sic] mehr oder minder als Hanswursten componieren: für mich hat so ein Prediger in der Wüste, der sich noch dazu von Heuschrecken nährt, etwas unbeschreiblich komisches.” Strauss to Zweig, Letter of May 5, 1935.