I first listened to Anton Bruckner in the mid-70s, inspired by a Viennese friend of mine in Austria. Amazed at my ignorance of the admittedly odd but formidable Austrian composer, he looked me in the eye with the kind of earnestness one only shows when about to divulge an esoteric and explosive secret. Bruckner’s music is (he proclaimed in German): wunderschön! He then paused a moment to hold back the tears, and repeated: wunderschön! In German, that means not just beautiful, but seriously and world-shakingly, tear-jerkingly lovely. I was moved by his insistence and passion, and, although slightly wary of possible Austrian self-promotion, finally overcame the humiliation at having my ignorance exposed. As soon as I could, I got my hands on a cassette tape of Bruckner and slipped it into my Walkman.
Consummate scholar that I was (at 22, I fancied I knew not everything, but almost everything), I decided I must first familiarize myself with the biography of this musical prodigy who had deftly flown beneath my radar for so long. I ran to whatever encyclopedia or short bio I could find, and quickly came upon the photo you see above. Hmm, I thought, not as classical a look as Bach or Mozart, and not as intimidating as Beethoven or Wagner, nor as handsome as Mahler, and yet he will do. I admitted him to audition for my favorite composers club. But then I learned a bit more about this man, and was taken aback. It almost made me cancel the audition.
I had come upon what seemed to be the consensual low-down on Bruckner – something all the snooty classical music mavens have proclaimed for a century. In effect, they have told us not to waste our time with this cowboy. And they were right about one thing : Bruckner was clearly one of the most uncultured men who ever walked the Austrian Alps. Born in a small mountain village, he spoke an Alpine dialect (when he spoke coherently at all), dressed Salvation Army (with pants cut high, since he played the organ and, he claimed, needed unhindered feet for the pedals). He behaved with a clumsiness and self-effacement that would rival the most abject among our homeless today. He knew next to nothing about history, philosophy, poetry, drama, dance, science, etc. As I said: uncultured. But then he climbed onto the seat at his local church’s organ (and many others thereafter) and promptly morphed, Hulk-like, into a musical giant. Improvisation – arguably the supreme test of high musical endowment – rolled off his fingers with astonishing ease. It is regrettable, in retrospect, that he composed so little for the organ, but I think we can say he made up for it in a big way.
When I finally heard his unfinished 9th (why not start at the top?), I felt like I had just walked into Notre Dame cathedral, and I was enraptured (still am). Later came his 4th (an easier listen), and his accessible and popular 7th. But I hadn’t yet confronted the astounding, surprising, adventuresome 5th – I am in a small minority in my love of this imperfect symphony – let alone submitted my virgin sensorium to arguably the grandest, most demanding and most transformative of all his symphonies, the 8th. By this time, I had become an insufferable Bruckner apologist.
However, as I turned again to those mavens, I noticed – to my shock and disbelief – that this dwarfish musician was regarded, almost universally, as bombastic, disjointed, confused and, above all, incapable of economy (his symphonies are anything but succinct). He is seen by many as a kind of absurdly baptized Wagner; he idolized the German megalomaniacal genius, and the fact that he was, along with Wagner, one of Hitler’s favorites, certainly won him no converts. Add to this that unlike any other 19th century musical celebrity of comparable stature, Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and daily Mass attendant. So – we were soberly told – if it’s late romanticism that you covet, go to Mahler, and leave this pathetic bumpkin to his self-indulgent musical swamps of piety and pretension.
Despite all this, Bruckner’s music is just too interesting to roundly ignore. The famous orchestral swells are of such transcendent grandeur and sublimity, tears and tears alone will reveal you were really listening. Europe was unable to banish him from its musical repertoire, and, despite the nay-sayers, he was performed with some regularity. But his music hardly ever crossed the Atlantic. Thus, I was delighted when I recently heard that the Argentine/Israeli pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim – a longtime fan of Bruckner – was honoring the composer in New York City’s Carnegie Hall with a full cycle of his symphonies. That was earlier this year.
Barenboim concedes that there are more melodic composers, more architectonic, better orchestrators and, certainly, those more concise and economic in expression. But he tells us also that it is not melody or architecture or orchestration or brevity that draw us to Bruckner. One is drawn to Bruckner by that which drew him to music: his faith. No one else in the 19th century composed more religiously, more spiritually, than Bruckner. No program music here, no poetry, no story, just an archaeological dig for God and the supernatural, lying multiply hidden in the world of sound – like veins of gold in the earth. To be sure, his Te Deum and Masses are also works of genius, but it is in his symphonies where something otherworldly is on unmistakable display.
He digs, and digs again, explores and sifts – returning to an earlier spot to dig just a bit more – and then, often in an expectant crescendo, other times in a sudden cloudburst, there is an epiphany unlike anything else in symphonic literature. Nothing can equal those moments. When you know the music, you meditatively wait for them – like all of us wait for God – and grow impatient with Bruckner as the composer searches his heart and the orchestra for just the right convergence of sound and revelation. Bruckner’s organ playing is more visible in the shape of his symphonies than any reliance on Beethoven or even Wagner. In this way he stands alone. Finally, Bach is more consistently superb, Mozart more playful and varied, Beethoven more synthetic and rousing, Brahms more assertive and Mahler more expansive. Bruckner alone creates a passageway between earth and heaven that reminds us that the beauty beyond is utterly overwhelming, and, for those willing to pursue it, well worth the wait.
(For those new to Bruckner, probably his 4th and 7th ought to be heard first. If you have less patience and want a bit of the best, take in the Adagio of the 8th (or of the 4th, the 5th, the 7th or the 9th….but I recommend the 8th). Of many fine versions, I like the tempo of Herbert von Karajan here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asJf3KmAg08 ; if you want to go straight to the Adagio, jump to 32:15. There are versions with better sound, but he who seeks will find the one that seeds the glory in his heart.)