Bruckner and Christmas
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Editor’s note: This is an abridged and otherwise edited version of a lecture given at the Caroline Chisholm (Catholic) Library, Melbourne, on July 7, 2015.
At the very start, I want to explain that this is basically The Rough Guide to Bruckner. There are plenty of Bruckner scholars out there; and I would not for a moment pretend to be one of them. Whilst I have loved Bruckner’s music for decades, I cannot read German fluently, and you would need to read German in order to be a true connoisseur of Bruckner’s extraordinary art.
Nevertheless, all is not lost. Bruckner was a Catholic. So am I. Bruckner earned much of his living as a church organist. So do I. Therefore, perhaps I can give a few insights into Bruckner’s creativity. Numerous things in Bruckner’s music which puzzle listeners make more sense if we think of them as conceived in terms of organ performance. Some of what I shall say here about Bruckner, I have said in print before, but I trust that there will be some new information as well.
Bruckner and Catholicism are indissolubly joined together, just as Palestrina and Catholicism are. With both masters, Christendom is not an “add-on.” It is a design feature, just as it is with Dante or C.S. Lewis.
In the course of what follows, there will be certain of Bruckner’s actual compositions. Bruckner is someone whose music people either love or loathe. There is no middle ground. First impressions count for much more with Bruckner than they do for most 19th-century composers. It was love at first sight, or rather, first sound, for me. You will know in 30 seconds whether Bruckner is your bag. He is certainly mine.
Sir Isaiah Berlin’s best-known essays include “The Hedgehog and the Fox, which takes its title from a maxim by an obscure ancient Greek called Archilochus, who wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin used this metaphor to classify two sorts of writer.
Foxes are, Berlin said, “eclectic, scattered or diffused” in thought, “pursu[ing] many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory”. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, have an “unchanging, all-embracing … unitary inner vision”. Among foxes, Berlin listed Shakespeare, Montaigne, Pushkin, Goethe, and Balzac; among hedgehogs, he listed Dante, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Proust. Berlin concentrated on authors, but his classification is equally appropriate to music.
Bruckner might be called the hedgehog’s hedgehog, because he refracted his entire creative life through the sensibility of his changeless religious belief. Yet it was a belief that had no room for complacency or personal arrogance. On the contrary, it was a devotion filled with torment; and it can induce torment in others. Bruckner is, so to speak, a sign of contradiction.
Those who recoil from Bruckner’s music often do not so much loathe it as look down on it, in a way that they would never dare to do to most other world-famous composers. It is strange how Bruckner, like Wagner, so often inspires not so much hatred as contempt.
A much more intelligent response than contempt to Bruckner’s achievements is connected with a much more intelligent man: Wittgenstein, whose brother Paul was the world’s best-known one-armed pianist. When Wittgenstein – Ludwig Wittgenstein, I mean – contrasted Bruckner with Mahler, he is supposed to have found in the former a sincerity he could not discern in the latter. Now there remains some doubt as to whether Wittgenstein really did say this, and I cannot find a definitive source for it, but it is worth pondering. He allegedly said: “I can never really believe Gustav Mahler. I believe every note of Anton Bruckner.”
The house where Bruckner was born, in Ansfelden, Austria, on September 4, 1824, survives. In fact it has been turned into a Bruckner museum. Very pretty. Very picturesque. Very charming. You could imagine it being used for an episode of Midsomer Murders.
Perhaps not quite so pretty and so picturesque and so charming when you learn what the life expectancy rate of kids there was. Anton Bruckner had 10 siblings. Of those 10, six died in infancy. Even at a time and in an agrarian Europe which knew nothing about germs, and sanitation, and antiseptics, and public health more generally – an agrarian Europe where every married couple expected that they would lose at least one or two children very young – an infant mortality rate of more than 50 per cent was frightening. One wonders what childhood must have been like for young Anton, when the most frequent sounds around the house included the tap-tap-tap of the nails being hammered into six tiny coffins.
At least he seems never to have actually starved. His father, the village schoolteacher, doubled as the village organist. Soon the boy Anton helped out his father in the organ-playing department, and later in the school-teaching department as well. He duly completed the relevant teacher-training course, which, incidentally, qualified him to give instruction at boys’ schools, in physics and other hard sciences as well as in reading, writing, and arithmetic, not to mention catechism classes. His teaching duties took him to Linz and nearby places.
In the classroom, alas, Bruckner was a disaster, again and again and again. No deficiencies of intellect or knowledge afflicted him. He just could not keep the kids disciplined. They would become feral at the very sight of him. It resembled Lord of the Flies, except that he was Piggy.
More agreeable experiences for Bruckner came when he regularly visited the Augustinian monastery at St. Florian, approximately 11 miles outside Linz. This monastery had an organ in it. The authorities allowed Bruckner to play the organ. A fairly impressive instrument, as you can see. Soon he was a regular in the job. At last, he had found a purpose in life. The pay, albeit dismal, could be relied on. Better yet, no kids lurked in the vicinity to torment him. As soon as he could afford to get out of the education system, he did.
This is a silhouette of Bruckner the organist, created by a Viennese artist, Otto Böhler, who specialized in such things. Note that name; you will see his visual artistry again here.
Eventually Bruckner realized that he needed some serious composition training which the monks could not furnish. He sought out a formidable Viennese professor named Simon Sechter. Sometimes the teaching would be face-to-face, and Bruckner would commute to and from Vienna. More often the teaching would be by correspondence.
In pictures, Sechter looks normal enough, but underneath that bland half-smile lurked a brain almost as weird as Bruckner’s. Sechter, outdoing even Telemann, was the most prolific composer known to the history of Western music. Mainly, he wrote fugues: 5,000 fugues. The sheet music for some of them has become available online, and the ones I have had a look at are exactly like fifth-grade theory exercises. They are beautifully constructed, and there is not a single phrase in them that you will remember 30 seconds afterwards.
It is impossible to convey just how boring 5,000 boring fugues are. They are more boring than the typical Sunday sermon. Imagine the most tedious Eurovision Song Contest entry in the entire history of Luxembourg, and that will perhaps convey the idea.
But boredom was exactly what Bruckner needed. He already had the imagination. To back it up, he required the hard grind of a ruthless polyphony professor like Sechter. Among the earliest compositions by Bruckner which is still performed regularly is his 1861 Ave Maria, which served as, so to speak, his doctoral dissertation under Sechter’s tutelage. This is the piece where he stopped being a student and started being a master.
Unfortunately for Bruckner, he was not actually any more famous in his late 40s than in his early 20s. He had already written several symphonies, including two that he was not even known to have written until long after his death: namely, the so-called Symphony No. 0 – “Die Nullte”, as it is called in German – and the Symphony No. 00. Die Nullte is, in certain passages, about as light-hearted as Bruckner’s style ever became.
But these symphonies were not being performed or published. He made no real money out of his choral efforts. And he somewhat resembled the fellow in Brideshead Revisited who is pious and decent and reliable and honest, but who spends all of his leisure moments collecting matchboxes. Then something totally unexpected happened to Bruckner. He discovered Wagner’s music.
To the amazement of all who knew him, Bruckner actually tracked down Wagner at his home, and summoned up the courage for an interview. Wagner had a look at the two scores Bruckner had brought with him. They were the Second Symphony and the Third Symphony. The Second Symphony impressed Wagner rather little. He simply told Bruckner, “Very nice,” and left it at that. To quote Bruckner himself:
It did not seem bold enough for him. (At that time the Viennese had made me very timid.) Then he took the Third Symphony, and with the words ‘Look! Look! I say! I say!’, he went through the whole first part, mentioning most particularly the trumpet.”
This should surprise no-one. If any Bruckner piece was going to appeal to Wagner, the Third Symphony was that piece. For one thing, Wagner was haunted by the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the same key. Bruckner was too. The indeterminate muttering of the strings, the atmosphere of expectancy and of menace, above all the use of just one chord stretching on and on and on and on, as if it would never stop: this was Wagner’s favorite Beethoven passage and it was also Bruckner’s. In Bruckner, Wagner recognized a kindred soul.
The profusion of pauses and of sustained bass notes in Bruckner’s orchestral writing makes perfect sense if we interpret such devices in terms of an organist needing to concern himself with stop-changes, with the echo implicit in a church acoustic, and with the frequent desirability of keeping one foot on the pedal-board. Hence the rarity of fast speeds in Bruckner. They are there, but you must go looking for them. Hence Bruckner’s nickname “Adagio-Komponist”: Adagio-composer.
One of Otto Böhler’s Wagner-Bruckner silhouettes shows the former graciously offering the later a pinch of snuff. It is an interesting insight into how history gets written, that you could well assume Wagner to be the taller of the two composers, on the strength of this image. In fact it was the other way around. Bruckner was unusually tall, as well as very strongly built. Wagner was both short and rather slender.
Now that Bruckner had Wagner on his side, musicians who previously had ignored (or simply been unaware of) his music expressed enthusiasm for performing it. These included Hans Richter, among Germany’s leading conductors. Richter was the only maestro ever to give premieres of music by Bruckner, Wagner, and, yes, William Byrd. In 1899 Richter became the first conductor in modern times to direct Byrd’s Five-Part Mass. Anyway, Richter’s championship of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony pleased Bruckner so much that he insisted on giving Richter a silver coin: “Take this, and drink a mug of beer to my health.” (The gesture so touched Richter that instead of spending the coin, he kept it on his watch-chain.) Sadly for Bruckner, his detractors included Brahms, who stated, “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”
Nobody is going to argue with Brahms’s statement about craftsmanship. But Brahms might at least have appreciated that Bruckner was perfectly capable of craftsmanship himself. It was Brahms who referred with scorn to Bruckner’s orchestral writing as “a colossal swindle”, and who derided what he called Bruckner’s “symphonic boa-constrictors”. But this did not upset Bruckner as much as might be assumed. He merely responded: “He is Brahms – and my profound respect. But I am Bruckner – and I prefer my own stuff.” Clearly, Bruckner had appreciated one of the most profound truths in Aesop’s Fables: “try to please all and you will please none.”
A very different proposition was the all-powerful Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, who openly abhorred Wagner and who purported to be a friend of Brahms, although in private (as emerged only after his death), Hanslick had no real interest whatsoever in Brahms’s output. Wagner, when he composed Meistersinger, had notoriously based the villain of that piece – Beckmesser, the obnoxious pedant – upon Hanslick himself. Since by this time Wagner had grown too powerful for even Hanslick to crush, Hanslick revenged himself on Bruckner instead.
When Bruckner himself conducted the first performance of the Third, Hanslick let him have it right between the eyes. His newspaper review, even in translation, is a small masterpiece of passive-aggressive patronizing:
It is not our wish to harm the composer whom we rightly respect as man and artist, for his artistic intentions are honest, however strangely he employs them. Instead of a critique, therefore, we would rather just confess that we have not understood his gigantic symphony. Neither were his poetic intentions clear to us. Perhaps a vision of how Beethoven’s Ninth made friends with Wagner’s Valkyrie and ended up under her horse’s hooves. Nor could we grasp the purely musical coherence … Even before Herr Bruckner raised the baton, part of the audience began to stream out of the hall and this exodus assumed ever greater proportions after each movement, so that the finale, which exceeded all its predecessors in oddities, was only experienced to the last extreme by a little host of hardy adventurers.
Although Bruckner had taken Brahms’s epithets in his stride, Hanslick terrified him. He actually begged Emperor Franz Josef to take action, pleading: “Oh, Your Majesty, please stop that bad man Hanslick from writing horrible things about me.” The Emperor could do nothing except offer heartfelt sympathy. Against the one-man media empire of a Hanslick, the Emperor was as impotent as if he had been the humblest factory-hand.
Nor was this Bruckner’s only source of absolute misery. Many years ago on Australian television, The Comedy Company had a parody of 60 Minutes; and in this parody, whenever the leading lady had a male interviewee she would ask him “Are you married?”. That was very much Bruckner’s approach to the concept of getting up close and personal with a female. But whereas The Comedy Company’s satire was meant to be funny, there was nothing remotely funny about Bruckner’s behavior, whether to others or to him.
Some composers can console themselves for public humiliations by a comfortable domestic life. Not Bruckner, who spent most of his days in excruciating loneliness. Awkward by any standards (let alone Viennese standards) with women, he had a habit of proposing marriage to ladies whom he scarcely knew. The one time where matrimony might have resulted, it came to nothing; the woman’s father, a Lutheran, forbade it on religious grounds.
It is almost always risky, and it is very often puerile, to attempt retrospective diagnoses of people’s mental problems. But Bruckner was one of history’s clearest instances of what would now be called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Bruckner’s nerves periodically overcame him, a severe breakdown in 1867 having confined him to hospital for three months. And he never lost a preoccupation with numbers, which led him not only to write down the prayers he said each day, but to count the turrets on buildings, the leaves on trees, windows, weather-vanes, church crosses, even buttons. His mind was tormented by 1,000 devils: or perhaps by one devil 1,000 times.
Eventually in 1875, the University of Vienna gave Bruckner, at his third attempt, a music lectureship. For the first two years he was expected not merely to work five days per week, but to do so absolutely unpaid. He proved a very good teacher of adults, as opposed to children. Those who had been his formal students continued to cherish his memory long afterward.
Bruckner had a talent for aphorisms. In fact, when I was re-reading the Bruckner secondary sources to prepare this outline, I kept being intensely reminded of the way that Pope Francis talks now: the same concision, capacity for surprise, peasant toughness. Other composers would have spent a whole essay, or worse still a whole volume, explaining their aesthetics. Not Bruckner. He said everything needful in a solitary paragraph:
They want me to compose in a different way; I could, but I must not. Out of thousands, God gave talent to me. One day, I shall have to give an account of myself. How would the Father in Heaven judge me if I followed others and not Him?
Or again, desperate to finish his Ninth Symphony (which he did not), and speaking of his Maker: “He [God] will say, ‘Why else have I given you talent, you son of a b—-, but that you should sing My praise and My glory? But you have accomplished much too little’.” Further, when the university finally had the decency to give Bruckner an honorary doctorate: “I cannot find the words to thank you, but if there was an organ here, I could thank you.”
Bruckner died on October 11, 1896, and because Habsburg Vienna was one of the most gossipy cities in the world, the news travelled with amazing swiftness. Thousands attended his funeral. In the silhouette department, Otto Böhler surpassed himself. Look at the fine detail of Böhler’s portraiture. At the extreme left we have Bruckner, greeted by Liszt. Then from left to right, we have: Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Haydn, Handel, and (sitting at the organ with his back to the others) Bach.
With Bruckner, the bizarre thing was that his whole creative career had in a sense scarcely begun. There is no equivalent in the biographies of other world-famous composers to this astonishing posthumous tale of good and ill fortune. And it would never have occurred, without the fact that in 1896 the discipline of musicology remained very new.
The earliest known use of the word “musicology” (Musikwissenschaft in German) was in 1885. Another crucial German term, Urtext, was already around, although according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it did not appear in our tongue until 1932. The late 1800s marked the first period in which the comprehensive study of manuscripts was being taken seriously, and the quest for the Holy Grail was to find the Urtext: everything the composer initially wrote in his music, no less, but – crucially – no more either. Just the notes, ma’am.
From this viewpoint, Bruckner’s manuscripts were a nightmare. Not in the choral music; the orchestral music is the huge problem. Bruckner’s agonized introversion made him revise repeatedly most of his symphonies, at the behest of colleagues, some of them well-meaning, some of them with their own agendas. These revisions turned into a minefield for subsequent editors, who have furiously quarreled with one another as to which amendments are musically justified, and which were forced on Bruckner by outside opinion.
Archival studies (by no means only in music) enjoyed a boom in the German-speaking countries during the 1920s. This boom was a by-product of the understandably desperate national search to find out how the Great War had broken out in the first place. Viewed in this light, the search for the pure Bruckner has something in common with the search for the pure classless society, and can be almost equally alarming in its connotations.
Here is a motherhood statement about the aim of Bruckner manuscript scholarship: “Rescuing the true, authentic Bruckner from his insensitive, interfering editors.” But note how the addition of one simple word changes the whole basis of the sentence: “Rescuing the true, authentic Bruckner from his insensitive, interfering Jewish editors.”And who became Germany’s Chancellor in January 1933, may I ask?
The two main musicologists involved in the editing of Bruckner published scores from the 1920s onwards were Robert Haas and Leopold Nowak. It remains unclear from the main English-language biographies of Bruckner how politically motivated either Haas or Nowak was deep down, if at all. Not much, I suspect. But after Austria’s Chancellor Dollfuss was murdered, and well before the Anschluss, the Austrian Bruckner Society split right down the middle, with the pro-Nazi elements favoring Haas, and the anti-Nazi elements favoring Nowak.
As the specialist literature on Bruckner confirms, this ideological conflict between Haas partisans and Nowak partisans is persisting still. The bitterness continues, as with Catholics and Protestants in Belfast – or, a better comparison, with Anglophones and Francophones in Canada – long after the immediate military, political, and economic causes for that bitterness have stopped.
Let me stress: with the discrepancies involved, we are not just talking about a few phrases here and there. We are talking about massive differences not merely to the orchestration or the expression marks or the phrasing, but to the most essential text. It is far worse than any textual problem in Shakespeare. Imagine that, when producing Hamlet, you were confronted with experts who vehemently disagreed with each other on whether you should omit the character of Horatio; on whether you should exchange Rosencrantz’s lines with Guildenstern’s; or even on whether Hamlet ends up marrying Ophelia. If those enigmas faced you, it would be tempting never to produce Hamlet at all.
Conductors have to decide which edition they will use in their own performances. A handful of them prepare their own editions, as did the late Georg Tintner, who spent much of his life in Sydney and Perth.
To complicate matters, we have the strange cross-cultural phenomenon which really came into being only after 1945: the rise of a huge Bruckner audience in, of all places, Japan. Scarcely had Hitler killed himself (and the fact that Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was played on Berlin radio to mark the news of the Führer’s death did absolutely nothing to make Bruckner more popular with the Allies), than Japanese music-lovers started cultivating a love of Bruckner that soon swept almost all before it. The shifting of Bruckner gravity’s center, so to speak, from one defeated Axis country to another defeated Axis country had far-reaching implications for musicologists in the U.S.A., after the Second World War.
Admittedly, there had been a small Japanese fan-club for Bruckner well before 1945. But why did this become a huge Japanese fan-club for Bruckner after 1945? A while back, I asked some Bruckner experts – all of whom, unlike myself, had spent time in Japan – this very question.
My own theory had been that it was largely the doing of Herbert von Karajan, whose recordings (not only of Bruckner) with the Berlin Philharmonic were even more fantastically successful in Japan than they were elsewhere. I was wrong. Japan’s Bruckner craze preceded Karajan and has long outlived him. (He died in 1989.) This craze cannot have a fundamental connection with Christianity, since Japanese Christians are no more than about two per cent of the population, not nearly a big enough market to explain the enthusiasm. What I was told by the experts can be summed up as follows.
Some countries, however much they love Western music, will never care for Bruckner. One of them is Israel, and this is not a question of the Third Reich factor. I am reliably informed that most Israelis find Bruckner tiresome. Most have not acquired the serenity to sit through Bruckner’s tranquil expositions and whispered farewells. Bruckner’s calm certainty of purpose gets on their nerves. Mahler, with his violent emotional contrasts, his often frantic speeds, his coloristic percussion usage, and above all his frequent cynicism, is much more to Israelis’ taste.
The Japanese, on the other hand, are a people with almost superhuman capacities for patience. Buddhism and stoicism are their default modes. They identify with Bruckner’s strivings for something beyond mere earthly reason. They take their time when they listen, just as they take their time in social relations. They tend to stick by the rules, just as Bruckner spent all those years with Sechter, having stuck by the rules. When they listen to Bruckner they can perceive his fundamental sternness. And his fundamental unclutteredness. In even the loudest Bruckner climax one never gets the feeling of “information overload.” However rich the periodic fortissimo scoring, Bruckner guides the ear to concentrate upon what the ear should be concentrating upon. His idiom is an austere idiom.
Japanese gardens, as even I have seen enough photographs to appreciate, likewise exhibit austerity. The Japanese gardener will take the starkest elements, a cherry tree here, a few rocks there, a beautifully manicured lawn, perhaps punctuated by a fishpond. With those elements he is content. He knows how persuasive silence can be. So, as I mentioned before, did Bruckner.
These are not my thoughts. They are the thoughts of those who live or have lived in Japan, which, as I say, I have never visited. But I submit that there is something more to the Japanese affinity with Bruckner, and that this affinity ties in with what I said about patience.
History (and above all the history of warfare) has shown over and over that the Japanese have a very high boiling point. Privations and insults that other, and more hedonistic, peoples could not suffer for a week, the Japanese will often endure for years. But when the boiling point is reached, when the veneer of face-saving politeness is abandoned, and when the Japanese do get really angry, then may God help anyone whom the Japanese get angry with. And I suspect that Bruckner had similarly grim moods in his own music.
The thing which made me suspect this was a re-hearing of Bruckner’s most opulent motet, Ecce sacerdos magnus. This is a setting of words which are used for the consecration of a bishop, and most composers who have employed these words make out of them a very joyful business indeed, almost like a football team’s anthem.
Bruckner supplies something altogether different. Outwardly, his setting is all pomp and circumstance, abounding in brass-instrument flourishes redolent of Giovanni Gabrieli, who was only starting to be revived consistently at this stage. But if the setting’s meant to be joyful, why is so much of it in a minor key? Why does it start with – and thereafter repeatedly employ – the very same tonally ambiguous chord progression which 80 years afterward, oddly enough, Jim Morrison and the Doors used with such haunting effect in Come On, Baby, Light My Fire? Why is the unaccompanied Gloria Patri section about the most forlorn treatment of those extremely familiar words which you will ever come across? And if Bruckner was trying to convey what a fine fellow the bishop was, why is there a soft throwaway ending? In the context of the Latin liturgy, priests and (especially) altar-servers dread a soft throwaway ending, because it will catch them totally by surprise.
It is my belief that in this Bruckner motet, there dwells a real heart of darkness. I do not suppose the original bishop bothered to notice the music’s forbidding character. But I am willing to bet that another buttoned-up, obsessive, agonized Catholic, Alfred Hitchcock, would have noticed at once, if he had ever heard it. Maybe Hitchcock did hear it, with his Jesuit education and all, and with Westminster Cathedral including Bruckner in its repertoire.
If my theorizing is warranted, then perhaps it is relevant to a comment that Somerset Maugham makes somewhere, about the nature of bravery, and the limits of music in general. “There is in the heroic courage with which man confronts the irrationality of the world, a beauty greater than the beauty of art.”
I think of a lady, now dead, whom I never met, but whose husband – he still lives in Canberra – sometimes used to employ me on a contract basis. When this lady was dying (or so her widower told me), she could derive consolation from listening to records of Bruckner’s music, long after most other composers had palled for her. Earlier on, I cited Georg Tintner’s conducting.
During the 1990s, Tintner committed to disc all of the Bruckner symphonies, using mostly his own editions. But in 1999 Tintner, by this stage based in Nova Scotia, had already been suffering the ravages of cancer for six years. One day, unable to bear the thought of becoming more and more dependent upon his much younger spouse, he took his own life. He went to the window of his Halifax apartment, and before anyone could stop him, he jumped out.
So one must not blather idly about the redemptive power of even the noblest compositions. All that “beauty will save the world” drivel we get force-fed these days. Enough already. As Tintner demonstrated, there are some dark nights of the soul that even Bruckner’s music cannot help with. But there are quite a few dark nights of the soul that Bruckner’s music can help with.
I should like to conclude with one of the most seraphic Bruckner passages I know. It is the Third Symphony’s second movement. And there is a section near the end of it – so simple melodically, barely more than a rising scale – that however many times I hear it, still gives me goose-bumps.
In 1981 the late British conductor Sir Colin Davis told an interviewer for Britain’s Gramophone magazine: “On his day, Bruckner can create a melody that is like an arc from heaven.” If I have not conveyed to you why I think the passage starting at the 11:57 mark in this performance resembles just such an arc from heaven, I have been wasting my time.