Anton Bruckner: Idle Thoughts


Thinking of Bruckner reminds me of the time when I started to listen to music. At that time (the 1970s), he and Mahler were lumped together as rather esoteric, “difficult” modern Austrian composers of extremely intellectual music. I even recall that the two of them shared a single Master Musicians volume.

Of course, Mahler was only Austrian insofar as his place of birth, in Bohemia, nestled comfortably under the Habsburg jackboot at that time, but nobody cared much anyway as his gargantuan symphonies were the province of a few eccentrics who liked that kind of thing – and I remember that at that time the only available recording of his Symphony No. 3 was a mono one on the cheap Delta label, conducted by Charles Adler, and there was not much choice of recordings of the others. As for Bruckner’s symphonies, one mostly had little choice other than horrendously bowdlerized versions (e.g., Knappertsbusch’s dismal recording of No. 5).

Things changed dramatically though, with Mahler symphony cycles by Walter, Solti and Bernstein, and Bruckner recordings by Jochum (the early Deutsche Grammophon cycle), Klemperer and Karl Böhm. Now both of these composers are cult figures and their entire symphonic output is copiously recorded. Their works figure regularly in concerts too, though some of the Bruckner symphonies are still too rarely performed.

With that in mind, something has perplexed me for years.

The entry of Mahler into the pantheon of great composers during the past 50 years or so has been accompanied by a plethora of literature about every aspect of his life. Apart from Wagner, he is probably the most written about composer. Every detail has been rigorously exposed and analysed: his relationship with Alma, his neurotic personality, his work as a conductor, his compositions and his views on just about everything, culminating in the Mount Everest of Mahler studies, Henri-Louis de la Grange’s masterly yet anal compendium.

In contrast, Bruckner has elicited virtually nothing in the way of definitive studies. He was just as fascinating a character as Mahler, though he was also Mahler’s antithesis. He was fundamentally something of a simpleton in every area of his life except his music. (Recent efforts to contradict this are unconvincing as there is a weight of evidence to support it.) He had an unshakeable religious faith and was extremely modest, sensitive and so much lacking in self-confidence that he allowed well-meaning editors tamper with his music. He suffered at least one breakdown as a result of the critics’ mauling of his music – and he had a morbid fascination with corpses and numbers. He was not, by all accounts, well-read or well-versed in art, philosophy, politics or science. Of course, as a composer he was a genius; his influence persisted throughout the last century and even into the present one.

With all this in mind, why is it that books devoted exclusively to Bruckner are so rare? I cannot find a single substantial volume devoted to a thorough examination of his life, though there are one or two good books about his symphonies. I think that it would be wonderful to have a searching biography of Bruckner.

Robert Simpson, as I recall, discouraged thoughts about the man and wanted people to concentrate solely on the music. I think this was because in those days there were all too many people who thought Bruckner a country bumpkin, and didn’t want to admit that he was a great composer.

But when dealing with such individual music as his, I think it’s impossible to understand it fully unless we understand the man. Ernest Ansermet used to say this about Debussy, and I think it’s as true of Bruckner as it is of Elgar and Mahler.

It’s the perception of Bruckner as a reclusive holy fool that might be the problem. I’m not aware that Bruckner was particularly reclusive or even holy, and he was obviously certainly no fool. There are plenty of accounts of him enjoying good food and plenty of drink with friends and musicians and apparently he was an accomplished dancer. He was adored by many of his pupils which suggests he had a pretty youthful attitude to life. That he was eccentric in his some of his behaviour and dress is without doubt, especially his constant and hopeless chasing of young girls with a view to marriage, well into his old age. As a country boy, Bruckner was steeped in the traditions of the church which provided the initial openings for his musical development, and, apart from his regular praying which would not be that unusual in the provincial Austria of the day, if he was that holy he would surely have become a monk.

Nevertheless, I feel it is indeed the religious thing that probably prevents a more objective study of Bruckner’s life. That Mahler’s life would be more interesting to a modern secular audience is without question, so the comparative dearth of books on Bruckner’s is hardly surprising really.



3 Responses to “Anton Bruckner: Idle Thoughts”

  1. Albert Wm Says:

    True and valid anyalisis

    • Thanks Albert. I never understood why Mahler and Bruckner were lumped together by even the most eminent musicologists, apparently on the basis that they both composed very long symphonies.

  2. Gentlemen and Mesdames:
    I’ve never responded to a blog before, so I’m not even sure I’m doing this the right way. Also, I m suspicious of, let’s say, the cultural sociology of Eton, and I’m not interested enough in food to talk about it. HOWEVER, your blog, which I just stumbled upon, is so charmingly and refreshingly intelligent (all the more in contrast with arrogantly ignorant-and-proud-of-it, not to mention infantile-fascist, American blog blab) that as a New Yorker I can’t resist ‘weighing in’ on the Mahler/Bruckner question. Our adoration of Mahler is first of all a point of post-provincial cultural pride: remember that when Bernstein effectively revived Mahler, it was from Mahler’s own podium! But secondly: in this town nothing can possibly trump something great that’s both Jewish and Catholic (like something Catholic and communist in Rome, at east in better days). It is no accident that our obviously greatest mayor, LaGuardia, was an Episcopalian with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father (something like Marshal Tito!). Come to think of it, this very situation must be something like Vienna before the War. But now comes the real confession, almost in betrayal of ‘my own’: that owing partly to the latter, we New Yorkers have a tacit agreement not to mention the more taste-problematic lyrical thrills we quite love to indulge in Mahler (to paraphrase Hanslick, only our dear Mahler really understands us!) even as we pretend that every moment still counts as modern, maybe even almost avant-garde! As for Bruckner, I do have a sense, based on coments of a perspicacious ‘source’ in the younger generation, gained at church coffee hours, that Tony B may indeed be in for rediscovery.
    (How does one sign off?)
    Regards to all,
    Joseph Masheck
    (art historian/critic)

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