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The Eternal Student

The Symphonies of Anton Joseph Bruckner (1824-1896)

Anton Bruckner

Unlike most great masters, Anton Bruckner developed his skills slowly. Indeed, had his life been as brief as Mozart's, Bruckner would be an obscure composer with a total of six relatively immature compositions to his credit (four Masses and two Requiems). Though born to peasants, Bruckner came to music early in life. His mother and father were both involved in local music activities in Ansfelden, near Linz, in Upper Austria. Bruckner received lessons in the violin from his father at the age of four, and took his first formal schooling in music theory at the age of eleven. During this time he became acquainted with Mozart's mass and Haydn's oratorios. There is some indication that his first attempts at composition date from this period, but none of these pieces survive.

At the age of 13 Bruckner was compelled to forego further formal studies in music and composition by the death of his father and the subsequent financial problems of his family. Accordingly, he gained a position as a chorister in the local monastery where he continued to teach himself theory and had his first exposure to organ composition. In 1840, when his voice broke, he demonstrated his lack of self-confidence by deciding to follow his father's example and become a teacher rather than pursue composition as a vocation. In order to complete his courses in teacher training, he was required to travel to nearby Linz where he encountered the concert music of Weber and Beethoven. The following year he took his first post as a schoolmaster in the little village of Windhaag.

During the next 15 years, Bruckner occupied successively more important teaching positions, and in 1854 gained two diplomas - in high-school teaching and in organ playing and improvisation. In the following year he traveled to the conservatory in Vienna to apply for private study with the eminent theoretician, Simon Sechter (coincidentally at the same age that Schubert went to study with Sechter 17 years earlier, only to die within a month). Sechter accepted Bruckner immediately upon application, and required him to leave the seclusion of St. Florian, where he was school master, and move to the town of Linz. This was Bruckner's first long stay in a metropolitan environment.

Sechter also required Bruckner to concentrate on his studies and refrain from free composition; Bruckner duly complied, being an obedient peasant boy. In consequence, the period from 1856 to 1861 yields almost no compositions. Upon completing his studies with honors, Bruckner applied for a diploma (Bruckner was forever seeking out official recognition of his achievements, especially in the realm of academia) at the Vienna Conservatory and qualified as an instructor of harmony and counterpoint.

As yet, however, Bruckner, whom Deryck Cooke has called the "eternal student," was unsatisfied with his knowledge, deeming his command of large forms and orchestration especially lacking. He thus undertook a course of study with Otto Kitzler, who designed a curriculum emphasizing contemporary symphonic trends and using Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Wagner as models. This novel syllabus departed significantly from traditional course matter, which tended to focus entirely upon "classical" forms as practised by Mozart and Haydn, and proved a turning point in the evolution of Bruckner the instrumental composer. Within the next three years, which included his involvement with the premiere production of Wagner's `Tannhäuser,' Bruckner augmented his vast knowledge of traditional forms with the very latest in symphonic techniques and the first of his two "study" symphonies was born.

It is important to note that Bruckner did not see himself as an innovator, but rather as a follower of the newest compositional master, Wagner. And so, at the age of 42, Bruckner created his first masterpieces: the first Symphony in C minor and the Mass in E minor. It was soon after this that Bruckner moved to Vienna permanently to take up a professorship at the Vienna Conservatory and a position as organist of the Imperial Chapel.

Bruckner, the shy, retiring student, soon became an international star. Due to his participation in a series of international competitions, in which he represented Austria, he was widely acknowledged as a master of the organ. He travelled to Paris, and in a series of concerts at Notre Dame was acclaimed by Franck, Saint-Saëns, and Gounod. A subsequent series of recitals at Royal Albert hall and the Crystal Palace drew huge crowds that gathered to hear him improvise at length on his own themes, as well as themes from the classics. At these concerts he fascinated his audiences with unusual skill and technique, and with what was widely reported as a magnificent projection of feeling. It is a loss for posterity that the profoundly humble Bruckner felt that organ works that came to him so easily could be of no great value, and thus left little in the way of written scores.

Bruckner also received great acclaim for his sacred music: the masses and motets. His great Mass in F minor was compared to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and praised by Liszt and Hanslick alike. Unfortunately his symphonies were not nearly so successful. It was largely through the efforts of powerful and wealthy admirers that they were played at all. An example: after being deemed "unplayable" at rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the third symphony was was not given its premiere until 1877, and even then only because of the intervention of a powerful cabinet minister. The performance was a disaster - no doubt due to the ambivalence, and perhaps even hostility, of the orchestra members. The audience remaining at the end of the concert consisted of a mere 25 students, among whom was the 17-year-old Mahler. To this rejection by audience and performers alike may be traced the openness to "suggestions" from friend and foe that generated the many revisions and editions we have today, most of them inferior to Bruckner's original intentions.

The third symphony serves as a case in point. The premiere of the "Wagner" symphony, as Bruckner called it, was a disaster. Of it Hanslick wrote: "A Vision of how Beethoven's Ninth befriends Wagner's Walküre and finds itself under her hooves…; that fraction of the audience that remained for the end consoled the composer for the flight of the rest." Was this harsh reception simply the result of an ill-prepared and uninspired ensemble? In part, yes, yet other composers have survived poorly performed premieres without lasting effects. Was it a case of the piece simply not being ready for production? Such a proposition is hardly to be credited, for when the revisions by Bruckner's colleagues have been removed (all decidedly less gifted), the luster of the original is apparent.

So, what was the difficulty? Vienna, and indeed all of Europe, was embroiled in a war of attrition and invective between the purveyors of conservativism: Brahms, Hanslick and others; and the proponents of radical change: Wagner, Liszt and others. The historian Erwin Doernberg perhaps said it best: "Bruckner strayed onto the battlefield and became the only casualty." The studious and respectful Bruckner neither truly understood the complex musical politics of his day, nor was he prepared to deal with the partisan atmosphere. He was a humble genius who simply could not fathom the vitriolic competition swirling all around him.

With his peasant's indomitability, Bruckner grudgingly agreed to massive cuts and other modifications - always detrimental - to help secure performances of his symphonies. Bruckner viewed these modifications as merely temporary measures, and not permanent alterations to his works. He also persevered with his composition of symphonies and sacred works. By the 1880s Bruckner's fame was waxing, despite the ceaseless harangues of the critics, primarily Hanslick. His first real success was the Seventh Symphony in 1884, not in Vienna but Leipsig, where it was hailed as a masterpiece. At the same time, some of the older symphonies were seeing performances in other European capitols and gaining acceptance, if not with the pundits, certainly with the public.

The initial rejection of the eighth symphony for publication in 1887 induced a new wave of self-doubt strong enough to cause Bruckner to go back and thoroughly revise the symphony. During this time of popular acclaim and critical disesteem, he decided to revisit many older works written as many as 20 years previously. It was this burst of revision that interfered with the composition of the Ninth Symphony and prevented its completion, despite devotion of the last seven years of his life to the project.

Pervasively, profoundly, quintessentially, Bruckner was a product of his upbringing. His family had been north Austrian peasants for centuries, and as such, were possessed of a powerful and ingrained respect for authority in church and state, a reflex integral to Bruckner's personality as well. Even so, as I read more deeply into Bruckner's life, the idea came to seize me that self-doubts and ambitionlessness Bruckner displayed throughout his life neither extended to nor issued from his compositions. Rather, his self-doubts derived principally from his sense of his place in society, especially the musically competitive society of 19th-century Vienna; he never lost faith in his skills and talents, nor in his compositions. As evidence we have his numerous letters, as well as the carefully preserved original versions of his symphonies, which, in general, comprise the definitive editions used today.

Though on superficial inspection his attitude may seem ambiguous towards those who sought by their revisions to "improve" his works, it was far from so. While he permitted these bastard versions to bear his name, he thought it an interim expedient, convinced that once performers and audiences were exposed to such corrupt texts they would inevitably seek out the originals - as, indeed, they have, but only in this century. In the case of the revisions he himself undertook, they are almost invariably improvements in the original score and not efforts to enhance accessibility. Privately Bruckner was a composer of integrity and abiding confidence in his own abilities. It is only Bruckner the public figure who can seem frail and without resolve. Not to distinguish the persona from the man is to counterfeit Bruckner. Before my immersion in the study of the man and his works, I likewise labored under the prevailing misapprehension of this composer. It is a matter of relief that I feel disabused from my previous misperceptions of one of the great symphonists.

A final note on the unique qualities in Bruckner's music. The large-scale symphonies have often been perceived as over-blown exercises in formality and structure lacking in sufficient drama to arrest and hold the listener's attention. While such a position may be tenable to some notwithstanding, for me careful, repeated listening has revealed in Bruckner's music a complexity and character more appealing, and ultimately more impressive and satisfying, than can be derived from mere effects and melodrama. A passage from Robert Simpson's book on Bruckner cuts to the heart of the matter:

"The essence of Bruckner's music, I believe, lies in a patient search for pacification. This does not mean a mystical longing for "peace,"… By speaking of a search for pacification in Bruckner's music I mean its tendency to remove, one by one, disrupting or distracting elements, to seem to uncover at length a last stratum of calm contemplative thought. The supreme achievement of this kind is the Eighth Symphony, in which the movements seem successively to reveal each other. The stormy turbulence of the first movement having passed, we perceive in the Scherzo the energy behind it; when that is spent, the Adagio slowly and often with effort uncovers the serene and powerful Finale. It is difficult to explain in words what the music itself explains in its own terms. I am sure that the characteristic Brucknerian process is essentially the reverse of the kind that raises the tension until it explodes in the finale. Human tensions in Bruckner are usually gradually pacified, and this is a positive, not negative, process; they are at once balanced, directed, and strengthened in the Finale of the Eighth, and in this Bruckner differs radically from the type of romantic who relieves rather than calms his own tensions…"
Simpson, Robert Wilfred Levick.
The Essence of Bruckner: an Essay
Towards the Understanding of His Music
pp. 231-232, London: Gollancz, 1967.

Dave Lampson, Copyright © 1996-2000