Sunday, February 19, 2006


Anton Bruckner Symphonies

I have profound respect for Bruckner's work.

Bruckner's deeply meditative music poses a challenge to listeners. The nine symphonies, most spanning an hour in length, gradually unfold over broad landscapes. Bruckner's symphonies begin quietly and take the shape of theme and variation; an opening theme is smoothly spun, which initiates a synthesis to take place over the entire work. The music is a reflection of Bruckner's Catholic faith, often taking on a medieval quality and reminiscent of church modes. Moments of high drama, quiet ponderousness, and absolute silence lie side by side, forming a coherent whole beyond the limits of earthly reality. A Bruckner symphony does not refer to concrete images, nor does it undergo a familiar style of "development"; it simply exists as a vast, autonomous body of sound. Bruckner's works were outlandish to the Viennese public, but helped propel European music into the era of Mahler, Strauss, and Debussy by further broadening the limits of symphonic time and space.

Bruckner did enjoy increasing fame in his late years, as society became accustomed to the workings of Wagnerism; by the time of his final illness, he was a former professor of the Vienna Conservatory and the recipient of a government pension for his goodwill to the Austrian Empire. Bruckner's works have found performances worldwide, due to a steady growth in popularity since his death in 1896. A lack of interference by the Nazi government, who otherwise stunted the progress of Mahler, Kurt Weill, Boris Blacher, and others, was particularly helpful, as was the dedication of conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Daniel Barenboim, and Herbert von Karajan to performing Bruckner whenever the chance has presented itself. Still to be resolved, however, are questions about the scores themselves; they were sometimes revised through Bruckner's own decision, but also through the persuasion of friends who thought his music could be made "listener-friendly." One should note the different versions of some symphonies, with unwanted cuts and alterations still being weeded out by musicologists.

Despite this controversy and the strife during his own lifetime, Bruckner's creative achievement endures. Whether written for church or concert hall, his music pulls audiences into a different realm, where ordinary thought is transcended. His first numbered symphonies (1, 2, 3) and his two earlier attempts (Number 0, or "Die Nullte," and the "Study" Symphony) are moving, but they are curiosities in comparison to the middle (4, 5, 6) and late (7, 8, 9). Symphony Number 4 ("Romantic") is his most medieval and most popular; Number 7 is noted for its sublimity, written in tribute to the recently-deceased Wagner; Number 8 is his farthest-reaching; while Number 9, left incomplete, assures us of Bruckner's peace in later life. The numerous masses, motets, and hymns are also unparalleled in both aesthetic and religious terms. As attention spans become narrower and values change from the spiritual to the material, musicians have feared Bruckner's music losing popularity. But it is this inherent spirituality, this certainty of faith, which makes it perhaps even more attractive in our time.


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