Bruckner: The divine and the beautiful

Goethe, it is said, called architecture “frozen music.” If we turn the statement around, we have a description of music as “fluid architecture,” an always-changing, living structure. No music better fits this description than that of Anton Bruckner.

Mozart’s music may be the harmonious equivalent of countryside palaces or grand neo-classical academies. Mahler quipped that he composed symphonies that made the Alps superfluous. Richard Strauss gave us musico-architectural prints of his study, kitchen, bedroom, and possibly even the smallest room in his house… But all these analogies are stretching Goethe’s idea a bit. Not so when it comes to the arch-Austrian, arch-Catholic Bruckner.

No gothic cathedral is as cathedral-like as his Eighth Symphony. His nine mature symphonies (there are two more, “0″ and “00,” the former of which is not really a lesser work than Nos. 1 and 2) are monumental structures. Broad and somber, earnest and yet filled with a glory that comes to the fore, much like when visiting the Dome to Cologne or Notre Dame in Paris. They are architectural documents of faith, only purer, less tainted than the history of any actual cathedral would be.

On the surface, Bruckner could be mentioned in the same vein as Mahler and Wagner–big-boned late Germanic romanticism, employing huge forces in the service of music that can appear self-important. In fact, by quoting themes of Wagner’s operas in his Third Symphony, Bruckner sealed his reputation as a staunch pro-Wagnerian. Unwittingly pitched in the Wagner-Brahms wars of the time, Bruckner was moved much closer to his German colleague than he probably would have, for all his admiration of Wagner’s music. (In consequence, many well-meaning Wagnerian friends of Bruckner ended up revising and “helping” his symphonies, trying to turn them into “Wagner without words.”)

But Bruckner never–not even in the most corrupted editions of his symphonies–was that close to Wagner, musically. (Bruckner didn’t write much else–a cute and clunky quintet, three sublime masses, a Te Deum of equal quality, some psalm settings, a few choral works, and surprisingly little organ music was all the notable non-symphonic work that he created.) Nor do his hour-plus symphonies, scored for 100-member and above orchestras, have more in common with Mahler than their size, length, and number. For those who wish to hear “Wagner without words,” the four early Dvo_ák symphonies or the symphonies of Norwegian composer Christoph Sinding are mandatory listening. For those who would enjoy Mahler-like works, the singular symphony of Hans Rott, and some Zemlinsky and Reznik works should best satisfy that desire.

Bruckner meanwhile distinguishes himself from both Mahler and Wagner foremost through his different eschatology. Far from being a private religious matter, the view of the world after this life has had a profound impact on all three composers. Wagner never quite knew what the answers were for him. Rejection of Christianity and influential stops at Schopenhauer and Buddhism ended in an eventual, contorted return to Christianity, resulting in one of the most twisted personal religious statements in the form of one of the most sublime musical statements: Parsifal. At the center of it was always Wagner, not God. There is a constant searching quality that gives Wagner’s works their unique quality of having no real end, nor needing one. Mahler, too, was far from spiritually secure. His Jewish background and later embrace of it certainly contributed to this–and if his biography will not give clues, his music does. He, too, never found answers. His wonderings and yearnings were audibly made manifest in his symphonies, which are half angst, half struggle.

In Bruckner, there is none of this. Often mischaracterized as a simpleton, a musical farmer with a quill, Bruckner harbored no pressing religious conflicts in his chest, and had few, if any, unanswered questions about God. His music is plain, honest, open. Where Mahler seems to ask, often in anguish, “Who am I? Where am I–and where am I to go?” Bruckner’s music declares, “Here I am, God, take me.” His works are like the offerings of a humble servant, and despite their gargantuan structure, they retain a certain simplicity. Again, this is not merely a theoretical or spiritual point: it is also made obvious in the music itself. It does not constantly yearn, strive to be somewhere else while still stuck on a past chord. It does not have the intertwined, winding, gloriously painful forward movement of a Mahler symphony. It rather consists of consecutive statements, offered as developments of thematic kernels, but openly so, without unnecessary complications. To say that this is so because Bruckner was a church organist and his composition technique essentially that of an organ composer transcribing his ideas for orchestra (which is, simplification aside, absolutely correct), does not negate the spiritual point about his music. If anything, it supports it.

The effect of Bruckner’s music is that you are never compelled; you are not sucked into a harmonic mælstrom from which there is no escape. You are carried along with the music. There is no driven, fatalistic run to an uncertain end. You always know where you are– and you will know that, and usually when, it will end. In a review of Günter Wand’s performance of the Eighth Symphony at the cathedral in Lübeck, a writer once said: “It took Wand 86 minutes to finish the symphony, because it took him 86 minutes to find God.” Even a heathen like me can appreciate a statement like that–and after hearing the performance, it is self-explanatory, saying legions about both the work and the performance. You can listen to any and all of Mahler’s symphonies backwards and forwards and you will find many things–but God, or even just “resolution,” is not one of them. Nor is it likely that many people get to the end of Parsifal and have a sudden epiphany of what “Redemption the Redeemer” might exactly mean.

None of this is to say that Bruckner is somehow better than Wagner or Mahler, musically or otherwise. (Though it is probably difficult not to be better than Wagner in any non-musical ways…) It is to say that Bruckner could not be more different from those two, despite superficial similarities. Nor am I trying to make Bruckner into the composer for the spiritually inclined. Spirituality is merely one of the explanations for what distinguishes Bruckner’s music from that of others. It becomes a musical point entirely, much like when Charles Bukowski (of all people) had the wisdom to write: “The reason why it is so difficult to play Bach badly, is that he made so few spiritual mistakes.” What sounds like evasive hogwash becomes abundantly clear when you hear a mediocre performance of the Goldberg Variations on the Marimba–and it still makes sense. Reger, Busoni, Shostakovich (Preludes & Fugues), and Schoenberg all found inspiration in Bach. None succeeded in writing music that was similar in spirit without also being similar in technique, voice, or style. Of all the 19th- and 20th-century composers that took their cues from Bach, Bruckner is the most like him while having the most distinctive musical vernacular.

The symphonies might look grandiose. Yet not a note in them is self-serving, there is no hint of self-importance. They are an abdication of the ego and the earnest, plain, humble gift to a master Bruckner knew to be greater than himself. If his work didn’t speak that language musically, I would not be interested in it. But since it does, I can only urge: Here it is, Listener, take it.

Recordings of works mentioned in this article:

Bruckner, Sy. 8 – Günter Wand, Berlin Philharmonic – live – BGM/RCA
Bruckner, Sy. 4 – Günter Wand, Berlin Philharmonic – live – BGM/RCA
Bruckner, Sy. 5 – Christian Thieleman, Munich Philharmonic – live – DG
Bruckner, Sy. 6 – Sergeiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic – live – EMI
Bruckner, Sy. 7 – Herbert von Karajan – DG
Bruckner, Sy. 9 – Günter Wand, Berlin Philharmonic – live – BGM/RCA
Bruckner, Sy. 1-9 – Eugen Jochum, Dresden Staatskapelle – EMI
Wagner, Parsifal – Hans Knappertsbusch – live – Philips
Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau – Michael Schonwandt – Dacapo
Rott, Symphony in E – Dennis Russell Davies – CPO
Dvo_ák, Symphonies – Rafael Kubelik – DG
Sinding, Sy. 3 & 4 – David Porcelijn – CPO

Jens F. Laurson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Center for International Relations. He regularly contributes to Ionarts on classical music and his concert reviews have appeared in the Washington Post.

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