On becoming a Bruckner bore

My piano teacher had always listened patiently to me going on about what were at the time my first musical, not to mention life, experiences. As much as she tried to keep me focussed on the keyboard, it was sometimes difficult to stop me chatting away. One day I told her I had been listening to Bruckner. I must have bordered on the effusive, for she raised her eyebrows: “Don’t become a Bruckner bore”, she said, with more than a little irony, and quite possibly worry, about my increasing alienation from the modern world. I laughed then as a teenager and it continues to make me laugh now, this put-down, which betrays not so much ignorance as knowledge of what a premature obsession is capable of driving a teenager towards.

It’s time for me come out of the closet: I think I’m becoming a Bruckner bore. Sad to say that my piano teacher’s worry was not unwarranted, however, for the process of turning away from the world and losing myself in art is something I have not got over – quite the contrary, actually: if anything I have become more immersed than ever. This is no bad thing in terms of the yield of pleasure from listening to Bruckner.

But what if you don’t want to return to the world? It only encourages a potentially unresolvable disenchantment.

Certainly I am obsessed. I have lost count how many times I’ve listened to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. I own his ‘farewell’ performance of the same piece with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which only just edges ahead of the Vienna Philharmonic as a more characterful and nuanced account but with equally refined playing, as is to be expected from both orchestras. I listen to his Vienna Philharmonic recording more often because the Concertgebouw version is on DVD only and so cannot be accessed when I’m out and about. Which, yes, believe it or not, happens: I move about the world, that is, taking buses and wading through the city’s streets, with Bruckner streaming down my ears. Not a natural companion for transitory journeys you might think, although I have listened to Bruckner on my laptop in the back of car during a longish trek through Wales. (On that occasion it was Mariss Jansons’ recording of the Sixth Symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which, it has to be said along with the composer himself, is a ‘saucy’ work, although with tracts of undeniable grandeur. The work fitted North Wales’ precipitous coastal landscape well.)

It has taken some time for me to become a Bruckner bore. It’s as if you have to go through an apprenticeship as a listener. My encounters with the great Austrian’s music have been sporadic over the years, except in the case of the Eighth Symphony, which I grew to appreciate courtesy of the late Pierre Boulez’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. And even this encounter had more to do with an interest in hearing what the high modernist had to say about the work of a composer at whom the musical world would never have guessed Boulez would have glanced, let alone been interested in recording for posterity on both DVD and CD. But there it is: a reading of Bruckner’s most languorous symphonic testament steered by a conductor with no time to waste and lacking the romanticist tendencies of conductors who pompously invest in some idea of the ‘Germanic soul’. I think what Boulez admired was Bruckner’s musical architecture, his (inimitable) approach to harmony, the purity of the orchestration, perhaps even the power of those awe-inspiring climaxes, or more particularly still textural density set against the clarity of harmonic resolution. Similarly, Harnoncourt’s approach to Bruckner seems to focus on sonority and architecture, although unlike Boulez I think he stresses the music’s tendency towards communion, which in Harnoncourt’s practice returns us to Mozart. But as a pathbreaking exponent of the period instrument revolution, Bruckner is as much a left field choice of composer for Harnoncourt as he was for Boulez, only from the other end of music history. For me, Harnoncourt draws out the potential for authentic performance in Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, reducing the vibrato of the strings in the first movement for a clearer, more direct sound. What Harnoncourt and Boulez emphatically do not do, to my ears at least, is to extrapolate romanticism from instrumental sound: avoiding vibrato for the romanticist sake of it is therefore key to their way of thinking.

Of course Bruckner was not a modernist. His name rarely features in accounts of which composers advanced musical language, which is not the case for Wagner, whom Bruckner revered. Curiously, Alban Berg mentioned Mahler’s, not Bruckner’s, Ninth Symphony as a formative influence on his Three Orchestral Pieces, despite both Ninths pushing form and expression to the outer limits. Arguably, Mahler’s symphonic writing serves as the blueprint for Shostakovich’s symphonies in terms of its structural and expressive range. (It is intriguing, however, how certain passages of the Seventh Symphony remind me of Shostakovich.) Viewing Bruckner’s music through a modernist lens is surely not entirely misplaced. Moments of stasis and suspension allow the music to dwell in time and to revel in the potential and limits of sonority. The work of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, and Webern generally) comes to mind. Dissonances that pin the listener against the wall, as in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, together with passages of exposed instrumental writing, evoke the image of crisis that was taken to its logical conclusion by twentieth-century modernism (think about the full orchestral hammer blow tutti that ends Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces).

The Austrian idiom Bruckner references does not so much date him as locate his work in a time and place distant from that of the listener. Yet any ‘folksy’ or rural idiom – ‘oom-pah-oom-pah’ – sits seamlessly alongside the timeless quality of those moments of stasis. You might say this equates to some kind of ‘loveable eccentricity’. I am surely not alone in having felt a tinge of embarrassment upon hearing for the first time some of the Scherzo and Trio movements. But what is this eccentricity? Bruckner called the Sixth Symphony saucy, which is one way of characterising those jaunty rhythms, present in other Scherzos too, evoking someone discretely moving their shoulder in time to the music. Perhaps Bruckner oft-quoted childlike innocence might help to unlock this eccentricity. It remains a relative mystery.

When Mahler acerbically manipulates the rural idiom in his ‘Landler’ movements, subjecting non-art music to the vicissitudes of high-art irony, Bruckner has none of it. The idiom is articulated innocently; it is moulded smoothly into the otherwise classical framework of the composer’s fully individuated voice. Despite Bruckner’s relative lack of irony, his magnifying of Austrian classicism (Mozart referenced folk music too) is compelling. It fails to undermine the overall effect of the work, a metaphorical journey ranged across four movements culminating in an ethereal or awe-inspiring climax. (The irony here is that while the extant Ninth Symphony is the exception to the four-movement plan, some are likely to argue that it offers the most supreme metaphorical journey of all the symphonies.) You would have to be a rock for it not to speak powerfully to your life experience. And so, as in the case of any nineteenth-century composer, Bruckner’s music is idiomatic because nature and landscape cannot be expunged from the the work of art as an allegory of life itself.

One of the greatest obstacles to any listener overcoming their aversion to Bruckner is time. Duration works on micro and macro levels in the symphonies, from the span of the entire work to the themes. Bruckner invites the listener to adjust to the demands of duration. Perhaps the best example of duration working on the micro level of theme is first subject of the Seventh Symphony played by the cellos. Since opening themes lack the accumulated impact of climaxes, it is difficult to understand the pleasure gained in the time it takes for them to unfold. What bars the listener from embracing Bruckner in this instance is their habit of mind. Break the constituent elements down to discover how the music is being shaped and you will soon forget the pressure of time. The tremolando in the violins preceding the first theme in the Seventh Symphony is key to this process of understanding Bruckner’s approach. Feel this tremor as if it is the air you breath and the music’s emergence will occur completely naturally; it is, of course, what makes possible the expression of the first subject on the cellos. Similarly, the opening of the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies, in which French horn solos float above string tremolandos, create a form of tension that powerfully evokes landscape, the delicacy of the strings like sound meeting air, as it were. The effect is somewhat reversed at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, where a slow pizzicato in the double basses precede a string figure that builds in layers like tracts of air.

You can see where my piano teacher was coming from: the music has hardly started and a paragraph has gone by in which the first notes of a symphony are described. Bruckner bores are incorrigible. He changes your habit of mind. This last phrase is crucial: the mind that receives a thing by way of habit grows accustomed to that thing, developing new ways of receiving, thinking, and feeling. In this way, there is a strong if unexpected parallel between Bruckner’s music and mindfulness. I should say that I am not nearly as informed about mindfulness as I am about music, nor have I read about or practised mindfulness for anything like the time I have dedicated to the symphonies. The temptation to draw parallels between apparently incongruous things is hard to resist. Indulge me when I say that Bruckner’s durational forms require a mental attitude dependent on the state of being fully present. Bruckner and mindfulness: an intriguing thought, and one that might unlock the resistant listener in coming to terms with music that feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. In other words, I have grown accustomed to being present with music, dwelling in the time of a single note which can be longer than it is in actuality. Bruckner turns the listener over from the actual to the mystery of what lies behind and beyond.

Bruckner recordings I have been living with:

Symphony No. 3, Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Symphony No. 5, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Wiener Philharmoniker

Symphony No. 5, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Symphonies No. 6 & 7, Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Symphony No. 8, Pierre Boulez and the Wiener Philharmoniker

Symphony No. 9, Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra








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