Anton Bruckner: Fotografie von Josef Löwy, 1894 (koloriert)

Anton Bruckner: The Unfathomable

Few composers have left posterity with such an inconsistent picture as the Austrian composer.

The personality of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, or better put: what we believe his personality to have been, is made up of a vast number of anecdotes and oft pretty unclear recollections from friends and contemporaries. Diary entries or letters from Bruckner’s own pen are thin on the ground. The outcome is that the composer generally appears in an unflattering light. As a poorly-dressed artist, for example, who »never progressed beyond his origins and remained an awkward figure, rural and unworldly in attitude, as long as he lived« (Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht). The conductor Hans von Bülow went so far as to describe him as »half genius, half simpleton«.

It fits into the picture that the few surviving comments made by Bruckner himself are phrased in heavy dialect – what other composer does that apply to?! Thus the cliché of the naïve country bumpkin who just didn’t want to fit into the urban surroundings of Vienna with its intellectual circles has remained intact to this day.

Paavo Järvi conducts Bruckner

From 10 to 12 November the Estonian star conductor leads his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra in performances of Bruckner’s monumental symphonies.

A typical social climber

Yet Bruckner was really just a typical social climber, to use a modern term. He was born in 1824 as the son of a schoolmaster in the village of Ansfelden in Upper Austria. As such, it went without saying that he had a close connection with the Church: playing the organ at services of worship and conducting the parish choir were the responsibility of the village teacher in those days. But Bruckner’s road to the status of professional musician was to be a long and stony one. As long as he lived, he strove for security, and this prompted him to embark on a career in teaching first of all.

Music did not loosen its hold on him, though: he taught himself to play the organ, and took private composition lessons. And while working as a supply teacher he continued to pursue his interest in music, until music gradually came to predominate. It wasn’t until he was 30, however, that he became a full-time professional musician by taking up the post of cathedral organist in Linz, 10 km away. Parallel to this he completed a several-year course of study in Vienna with the leading composition teacher of his day, Simon Sechter.

Anton Bruckner: Gemälde von Ferry Bératon, 1889
Anton Bruckner: Gemälde von Ferry Bératon, 1889 © Wien Museum Karlsplatz

Admired and ignored

Just as people’s picture of Bruckner himself was uneven, opinions about his compositions likewise differed widely. Admired and even glorified by his supporters, he was largely ignored by his colleagues Brahms and Wagner, the leading composers of the day, while respected music critic Eduard Hanslick didn’t mince his words where Bruckner was concerned. Today, Bruckner’s position in music history is no longer open to debate, but it was to take a few more years before he achieved the standing of a great symphonic composer that he now enjoys worldwide.

»At the end of a Bruckner symphony we experience a feeling of completion – the feeling of having gone through everything.«

Sergiu Celibidache, conductor

The path to the symphony

As a late developer in the genre, Bruckner was over 40 when he began work on his first symphony. One reason for this may have been his awe for the symphonic genre, which he saw as the non plus ultra of all music, and which became the subject of several aesthetic disputes in the era after Beethoven.

Bruckner set out to write a truly great, monumental symphony with which he hoped to surpass his predecessors. His »cathedrals of unprecedented sounds« (Lorin Maazel) follow established tradition, it is true, but they evolve their own, highly individual musical style. The vast expanses of sound, the mood of solemnity and slow tempi soon became Bruckner’s trademarks. Further characteristics of his nine-and-a-half symphonies (there is an early »Symphony No. 0« as well as a fragment of a Ninth) are the tendency to dark and muted sound, the escalating harmonies and the brass section as the principal group of instruments.

Bruckner versus Wagner

Bruckner has often been branded »the Wagner of the symphony« – a verdict that is not quite correct in various respects. It’s true that Bruckner greatly admired Wagner, and even dedicated his Third Symphony to him; from a musical point of view, however, there are substantial differences between the two composers. Any kind of drama was foreign to Bruckner’s nature, he rarely made programmatic explanations, and his music itself functions quite differently. Bruckner treated the orchestra like one big organ: he did not mix the individual groups of instruments so much as juxtapose them in blocks like organ registers, separating the musical sections by pauses and unforeseen changes in dynamics. In Wagner’s music, on the other hand, the transitions are considerably more fluent, with rising and falling dynamics.

There is one thing that the two composers clearly have in common, though: their enormous influence on the development of Western music in the 20th century. Bruckner’s exceptionally modern-seeming Ninth Symphony, in particular, appears to anticipate the chromatic style of the Second Viennese School led by Schönberg, while such monumental symphonies as written by Mahler would be unthinkable without Bruckner. Not bad at all for a »simpleton«, it’s fair to say.


Text: Simon Chlosta, updated last: 11 Oct 2022
English translation: Clive Williams

Bruckner to stream

From 10 to 12 November the Estonian star conductor leads his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra in performances of Bruckner’s monumental symphonies.

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