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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 9 June 2009

Understanding Bruckner

by Paul E. Robinson / June 14, 2009

When I was a young music student growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, the music of Anton Bruckner was alien territory. The problem was that it was rarely performed, and everything about his music—the melodies, the movements and the symphonies—was too long. Furthermore, the music seemed to be continually stopping and starting. Of course the real problem with Bruckner was me; I was too young and immature to appreciate it.

Enlightenment began with a recording of the Fourth Symphony by Steinberg and the Pittsburg Symphony. I loved the horn fanfares in the scherzo and the massive sounds from the brass section. A live performance on November 17, 1959, at Carnegie Hall of the Eighth Symphony by Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic cemented my appreciation. Karajan’s hypnotic conducting was just what the music required. Right from the mysterious opening bars, through the searing trumpet calls, the otherworldly Adagio, the hair-raising march opening the last movement, and right through to its triumphant conclusion, I was under Bruckner’s spell. In the final pages, Bruckner, a master contrapuntalist, combines themes from all four movements of the symphony in a magnificent peroration. I felt as if I had lived a lifetime in the 85 minutes it took to perform this great symphony.

Some detractors have dismissed Bruckner as a country bumpkin, an Austrian peasant, a mere church organist and much worse. It is true that he spent much of his life in small, rural communities near Linz, that for much of his career he was a teacher and church organist, and that he was a devout Catholic who even kept a daily written record of his prayers. But it is also true that he taught at the University of Vienna, attended the premieres of all the works of Wagner’s maturity in Bayreuth, and gave organ recitals at the Royal Albert Hall and the Crystal Palace in London. Bruckner may not have been a ‘man of the world’ but in his mature years he was widely recognized as a fine and beloved teacher, an organist renowned for his improvisational skills and an important composer

For a major composer, his output was surprisingly small and he wrote almost nothing of significance for his own instrument. His great achievements were in sacred choral music—above all the Te Deum and the Mass in F minor—and in symphonic music. Bruckner wrote 11 symphonies, but he didn’t consider the unnumbered Symphony in F minor and the Symphony No. 0 in D minor on the same level as his later, numbered symphonies.

The remaining nine symphonies are all glorious pieces but some of them exist in various editions and versions. This is a minefield for conductors trying to determine Bruckner’s real intentions and final thoughts. The problem was that Bruckner was insecure about the value of his work; bad reviews often drove him to months of rewriting, and friends and acolytes could all too easily persuade him to make ‘improvements.’ The Bruckner Problem, as some scholars have called it, involves sorting out what is really Bruckner and what is not. You can read more about it in Deryck Cooke’s “The Bruckner Problem Simplified”, first published by The Musical Times in 1969 and also included in a compilation of Cooke’s articles under the title Vindications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), and Hans-Hubert Schönzeler’s Bruckner (New York: Vienna House, 1978).

Bruckner’s music is profoundly expressive in its slow movements, joyous in its scherzos and magnificent in its climaxes. There is nothing quite like it. And yet in hindsight it can be seen to grow naturally from what came before. All the qualities I have attributed to Bruckner, including length of melodies and movements, can be found in embryonic form in Schubert’s “Great” Symphony No. 9 in C major. Some of Franz Lachner’s later symphonies and Mendelssohn’s “Lobgesang” and “Reformation” symphonies could also be described as Brucknerian. The point is that Bruckner grew out of the mainstream of German Romantic music to become one of its greatest symphonic exponents.

Bruckner was a product of his musical training and the culture in which he lived. But his profound Catholic faith also found expression in his music. This is not only true of the liturgical works but also of his symphonies. Does this mean that one must be a Catholic to appreciate his music? In his BBC booklet Bruckner and the Symphony Robert Simpson gave a persuasive answer to this question: the religious elements and the characteristically Austrian tone in much of Bruckner’s music have sometimes been quoted as barriers to his acceptance by non-Catholics and foreigners. This is false counsel; one need not be Austrian or Catholic (or even religious) to find one’s imagination stirred by the vast power and sweep of Bruckner’s greatest music. Majesty is a quality eminently recognizable in itself.

Bruckner in Canada

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has become our Bruckner man in Montreal and is intent on recording all the symphonies with the Orchestre Métropolitain. Released so far are the Seventh and Ninth symphonies on ATMA.

Meanwhile with the Toronto Symphony, Peter Oundjian has entered the Bruckner sweepstakes with the Symphony No. 4 on the orchestra’s own label, TSO Live. Although Kent Nagano is a recognized Brucknerian in Europe, he has yet to bring this to Canadian audiences.

Bruckner for the Ages

There have been many fine Bruckner recordings made over the years: Furtwängler, Karajan, Wand, Jochum, Böhm and Giulini come to mind. But there are several recordings that would provide the neophyte with a formidable introduction. The first is a 2-DVD set issued just last year by Deutsche Grammophon. It contains Symphonies 8 and 9 and the Te Deum conducted by Karajan in live performances with the Vienna Philharmonic from the late 1970s. Each of the performances is spellbinding from beginning to end but the Eighth is in a special category altogether. It was given in St. Florian, the church near Linz where Bruckner lived and worked for many years. The composer is buried in the crypt beneath the great organ there.

The other recordings are part of a 4-DVD set by Decca under the title Sir Georg Solti: the Maestro. Solti and the Chicago Symphony at the very peak of their relationship in 1978-79, giving stunning performances of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, the latter while on tour at the Royal Albert Hall. n

On Bruckner : Two Canadian Greats Reflect On The Austrian Master

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

What attracted you to Bruckner’s music?

When I first heard a recording of a Bruckner symphony (No. 4), I didn’t like it... I was 14 at the time. But soon after, I heard the Ninth Symphony in the Basilique Notre-Dame (the MSO conducted by Skrowacewski), and I felt an immediate attraction. The mystical aspect, the vast proportions and the spiritual power of Bruckner speak to me like nothing else in the repertoire.

What are the greatest challenges for a conductor in the music of Bruckner?

Obviously, the control of the greater structure. Every line has a deep, long, horizontal quality, which has to breathe in a very specific way, and yet it is filled with a number of accompaniment figures often based on very simple motives; these are extremely important to get into place to allow the wonderful melodies to develop. It is like building extraordinarily solid pillars, the foundations to a gigantic but mobile structure, like a beautiful Boeing!

You are partway through a project to conduct and record all the Bruckner symphonies in Montreal.

Since I first conducted a Bruckner symphony (with the Metropolitain in 2002), I have felt very close to this music; it fulfills me as a musician. It represents to me the very essence of a conception of orchestral playing: every musician (including the conductor!) needs to somehow forget about himself or herself to be part of this wonderful “whole”... Embarking on this journey with the Metropolitain is representative of the in-depth work we have been doing together for almost ten years now, and with each symphony we are growing together. We are so lucky to have, in ATMA, such a wonderful artistic partner: Johanne Goyette always thinks artistically. We can freely exchange our musical projects and dreams, and this is certainly a wonderful one!

How would you describe Bruckner’s symphonies?

One major influence is Schubert, especially his last symphony, with its dimensions, its motivic writing, its harmony and its bucolic aspect, also very important in Bruckner’s work. Bruckner’s having been an organist is fundamental to his writing, with resonance and acoustical effects always so present. Like any other great composer, Bruckner was a visionary, but he was deeply rooted in a tradition, specifically choral music and organ literature. This last element is connected to the strong spirituality of his music, and that creates a very unique blend.

The first and third movements of the Eighth are marked Allegro moderato, and yet in recordings conductors have taken very different tempi for these movements.

Tempo is something one has to FEEL. If the phrasing is right, the pulse natural and the balance between the themes and sections logical, the “Tempo giusto” will appear. This is a long maturing process, needing countless hours of studying, meditating, feeling. And yet, the result may vary because of many factors: the orchestra, the hall, a different state of mind... In the case of a Bruckner symphony, because of the vast proportions, and the relatively few tempo indications, it is even more difficult to find an answer to all these questions. But it is also why I am so attracted to this music, and why it gives me such a profound experience to share that love with the musicians and the audience. n

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Bruckner

> June 15 @ 7:30 p.m.; Place des Arts, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier; 514-842-2112, 866-842-2112

> June 17 @ 7:30 p.m.; Église Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs; 4155, rue Wellington, > Montréal; 514-765-7150

> June 18 @ 8 p.m.; Cégep Marie-Victorin, Salle Désilets; 7000, rue Marie-Victorin, Montréal; 514-872-9814

> June 22 @ 8 p.m.; Église Saint-Nom-de-Jésus; 4215, rue Adam, Montréal; 514-872-2200


Raffi Armenian

What were some of the highlights of your studies in Vienna?

I studied voice with my wife Agnes Grossman’s father Ferdinand, who sang as a child in a chorus conducted by Bruckner. He told us about how Bruckner rehearsed. First, he got on his knees next to the organ and prayed. Then he conducted the entire rehearsal with his coat on even though it was summer. At the end he put his hands in his pockets and brought out sweets and gave them all to the boys. It is also important to know Austrian folk music to understand his music, especially his scherzos. For example, in the scherzo of the Seventh Symphony the first two beats must be close together just as they are in the ländler and in the Viennese waltz. You can’t simply play the music as written.

Your conducting teacher was Hans Swarowsky, who also taught Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta. What was he like?

He taught me how to interpret the Austro-Hungarian style. I have chosen this very difficult symphony for the music camp and the tour, to give our students this understanding.

What was your impression in your early days as a conductor in Canada?

When I first conducted in Canada, I had the impression people didn’t understand Bruckner’s symphonies and found them very long. People responded to the sound of a Mahler symphony but didn’t understand the music’s tradition. In Bruckner the sound is not so varied. But in his orchestra he tried to capture the sound of the organ, the connection with the Catholic world that meant so much to him. Again, that picture of Bruckner praying before he conducted a rehearsal is a picture that haunts me even though I wasn’t there to see it.

In the Seventh Symphony—specifically, the second movement Adagio—for the first time, Bruckner added the Wagner tubas to his orchestration. Why?

Wagner first used these instruments in the Ring and their use in Bruckner’s Seventh symphony is a kind of tribute to Wagner. Bruckner wanted the unique sound of these instruments in his music. Our students will use Wagner tubas in our performances of the Seventh. I have also asked our students to use rotary-valve trumpets, which are used in Vienna and have a warmer sound than the trumpets used in North American orchestras, and they blend with the other brass instruments better. The Viennese Romantics used the trumpet as a more lyrical instrument than composers elsewhere.

Which Edition do you use?

Swarowsky discussed the problems of the various editions thoroughly in his conducting classes. Basically, I am using the Novak edition because it is the most recent and its score is closest to the manuscript.

The cymbal crash was apparently not in the original manuscript but was inserted by Bruckner on a separate page on a suggestion by the conductor Arthur Nikisch.

I think it is justified. It is a big question mark. Perhaps it is a Wagnerian gesture. Perhaps it is Bruckner’s salute to theatre—Wagner’s kind of musical theatre. Bruckner was such a humble man. We don’t know where the influences stopped and the ego began. Don’t forget that this was a time when people, including Mahler, didn’t hesitate to change the music they conducted. But we have a different attitude today. We are more conscious of musicological correctness. Nonetheless, we must go beyond our research to make the music live. n

Raffi Armenian conducts Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony as part of a special presentation by the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec. Ninety of the best students from the various branches of the Conservatoire will form a festival orchestra. Québec City (June 5), Montréal (June 6), and Trois Rivières (June 7). conservatoire.gouv.qc.ca

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