Understanding Brucknerby 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
Bruckner for the
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
What attracted you to Bruckner’s
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
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
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
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 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