When I was at college, our German teacher made us read a curious text. It was about a guy called Bruckner playing a fugue on the organ. I had never heard of Bruckner and I had no idea what a fugue was. Actually I didn’t care about any of the two! It was just another boring German text I had to read so that I could write an essay. The essay did not go well… Much later I realized that the text was actually about Man’s fear of failure. Bruckner and his fear not to be able to play that complex fugue to its end was merely an example.
Unfortunately, this episode some 30 years back, set into motion the mechanism of prejudice: Bruckner = boring. Fugue = dull. I had bought a set of Bruckner’s symphonies several years ago and hadn’t listened to them once until… until December 2015, when I thought about that college experience. In the meantime, I have learned to appreciate, no, I have learned to love Bach’s fugues. And so I made a random choice on my iPad: Symphony No. 4. What a revelation! What a delight! All my prejudices are stupid, but the one on Bruckner was more stupid than others!
Echos of Beethoven
The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner lived between 1824 and 1896 and wrote this symphony in 1874. He revised the work twice, in 1877 and in 1878/90. The latter version is the one that is most commonly performed. The symphony goes by the name of “Die Romantische”, but I find nothing romantic about it. Bruckner never called it by that name. I see it more in the tradition of Beethoven with its clear structure, its distinct themes.
One of its defining themes is played by the horn, a quick triumphant melody, and the whole work has more of a hymn than of a playful romantic piece. This said, Bruckner, fascinated by Schubert’s music, is one of the last paramount representatives of the Romantic period in Central Europe. Symphony No. 4 is set in four movements and of considerable length: around 63 minutes. The record that I have has been recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.
Bruckner remained a mystery to many during his lifetime and still remains a mystery for today’s biographers if I trust Oxford Music Online. He was of modest origin, the son of a schoolteacher, a solitary man. His reputation mainly rested on his talent as an organist and church musician, while his composing activity was underrated during his lifetime.
An easy pray for critics
Being timid and lacking self-confidence, he became an easy prey for Vienna’s music critics, especially Eduard Hanslick, and often complained about being misunderstood. He got caught up in a fight between sworn enemies of Richard Wagner’s music and admirers like Bruckner. Nolens volens he also became part of a controversy that tried to oppose him to another Austrian composer of that time, Johannes Brahms.
One of the moments that music history has recorded is Bruckner’s exam at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde* in Vienna on November 21, 1861. Bruckner coveted the title of music professor and was to improvise that very fugue, that I had read about in my German literature class. Once Bruckner had finished the piece, Hofkapellmeister Johann Herbeck remarked: “He should have examined us!” And so I conclude this post with a lesson that Bruckner and I have in common: Don’t doubt. Do.
© Charles Thibo