Bruckner and the Challenging Fugue

Bruckner's 4th symphony is rather dramatic than romantic. © Charles Thibo
Bruckner’s 4th symphony is rather dramatic than romantic. © Charles Thibo

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.

About prejudices

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

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3 thoughts on “Bruckner and the Challenging Fugue”

  1. Haha, life is full of ironies – I enjoyed reading your autobiographical snippets! If anyone had told you, back in college, that one day you would be writing enthusiastic descriptions of Bruckner’s music for people around the world via internet!… 🙂 I first heard this symphony at a concert last fall, and was amazed by the sheer variety and number of themes, although sometimes they seemed almost overwhelming. Thanks for this reminder – I just listened online to part of it again, and thoroughly enjoyed it. 🙂

    1. Indeed, I wouldn’t have believed him. With the benefit of hindsight, I am grateful to all the strange things I had to learn at school. A message I am trying to pass to my daughter – so far with little success!! 🙄

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