“It remains a psychological mystery how the most gentle and peace-loving of all men […] becomes an anarchist while he is composing, throwing over board logic, clarity of development, formal unity and tonality. His music changes its shape like an unwieldy, glowing column of smoke.” This is the harsh judgement of Eduard Hanslick, a Viennese music critic, over Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor. Hanslick himself did not exactly have a reputation as a gentle critic. His measuring stick was the Vienna School, i.e. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Anyone daring to deviate from that line would face instant and complete annihilation in the press.
No unity, no logic, but…
And yes, this symphony was and still is a mystery, albeit a wonderful one. Bruckner intertwined towering sound blocks as we know them from Beethoven with melodies of a stunning beauty as Tchaikovsky wrote them along with filigree and playful elements that were Mozart’s trademark. And of course the magic spell of Wagner floats through this piece, invisible, but always present. No, there is no unity, there is no logic, and perhaps this is the reason for the symphony’s extraordinary impetus. I heard it two days ago at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg, performed by the Bavaria Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. And it was very, very impressive.
Laudatio on Bruckner
Now, I must admit that I am a spoiled concert-goer with ridiculously high expectations on any visiting orchestra. The Bavaria Radio Symphony Orchestra however kept me spell-bound for the whole 90 minutes. I became one with the music at the same time with many of the musicians (the violins!), whether they played the massive figures (the brass!) or the delicate fairy-dust-like melodies (three harps!!!). What a pleasure! What an adventure! Bruckner! What an intrepid forger of sound he was! Am I running out of exclamation marks here?
Death and power politics
Bruckner himself made confusing notes about the ideas behind the work. The German musicologist Martin Geck has identified three themes that have preoccupied Bruckner emotionally at the time, themes that he mentions in a letter to Felix von Weingarten, an Austrian composer and conductor, dated January 27, 1891. The first movement is supposed to depict the announcement of and the surrender to death as the ultimate authority. As for the second movement, its main theme is – hold on tight! – an awakening Germany trying to find its place in global power politics!
Love at last
The finale takes up this subject and Bruckner gives us the following keywords: cavalry men, majestic fanfares, the victorious return of the king, death and transfiguration… and he mentions Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”. Curiously the composer never truly explained the ideas behind the third movement was never truly, he mentioned having been inspired by a girl with beautiful eyes he had met! Geck interprets this theme as reflecting the holy character of love as an antipode to death.
Now, with these hints in mind I suggest you listen to the recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim and find your own interpretation. When I first listened to it, it triggered a very specific image: a craggy rock with filigree shimmering gold veins. Interesting. I will have to interrogate my subconscious about that some time!
© Charles Thibo