Anton Bruckner was an Austrian classical composer who lived from 1824 to 1896. While he wrote other works, he is today known primarily for his nine numbered symphonies. There were also two earlier efforts at the genre from his student days that are labeled as Symphonies 0 and 00.
I assume most of the people who read this blog, which is concerned primarily with food and travel, are totally unfamiliar with Bruckner’s music and some may not even have heard his name. I’m writing about him because his music has meant so much to me for a good number of years and I’m hoping a few of you who casually enjoy classical music will give it a shot based on the samples I’ll provide below.
I’m not religious, but no other music makes me feel as spiritual as the Bruckner symphonies, especially the final six that he composed; Symphonies 4-9. The ninth was actually only three-quarters complete at the time of the composer’s death. As with Schubert’s eighth, it’s an unfinished symphony.
Bruckner’s symphonies were unique. I’m not a musician and don’t read music, but to explain it in layman’s terms, it sounds like Bruckner composed blocks of sound. While there are a lot of brass passages in these works, I love the way the brass players tend to enter these passages with soft or rounded attacks and gradually build up to a climax rather than coming in with hard attacks, blaring away right from the start of the passage. The combination of those blocks of sound and soft attacks sometimes give the music an almost organ-like quality. There is also always a feeling while listening that Bruckner is building to the next climax, which may take some time to arrive, but the journey is worthwhile. He was brilliant at building tension and emotional intensity.
Bruckner was a teacher of Mahler. The music of both men has become much more popular in classical concert halls over the past half-century or so than it was during their lifetimes, although Mahler’s popularity has exceeded his teacher’s.
He was also extremely pious and a bit of a nut. When Beethoven’s remains were exhumed in 1888 to be relocated, Bruckner showed up. Witnesses claimed that when the coffin was opened, crazy Anton pushed his way through the other onlookers and grabbed Ludwig van’s skull, cradling and speaking reverentially to it until he was pulled away.
Bruckner’s music isn’t exactly for the classical novice. In fact, it took me a period of trying to appreciate it without much success before it started to click for me. I’m hoping that starting with excerpts will be helpful for those of you who haven’t listened to this music before and may not be ready to invest 70 minutes in a single performance. But I’ll provide links to entire performances of symphonies 4-9 at the end of the post for those who are interested.
After the struggle that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, listening to the opening movement of the sixth symphony for the first time was the experience that helped me turn a corner with Bruckner’s music. I couldn’t get enough of the fanfare-like theme that periodically repeats throughout the movement. Here is this majestic movement performed by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sergio Celibidache.
Bruckner excelled at writing extremely moving adagios – slow movements – with emotionally shattering climaxes. A perfect example of this is the climactic section of the seventh symphony’s second movement. Here it is conducted by Bernard Haitink, who leads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
I would argue he was also second to none at ending a symphony. The end of a movement is called the Coda. The codas he composed for the final movements of his fourth and eighth symphonies are devastating in their impact. Each is only a few minutes long. The fourth is performed by the Munich Philharmonic under the direction of Christian Thielemann, while Herbert von Karajan leads the Vienna Philharmonic in the performance of the eighth.
If you’ve made it this far and are interested in taking the next step in terms of exploring Bruckner’s music, here are links to outstanding performances of symphonies 4-9. I’m not trying to be disrespectful to the first three symphonies, which are worthwhile in their own right. But Bruckner definitely reached a higher level as a composer with the last six.
Thanks and good luck to those of you who give this music a shot. I’ll be back in a few days with something more typical of this blog.
4 thoughts on “Anton Bruckner”
I love Bruckner. Many of my colleagues don’t. He can be very tiring to play, or course, but they are such great masterpieces.
Probably the reason Bruckner’s writing sounds organ-like is because he was an organist, and one of the foremost organ teachers of his day.
I don’t think Mahler actually studied composition with Bruckner. Mahler was a student in Vienna when Bruckner was an organ teacher. Although Mahler reportedly said that he was quite influenced by Bruckner.
Our performances of Bruckner’s sixth from Orchestra Hall and 7th from London with Solti were both released on dvd, I think in different sets. I don’t recall off-hand. They might not still be available. They were a joy to play.
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I once saw a woodwind player complain about not being heard at times through all the brass and heavy strings.
The sixth is somewhat of a specialty of Muti’s based on a few broadcast/online performances I’ve heard over the years. I learned the piece from the Klemperer recording, but while I’m not one of the big Celibidache fans generally, his performance of the sixth is my single favorite Bruckner recording. It’s not nearly as extreme in terms of the slow tempos as his other Munich Bruckner recordings. Only the second movement is considerably slower than average.
I do see a number of online references to Mahler having been Bruckner’s student, but I don’t know what sort of teacher-student relationship they had or exactly what Bruckner was teaching Mahler.
Actually, now that I think of it, David, I saw you perform the fourth symphony at Carnegie Hall under Barenboim around the turn of the century.
You would’ve recognized him by the half-eaten croissant under his chair.
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