I heart Bruckner.
As such, I was happy to find a fellow Bruckner proponent in David B. Hart, a frequent contributer to First Things and On the Square. His essay regarding Bruckner and his 9th symphony came as a pleasant surprise, both by virtue of scant public knowledge as well as lack of general acclaim for Bruckner’s music. One could reasonably come to this conclusion by conducting a simple comparitive analysis of references to Bruckner one encounters in life, whether or not such references are positive or negative, the small amount of literature available on his works, and the little attention he gets in the cycles of symphonic performances at concert halls around the world. In other words, Bruckner lovers seem to constitute a small minority district among the voting class of western classical music. And yet, I have actually dared to call Bruckner my favorite symphonist, though the polestars of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven perhaps loom larger in the broader context of favorite musicians. Thus I admit that I read David Hart’s essay with a certain reverential curiosity not only for its content, but perhaps even moreso to see who would chime in the comments and what would be said, testing the validity of my general sentiments that people either know little about Bruckner, simply don’t get him, or at worst dislike him. Sandro Magister is one such prominent example of which I am sure there are many.
The most obvious case of proof-of-point was the response from Mr. David Goldman, another frequent contributer to First Things, and seemingly far better versed in general music theory and history than myself, as I am no professional musician or theoretician, only an ardent classical music lover with a natural ear for these things. Thus I could hardly argue authoritatively, from a musicology standpoint, against Mr. Goldman’s more well-informed opinions, which I will have to read at greater length in the coming issue. Yet, the snippets he offered gave me cautionary pause. I often find such attempts to bracket and rate music by various pigeon-hole theories rather constricting and hardly helpful in the long run. While agreeing that western classical music is formally Christian, and that there need to be certain objective criterion for discernment and judgment, in general I would find it difficult to accept any theory of western classical music that would posit Brahms (an avowed atheist) as its last truly great master and defender of its inherently Christian form, however much he simply inherited those forms from his predecessors. Every great classical musician stretched the previously held “canon” of forms and created new possibilities. Obviously there is some stretching which simply amounts to breaking and noise. However, I do not believe that Bruckner falls into this category, particularly as a cursory glance at his music and his biography reveal a man who inherited far more than just Wagnerian forms, let alone when one simply listens to his music and stops trying to overly-categorize and listening to general hearsay. Bruckner hardly fails in any of the ways Mr. Goldman seems to imply: from a purely formal standpoint vs. a subjective impression standpoint, from a lack of teleology, nor by adhering to a faulty or “destroyed” plasticity of time in his music. When one listens to Bruckner, as David Hart alluded to, one gets the distinct impression that we are no longer operating in purely human time (nature), that we are now on God’s time (i.e. grace, elevating and perfecting), and once we have changed our expectations to be properly disposed and receptive, it is analogous to learning how to pray again, for we all too often are guilty of putting God on our terms and on our time rather than the other way around. Perhaps Bruckner is simply able to create sacred space and sacred time in his music by means that are not “canonical” or which do not adhere to some over-extended crack-pot theory.
Supposing that Bruckner did formally adopt Wagner’s “New German Music” approach in an exclusive way, as perjoratively suggested, perhaps another question is whether or not Bruckner could possibly have baptized (transformed, internally) Wagner’s “New German Music” in much the same way that early Christianity baptized and transformed a great deal of Greek Philosophy and Judaic culture (and lest we forget, Bruckner stated that his starting point was Beethoven’s 9th symphony, however indebted he was to Wagner for some of his musical forms). Simply put, it seems to me Bruckner’s Catholic humility and piety seem to suffuse and inform the shape and content and time (otherwise known as the sound world) of his symphonies, and yes in a way that is dramatically different than his predecessors but which also shows a far greater inheritance and synthesis of tradition than Goldman gives credit for. Perhaps it is our theories and concepts which need broadening and stretching, and any music theory which preferences the ascription to an idea over and against the discerning ear itself risks pitting the head against the heart and further risks ideological suffocation and obfuscation.
Having had the opportunity to listen to the majority of Bruckner’s symphonies live here in New York at both Carnegie and the Philharmonic, while also attending those of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, et all, I can honestly say that I have never heard a more sublime symphony than his 8th (what I would call his resurrection symphony, for all of his implied lack of teleology), as well as his 9th (arguably greater than his 8th, if only it had been finished…). If there was any one desert island symphony, or any one symphony that seemed to best represent our nature/grace teleology, it would be Bruckner’s 8th. One simply cannot listen to it without implicitly hearing the eschatology that “God may be all in all”, to coin a phrase a friend of mine has used to describe the sense.
On a final point of contention, as an architect, I find the argument that the “internal content” can be measured simply from the formal composition on the page without reference to the performed work to be highly specious, as if, analogously, the plans and elevation drawings of an architect were the measure of the 3 dimensional architecture itself. Any “actual analysis of content” must be “measured” as music, which is heard, not merely notes on a page. And so what gives me pause are traces of a theory that is unable to account for something that might be better in reality than on paper, and whose conceptual apparatus might be too constrictive to account positively for anything that lies outside its scope. But, I look forward to reading the suggested article and reflecting further on these matters if I am off base in my remarks.
For those interested in listening to Bruckner’s symphonic works, I would highly recommend the Celibidache, Giulini, and Chailly recordings of the later symphonies (listed from slowest to fastest). For his masses and Te Deum, Matthew Best and the Corydon singers have a fine set as well. It should be noted that Bruckner’s masses and symphonies are magnificent sonic and spiritual journeys which require a fairly large block of time to listen to and contemplate. They are for the musical Mary’s as opposed to the musical Martha’s of this world, and justly reward those with the patience and contemplative receptivity they require.