Bruckner the indefatigable

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was searching for his own authentic voice as much as Schubert had done. Born in Vienna he trained to be a teacher and as a sideline studied composition and he went on studying for much of his life. He eventually became a virtuoso organist and after several appointments to church and cathedral and European travel (he played in the newly opened Albert Hall in London), he moved to Vienna where be became professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Conservatory.

There was great rivalry between supporters of Brahms and Wagner (very much the new voice) in Vienna at this time. Bruckner adored Wagner’s music but Eduard Hanslick, the most influential critic in the city, didn’t and saw Bruckner’s symphonies as an unwelcome reminder of Wagner’s musical extravagance. So the work of this awkward man, with his hidden passions and dreams, and a child-like religious faith, constantly struggling to say what he thought, became a battleground for people with other interests.

In the last five years of his life when his health was failing, he at last received the recognition that was his due. The day he died he was still working on his ninth symphony, leaving pages of the finale in sketch form only.

He is still an acquired taste – a friend of mine can’t believe that I find him so rewarding. He is certainly long-winded and you feel he was always trying for something that was beyond his grasp. Those wonderful climaxes his music reaches after an enormous build up, and then – silence and you may wonder whether the climb was worthwhile. He was desperately vulnerable to criticism, hence the continual revision of his symphonies often at the behest of others who had less skill than he. His enthusiasm for Wagner meant that he probably tried to impress his mentor too much. He had little social charm and was unfairly characterised as rough and uncouth.

Hanslick’ was an informed and respected professor of music and knew what he was talking about, but his hostility was so intense that for Bruckner it must have felt like a vendetta.

I think the architectural splendour of his music is wonderful, the adagios of his symphonies immensely moving. He demands patience, is best heard in the concert hall or in the home with all the windows shut and the highest volume you can bear! In both you feel that you are sitting in a great cathedral. The Oxford Dictionary of Music denies that the symphonies are ‘elephantine monsters but’ but instead ‘are now recognised as being in the Austrian tradition of Schubert’s last symphony….admired for their combination of contrapuntal splendour with intense melodic beauty and grandeur…’ I say ‘amen’ to that.