Wednesday, January 21, 2015

800 Words: New Tonality Playlist Part 3 - Bruckner

This isn’t the place to go into my long and deep love of Bruckner - how his music came to me at the cusp of my life’s lowest ebb, and how his ecstatic faith convinced me, if not of God, then that a world better than mine was possible. That post will one day come to be, I don’t doubt. It also is not the place to talk about how Bruckner anticipated all sorts of developments - from the heavy chromaticism of atonalists like Schoenberg and Webern to the cell-like mitosis of minimalists like Glass and Adams.

This is the post to talk about Bruckner’s impact on the future. Bruckner, for all his Teutonic heaviness, for all his reliance and reverence for the tried-and-true Western forms, is a strangely un-German, almost Byzantine-sounding composer. There is something about his music so unbelievably estranged from the German way of doing things that his closest parallels come not from music but literature and art. His music may sound superficially like Wagner, but the spirit of his music is diametrically opposed to Wagner’s. Wagner created a system of drama, instrumentation, vocalism, acoustics, and general aesthetics, meant to turn the world upside down: to overthrow traditional notions of Christ’s salvation with a Buddhist influenced concept of renunciation, replacing communal religion with Greek-influenced drama; upending bourgeois propriety and replacing it with a pagan-like embrace of bodily love’s holiness, and replacing the Bible with enactments of primal mythology.

Bruckner utilized many things from Wagner’s system - certainly he loved Wagner’s scale and even utilized an instrument or two from Wagner’s arsenal (Wagner Tubas, multiple harps) but his foremost desire was to fortify traditional authority. With only a few exceptions, Bruckner’s orchestra was entirely traditional. Wagner intricately interwove the densest and widest varieties of orchestral effects, counterpoint, and motifs; whereas Bruckner’s simplicity of means was almost monomaniacal. Bruckner developed 80 minute symphonies from two-note motifs, used the orchestra as though it was never more than three separate registers from his beloved organ, and used counterpoint as though the examples were lifted straight from a textbook. Wagner and Bruckner saw a kinship in each other because they both loathed the frivolity of contemporary society and its music, which they saw as distracted from eternal questions. But Bruckner’s and Wagner’s answers to those questions could not be more diametrically opposed. Wagner wanted to foster a golden age of Athens-like democracy with drama replacing organized religion as its spiritual guide.

Among the artistic giants, Bruckner’s closest contemporary spiritual brothers were not from the world of music but, surprisingly, from literature. Like his contemporary, Dostoevsky, Bruckner truly believed that salvation from the agony of human individuality which they dramatized so well can only be gained by belief in a divine heirarchy: an all-knowing God, His holy mother Church as intercessor, and a strong Emperor serving as His divinely anointed governor on Earth. Like another contempoary, Walt Whitman, Bruckner believed in vast, public statements that broadcast his faith from the mountaintops to the valleys below. Like still another, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Bruckner believed in religious ecstasy far more than bodily ecstasy, and his most powerful work comes from his enactment of that ecstasy.

Bruckner learned the musical language of Bach and Mendelssohn, but the musical language Bruckner required to portray that ecstasy practically bursts the seems of what Bach’s language makes possible. In order to create his music, Bruckner needed to reach out to other influences, and he found those influences not in Wagner but in the early music of the Catholic Church he loved so dearly. Brahms, another important antipode to Bruckner, derived his musical language from almost all the exact same music. Both hailed from a time when musicological study made great swaths music of a distant past available for the first time. But these two musical titans appreciated diametrically opposite qualities in the same music. Brahms loved the counterpoint, the formal experiments, the spirit of humility which they exuded, the micro qualities of the old masters. Bruckner loved the old masters’ macro qualities: the modal harmonies that sounded like another musical continent, the massiveness of the sound, the spirit of ecstasy.  

Bruckner’s musical language is a world apart from the Germanness of his time. He hailed from a small town outside Linz during a period when Krakow constantly traded hands between independence and subservience under Austria, which means that in his youth he may have heard nearly as much Polish spoken by native Poles moving over the porous border (or perhaps even Yiddish) as German. Whereas Brahms’s musical language, even when it’s experimental and chromatic, sounds fully ‘Western’ in its tonality, Bruckner sounds like he comes from a couple hundred miles East of where he hails - an almost Balkan or Russian composer. His chromaticism, compared to the ingenious tensions of Brahms and Wagner, comes in long sequences where the ideas are quite basic. His chords were fully Western (there’s a famous quote I can’t find about how Bruckner loved to play a long sequence of chords in the same key on the piano), but the way he modulates them is so unexpected, so distant from anything traditional harmony tells us to expect, that it surely must come from a different source and place. Brahms, almost entirely self-taught, had a mastery of form so innate that his music seems to have no awkward edges. Bruckner, an eternal student with more degrees than virtually any great composer ever attained, spent his whole career making ‘mistakes’ with form which Brahms must have found the height of amateurishness. As often as not, his symphonies sound like magnificent fragmented parts with no whole conception to keep them together. No matter how hard Bruckner tries to integrate them, his final triumphs often sound as though they come in no harmonic relation to what happens before. His transitions are not so much transitions as awkward-all-stop-emergency-breaks, his harmonies have no real relation to anything at all. As a result, his music has a visceral, emotional directness that in Brahms’s masterly yet humble hands would feel contrived.

Bruckner, for all his gigantism and erudition, was like a simple folk musician who found the world’s largest folk instruments at his disposal. His music has as much in common with Mussorgsky and Bartok as it does with Mozart and Beethoven. It is a music whose time has is still yet to come - when the sounds of different tonal scales, harmonies, and modulations intermingle freely, Bruckner will be seen as a foremost progenitor of the newly modern modulation - capable of expressing shifts in tonality both musical and (therefore) emotional at which no other composer before or since has arrived. Perhaps his closest musical kin is Tchaikovsky. Both tried mightily to stay within the bounds of Western forms, but both wrote music far too emotional to be contained within its bounds. In both of them, we hear in embryo a new kind of music - more visceral, more emotionally frank, less concerned with form and more concerned with challenging the listener.

Bruckner Playlist: (Bruckner requires a free hand. Most conductors insist on keeping the rigid structure of his music, which in a composer so untraditional in matters of structure, only goes to its detriment. There is an insistence in his music by gerontocratic conductors on funereal, rigid tempos, which many music lovers think are deep, but ultimately does little for Bruckner but preach to a small coterie of music lovers who regard Bruckner’s solemnity with reverence but have little regard for his ecstasy. Here is a composer who, like Mussorgsky and Janacek, composes as much by free association as he does by rigor. He needs a conductor who does the same: Furtwangler, Jochum, Barenboim, Kubelik, Abendroth, Volkmar Andreae, Tennstedt, Welser Most (surprisingly…), even Knappertsbusch… Here are Symphonies 3-9, in classic and modern recordings that do justice. Almost inevitably, the older performance is preferable - worse played and in worse sound, but to my mind, more exciting and ecstatic in spite of their flaws. But the newer performances are no slouches, and come in much better sound that can give novices a better sense of the awesome grandiloquence of Bruckner’s music when experienced live. My advice is the precise opposite of everybody else's when it comes to Bruckner. Don't be patient. Find a performance that grabs you within the first minute.)

(classic) Symphony no. 3 , (classic) Symphony no. 3 (if you didn’t know the later symphonies, you’d think this the strangest thing you’d ever heard in your life), (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 3, (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 3,(modern sound) Symphony no. 3

(his most traditional and popular...) (classic) Symphony no. 4 (classic) Symphony no. 4 (modern sound) Symphony no. 4 (modern sound) Symphony no. 4 (modern sound - has to be heard to be believed) Symphony no. 4

(classic) Symphony no. 5 (In my humble opinion, he greatest, most daring, symphony written in the era between Beethoven and Mahler… Both successful by the German standard of coherence, and by my personal standard of 'strangeness'.), (classic) Symphony no. 5 , (classic) Symphony no. 5 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 5, (modern sound) Symphony no. 5

(classic) Symphony no. 6 (some great performances in semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 6 (a still stranger symphony…), Symphony no. 6 , Symphony no. 6, (modern sound) Symphony no. 6, (modern sound) Symphony no. 6

(classic) Symphony no. 7 (The greatest slow movement ever written - IMHO) (classic) Symphony no. 7 (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 7 ( (semi modern) Symphony no. 7, (semi modern) Symphony no. 7 (modern sound) Symphony no. 7

(classic) Symphony no. 8 (I don't know what to say about it except that this Symphony changed my life) (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (modern sound) Symphony no. 8 (modern sound) Symphony no. 8 (still more modern...) Symphony no. 8 (still more) Symphony no. 8 (original edition in modern sound) Symphony no. 8

(strangest of all…) (classic) Symphony no. 9 (classic) Symphony no 9 (classic) Symphony no. 9  (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (modern sound) Symphony no. 9

1 comment:

  1. Well written Evan. I am not very conversant with his motets. Perhaps, I have heard just one performed by Jochum. It is a very informative post. I would also invite you to my blog at