Blog Posts By

John Gibbons holds a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Chicago. He teaches music appreciation classes at the Universality of Chicago’s Graham School and at Newberry Library. He also offers private piano lessons in the Chicago area.

Bonnie Gibbons is a web site developer and SEO with a background in classical music. She might be persuaded to teach a few cello lessons in the Chicago area.

Is Bruckner a Niche Composer?

Here are a couple examples of a certain personality type:

1.  The person who (thinks he) aspires to be a writer, and sets out his pens, paper, erasers, etc. in meticulous array, but somehow never gets around to writing anything. He might rearrange his materials, however, and thus have reason to think he’s begun work.

2.  A manager at a company who believes in the efficacy of meetings, and actually schedules and conducts meetings. Nothing was ever accomplished at a meeting. But the willingness to be bored is at least a gesture of good will.

My third example is all too personal:

3. The husband who is told he better darn well participate in the house work if he wants a clean house, and who responds by ostentatiously dragging the vacuum cleaner into the middle of the living room, abandones it there to brood forlornly over the dust, and then drinks a beer while complaining of how unfairly he is over-taxed with the housework.

This sounds like me, but does it sound like Bruckner?  

Attempts at humor aside, I think that many critics of Bruckner consider that Bruckner got out his Wagnerian harmonies and Beethoven Ninth themes and arranged them on his worktable, then busily fussed with them, neither adding nor subtracting to the material’s intrinsic worth, and then abandoned the chaotic shambles in the middle of the concert hall, and went to drink some (probably sacramental) wine, all the while congratulating himself on having undergone the rigors imposed on a symphonist. An example from such critics? consider the following, by Aldous Huxley concerning a performance by Albert Coates of the 4th symphony, but which passage could be levelled at Bruckner generally:

“One of these minor works of art, which forty years ago appeared to possess a considerable significance, [Huxley was writing in 1922] was dragged, some few nights ago, out of a reposeful obscurity that should have been eternal, and galvanized by Mr. Coates’ exuberant vitality into a semblance of life. There must have been many who, like myself, went to the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert last Monday for the sole purpose of hearing what Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony would sound like on revival. Most of them, I venture to believe, must have agreed with me that the poor thing was better dead, must even have budgeted it its allotted hour of re-existence; have wished long before the end, to see it safely under the tombstone once again.

At a time when it was complimentary in the highest possible degree to be compared with Wagner, Bruckner was called “the Wagner of the Symphony.” People listened to his music with all the seriousness and good-will which he himself brought to the making of it. We who listen with forty years more experience in our ears than they, perceive that the Wagner of the Symphony was a man who wrote for the Wagnerian orchestra pieces of music which he believed to be in the form of Beethoven’s symphonies. We perceive that his thematic invention was of a vulgar and commonplace character. (All his learning and ingenuity are lavished on themes that would not do any very great credit to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.) We see that he has fallen heavily between his Wagnerian and classical stools; that he takes noise and climaxes from Wagner and cramping limitations from the classics, and that he makes of the two something that is at once curiously childish and pretentious.

Listening to this work, I found myself wondering which of our own esteemed composers will be regarded, a generation hence, as we regard Bruckner. Will they wonder why on earth we made all this fuss about Stravinsky, or how we were not disgusted by the emotionalism of Scriabin…” 

This is unfair, as became evident in yesterday’s class, which was devoted to a consideration of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, edition Haas.  The 8th does indeed feature a principal theme which is derived from the rhythm employed by Beethoven for the definitive statement of the first subject of the first movement of the Ninth symphony (and the harmonies, particularly in the slow movement, would be right at home in the love duet from Tristan und Isolde, the “magic fire” music from Die Walkurere, and the redemption business at the conclusion of Parsifal).  But it is patent nonsense to suggest that Bruckner thought he was writing in Beethoven’s forms. Bruckner had an absolutely unique way with sonata form, which famously involves three differentiated thematic groups as opposed to Beethoven’s customary two, more or less completely eschews transitions, of which Beethoven was the greatest master, and keeps intentionally arresting tonal and rhythmic momentum, which is just about the opposite of Beethovenian method.

My question is: Was Bruckner a niche composer? i.e., is it necessary to have a specific personal sympathy for his style in order to appreciate his work? Now please don’t get on my case and say that you need a special personal sympathy to appreciate Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, or anybody at all. Let’s be sane, if you please. Any educated  music lover had better like them guys. One of the few ground rules I attempt to enforce for this forum is the inadmissability of questioning the greatness and primacy of the aforementioned composers-otherwise, nothing would ever get done, and we would be spinning around in a never-never land of relativistic lunacy, as for instance exhibited last year by Norman Lebrecht’s idiotic column in some Australian periodical decrying what he believes to be the childish fetishisation of that childish mediocrity called Mozart.  Grown-ups shouldn’t have conversations that would be perfectly apropos to a late night bull session in a college dorm room.  

But Bruckner is different; he has a capacity to bore or annoy perfectly intelligent people in a way that other composers are unable to do. Maybe it has to do with his rather too pronounced Catholicism; I’m not saying Catholicism is worse than any other faith, but when anybody expresses “personal” beliefs in too fervent a fashion, it tends to alienate those who don’t harbor like convictions.  By the way, the French composer Olivier Messiaen is a much greater offender in this regard than Bruckner could ever be.  For my money, Bruckner succeeds in achieving, if not universality, at least a type of expression that may be comfortably taken metaphorically. And here’s another thing, which I anticipate will bring the wrath of the Dementors down on my luckless person: Bruckner’s symphonies wear better than Mahler’s symphonies, just as Wagner wears better than Strauss, or Debussy wears better than Stravinsky.  Mahler used to be my favorite composer, but nowadays I tend to take his symphonies one movement at a time, except for that most magnificent and perfect work, Das Lied von der Erde, which, given my expressed preference for sanity, must be accepted as the masterpiece with no superiors and precious few peers.  Mahler is always writing about himself, and while it’s a good thing that he is indeed so interesting and worthy of being written about, sometimes enough is enough. A wag might say that Bruckner is always writing about God, which would indeed be problematical.  But it’s not so, thank God.  Bruckner is writing about the formal potential of the symphony, unlike Mahler, whose symphonies are sometimes a collection of fascinating, and ideed moving, tone poems.  Some guy, not me, even suggested that Mahler’s 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th are “potpourris”.  Let’s send the dementors to that guy.  

Mahler's Popularity? He's the Antidote for Medieval (and Modern) Anonymity: the Sixth at Symphony Center

The Levine 1997 Gotterdammerung -A "Holde-Review" -With a Few Comments Pertaining to Same