September 4, 2019
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
Austrian Composer Anton Bruckner –What Does He Say to Us in 2018?
Something very different today from the usual themes of my regular commentaries…but let me suggest that the subject is profoundly relevant to us living in 2018.
Today is the 194th anniversary of the birth of the great Austrian composer and organist Anton Bruckner (September 4, 1824 - October 11, 1896) who was born in Ansfelden in Upper Austria. His father was the local schoolmaster. At an early age he received extensive training in the organ, choral music, and violin—and he excelled brilliantly in those endeavors. For much of his early education he was a student in the famous Augustinian monastery of St. Florian, where the young Bruckner developed an extraordinary interest in and familiarity with the great Baroque and Medieval musical heritage created and cultivated by the Catholic Church. His own firm orthodox faith, very simple but extremely profound, grew as well…and would be the incredibly rich and vibrant foundation for his amazing later work as a composer, his, as he called it, “giving back to God in music what he had received from Him through grace.”
Recognized for his unique talent Bruckner later removed to Vienna, where he eventually became professor of music theory in the internationally-famed Vienna Conservatory and later Vienna University. And it was there over a thirty year period that he made monumental contributions not just to the classical musical tradition of Europe, but to the corpus of Western and Christian culture.
If that were the summation of his position in musical history and European culture, certainly it would be quite noteworthy. But Bruckner occupies, in our modern age, another role; he represents in a way a veritable “sign of contradiction” against the cultural, historical, and religious tide that has engulfed Western and Christian society since his death in 1896.
And he does this uniquely through his music—his great choral music, his masses, and, above all, his nine symphonies, which are, as some writers have rightly suggested, “great orchestral moments of prayer,” immense architectural constructs musically that point Heavenward. But Bruckner’s music-making is not, certainly at first hearing, easy on the ear, combining, as it were, the intricacies of the Baroque organ and the sensibilities of a man steeped in the harmonies and chants of the Church, and yet fully cognizant of and familiar with the great orchestral possibilities of the late Romantic period.
I recall distinctly as a young high school freshman the first time I heard any Bruckner. It seemed like, aurally, one giant over-large mass of orchestral playing, every instrument performing at the same time, theme layered over theme—but missing those soothing, memorable and hummable “tunes” that you could hear in, say, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, or Johann Strauss, Jr. Yet, even so, despite my initial reaction, there was something special there—a kind of irresistible and overpowering movement, an immense and encompassing ambience that pulled you in and eventually surrounded you, and finally overwhelmed and convinced you. And I recall in particular, after coming home from school one day and listening to the end of Bruckner’s very long eighth symphony—perhaps his most difficult to bring off successfully—I was left perspiring, emotionally drained, but also, in a way, deeply and spiritually affected. I wanted to pray.
As I listened over the years to more Bruckner and read about him and his life, and his conscious effort to utilize his music as a way to serve and honor God and God’s creation, and accomplish this task as very few masters either before or after have, an understanding of his significance in our culture and what it can mean for us today also grew.
Bruckner composed at the end of the Age of Christendom, at the end of 1,500 years of Christian and European culture. He is often grouped with another great end-of-the-19th century composer, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). But while both men were musical geniuses who employed all the many achievements, techniques, and accumulated wealth of musical knowledge in their respective compositions—both wrote lengthy symphonic works and composed numerous choral and vocal selections—Mahler looks resolutely forward musically to the uncertainties, to the angst, to the disjointedness, and to the collapse of Western culture and its civility and orthodoxy in the 20th century, while Bruckner, incorporating that same rich artistic tradition and heritage, resolutely looks backward to what has gone before and offers in sound an incredibly unique defense of it and its orthodoxies.
For him, despite the currents in the arts and culture that seemed unstoppable at the end of his life, the Great Tradition yet offered real and inexhaustible sustenance in the form in which it was received. His role, he believed, was to take those older forms and reveal their continuing inspiration to a society, to a Europe, that, as Sir Simon Rattle has described it, “was sitting on a volcano,” with revolutionary ferment politically, the rise of radical ideologies, amazing advances in science, and the questioning of all previous certitudes in faith.
The late German-Austrian historian, Brigitte Hamann, in her superb volume of history, Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship (1999) and in studies of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, has recounted the swirling intellectual turmoil in Europe late in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the advent politically of Communism and Fascism, the birth of Freudian theory, the burgeoning influence of “modernism” in the arts, the radical effects of World War I, and the continuing liberal belief in the essential perfectibility of Man.
As a period of revolutionary change in our history, that time in some ways parallels our own. For we see around us the results of eighty years of a Marxist “long march” through our institutions and our culture, profoundly affecting our educational system, our arts, our entertainment, our news media, and our politics. And, as well, the rise of a new nationalism, the emergence of worldwide Islam, and the triumph of electronic technology affecting every sphere of our lives. As such it is reminiscent of the intellectual and cultural breakdown and turbulence that characterized the end of the 19th century.
Bruckner now, as then, is a “sign of contradiction,” an overpowering, difficult-at-times to fully absorb, reminder of the still-unexhausted wealth and richness of the older Western Christian (and European) heritage. He stands, in a way impressionistically, athwart the seemingly irresistible modern “Idea of Progress,” the “movement of history,” so cultivated and celebrated today, and in opposition to the gangrenous and poisonous decay of Christianity, to the ravages of cultural decline and the triumph of cultural Marxism, which would sever the ties uniting us to our past and to memory.
In his life Anton Bruckner had no idea or realization that he might ever symbolize or represent such a contradiction to the age; indeed, a man of simple and direct faith, his objective was just to glorify his Lord through the magnificent talent he had received. And this he did abundantly.
Gustav Mahler, who greatly admired Bruckner, once said of him that he was “half simpleton, half god.” Bruckner, himself, described his role this way:
“They want me to write differently. Certainly I could, but I must not. God has chosen me from thousands and given me, of all people, this talent. It is to Him that I must give account. How then would I stand there before Almighty God, if I followed the others and not Him?”
In so doing he was, actually, one of the last great Christian crusaders in the arts, certainly in music, to engage the enemies of our civilization. Our culture is dying for the lack of such artists, such giants.
I want to offer here a brief musical representative selection from Bruckner, but excerpting anything from his works is difficult: everything he wrote generally is very lengthy and thus, hard to encapsulate in a short few minutes. But I did find a short YouTube item which, I think, will offer an idea, a kind of musical sampling of Bruckner that may illustrate what I mean.
It comes from his Fifth Symphony, which is arguably his most spiritual symphony and has come to be my favorite of his nine. Although the late conductors Wilhelm Furtwangler, Eugen Jochum, and Carl Schuricht have given us magisterial performances of the Fifth—unmatched in my view, there is a short video highlighting a performance of the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim (a great admirer of Furtwangler and his way with this music). It offers short excerpts from each of the movements and lasts a little over four minutes.
I encourage you to listen and watch.
And if this should engage you, then I pass on a slightly longer (6 minute) excerpt from just the monumental final movement of the Fifth, a slightly better performance (in my view), this time under the late Gunter Wand (d. 2002), a Bruckner specialist, directing the North German Radio Symphony. Wand regarded Bruckner as the "most important symphonist after Beethoven." As the movement concludes, it is as if the Gates of Heaven itself open and the Holy Ghost appears triumphantly to embrace you:
Will we ever see its like again?