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Anton Bruckner was the butt of many jokes in his later years. Vienna’s society circles saw him as a naïve country bumpkin with an inexplicable passion for the music of Wagner, whom the well-heeled considered unsophisticated beside Brahms.
And Bruckner got a hard time from many of his pupils at the Vienna Conservatoire. He was an old man and often struggled to keep up with their jokes. One of his liveliest students was violinist Fritz Kreisler, a prodigy who had been admitted at an unusually young age.
Unfortunately for his teachers, the maturity of his musical skills was not matched by his personality, and his childish sense of humour often got him into trouble.
Bruckner had a chubby pug dog named Mops who always came to lessons. After morning classes, Bruckner would go for lunch, leaving Mops with the pupils. Kreisler and his friends had a great idea for a prank, and Mops was central to the plan.
One day, when Bruckner had left, the students began playing a leitmotif from Wagner. As they did so, they chased the dog around the room. Next, they played the theme from Bruckner’s Te Deum, which the composer considered to be his finest work and in order to get Mops to agree, they fed him pieces of their sandwiches as they played it.
Soon the dog was showing a distinct preference for the Bruckner theme.
After a few weeks of dog training, they said to Bruckner as he returned from lunch, “We know you’re devoted to Wagner, but we don’t think he compares to you. Even a dog would know that you’re a greater composer than Wagner.”
Bruckner took exception to the idea that there was any composer as great as Wagner, but was curious and asked what they meant by the dog remark. He’d fallen for it. They played the Wagner motif to Mops, who ran howling from the room. When they played the theme from the Te Deum, the dog ran straight back in, wagging his tail and pawing at their sleeves.
Kreisler and his classmates were clearly well ahead of medical science; their demonstration of a dog’s conditioned reflex pre-dated Ivan Pavlov’s research by 20 years.
In fact, Kreisler later went on to study medicine when it seemed that a career as a violinist was not going to pay the bills. His teacher was renowned Viennese surgeon Theodor Billroth, who was also a talented musician.
Bill Roth recognised that Kreisler was far better at music than medicine and encouraged him to return to the violin. Music lovers should be grateful that he heeded the advice – and so should dogs.