Anton Bruckner: A Life

Few would seriously dispute that Anton Bruckner was one of the all-time great symphonists. Indeed, his many admirers would passionately claim that in his scores the symphonic ideal reached its apex.

His music doesn’t titillate, it doesn’t go in for surface excitement, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single whistleable tune in his entire output. His orchestration isn’t glamorous, he doesn’t employ seductive harmonies and, what’s more, his symphonies last up to an hour-and-a-quarter in length.

So what exactly can you expect from a typical Bruckner listening experience? Well, a blisteringly wide dynamic range for a start. One minute you can be straining to hear some faint rustlings from the upper strings, the next you’re being pounded into submission by a lacerating outburst from the brass section in full cry.

Bruckner’s music also possesses a thrilling, epic quality quite unlike any other. He often sets the listener up for a spectacular musical resolution, and then turns expectation on its head by taking a gentle stroll along some diverting musical tributary, all the time keeping his eye on the main event.

In this way he keeps his listeners tantalised until, finally, he erupts with wave upon wave of overwhelming fortissimo. There’s certainly no hurrying Bruckner, but if you stay the course you’ll be rewarded with some of the most unutterably pure and spiritually uplifting music ever composed.

The fact that Bruckner eventually became one of the most celebrated composers and organists of his age must be put down to his extraordinary tenacity and unshakeable belief in God.

Bruckner was raised in the Catholic faith that would give succour and support him to the end of his days. Although he showed no sign of the precocity that marked Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s early years, there was always plenty of music at home.

His father was the local church organist and his mother sang in the choir, yet Bruckner didn’t begin his formal musical training until he was 11. For five years he served as a choirboy at the monastery of St Florian (near Linz), blissfully unaware that these glorious surroundings were destined to become his spiritual home.

Bruckner’s early compositions consist almost entirely of miniature choral pieces and songs, and it was not until the death in 1848 of his close friend, Franz Sailer, that he felt inspired to produce a large-scale Requiem.

Following his appointment as organist back at St Florian, composition was still very much a part-time activity for Bruckner throughout the 1850s – a period that witnessed his move to Linz as cathedral organist, and several years study in Vienna under the distinguished musicologist Simon Sechter. Bruckner rounded off his training by taking the Vienna Conservatory diploma.

“He should have examined us!” exclaimed the chief examiner and distinguished conductor Joseph Herbeck. “If I knew just one tenth of what he knows, I’d be happy.”

Yet despite his exceptional talent and the acclaim this eventually brought him, Bruckner remained desperately insecure throughout his life. He became obsessive about tiny and inconsequential details, and constantly sought to pass some new musical examination or diploma in order to reassure himself that he was every bit as capable as his more intellectually endowed and sophisticated contemporaries.

Bruckner’s acute lack of confidence in his dealings with women almost certainly meant he went to the grave celibate, yet his belief in God remained unbending, even to the point that he saw his music as a creative act of homage and worship belonging to “Him”.

Incredibly, by 1862 Bruckner still only had a handful of decent compositions to his name. He was 38 and therefore already older than Mozart and the same age as Mendelssohn when they died. But this was also the year that he attended a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and it changed his life forever: from now on he determined to devote more time to composition.

With hardly any experience in orchestral scoring, Bruckner immediately set to work on an Overture in G minor and an unnumbered Symphony in F minor. These were gradually followed over the next three years by Symphonies Nos. ‘0’ and 1, and the First Mass in D minor of 1864.

However, the strain caused by the hours of constant study required to facilitate his composing, in addition to his professional responsibilities, caused an acute nervous collapse early in 1867. Suffering from creative burn-out, the following year Bruckner took another teaching post, this time at the Vienna Conservatory.

He was also still in great demand as an organist and was invited to give a series of recitals to inaugurate the new organs at St Epvre, Nancy (1869), Notre Dame (1870) and the Royal Albert Hall (1871).

Bruckner was nearly 50 and still that first masterpiece eluded him, although success lay just around the corner. Returning from London, he devoted himself to a concentrated five-year period of composition, writing four symphonies in sequence (Nos 2-5) which, for the first time, unmistakably announced his novel approach to this most testing of musical forms.

It was the Third in D minor (1873-77, revised 1888-89) that first burned brightly with the incandescence familiar in Bruckner’s later work, yet at the time it proved a dismal failure. Having rejected the First Symphony as “wild and daring”, and the Second as “nonsense” and “unplayable”, the Vienna Philharmonic declared the trailblazing Third “unperformable” in 1875.

Two years later it begrudgingly gave the premiere under the composer himself, to the sounds of jeers and catcalls from an audience which, by the end, amounted to a mere 25 Bruckner supporters (including the teenage Mahler).

Bruckner became more insecure about his work than ever. He had struggled long and hard to get this far, yet still it seemed his work appeared doomed to end up on the Viennese musical scrap-heap.

As a result, with the well-meaning help of friends and colleagues, Bruckner set about a number of often drastic revisions of his symphonies, which the majority of experts now consider to have been to the detriment of the originals. Meanwhile, the Fourth Symphony scored the spectacular success that had so long eluded him, but even that wasn’t enough to turn the tide. The Fifth Symphony had to wait until 1894 (two years before Bruckner’s death) for its premiere.

In 1875 Bruckner became lecturer in harmony and counterpoint at the University of Vienna and, after devoting much of the following four years to the obsessive revision of several earlier works, he began a final run of great masterpieces, including Symphonies Nos 7 and 8, the Te Deum and the String Quintet (1879).

Bruckner’s final years were devoted largely to the Ninth Symphony, an apocalyptic work which, even after a gestation period of nearly six years, remained tantalisingly incomplete at the time of his death (some 200 pages of sketches are all that remain of the planned finale).

There are several passages where Bruckner’s harmonic plasticity takes him to the very brink of atonality, making him every bit as vital an influence as Mahler, Brahms and Wagner on Schoenberg’s early experiments. One can only surmise what Bruckner might have gone on to achieve had he been granted just a few more years of creativity.