You know how sometimes you want to listen to a piece of music that is light and airy, that flits around like the will o’ the wisp, that is imbued with bright charm and delicate wit?
Well, forget all that, because now we’re meeting Anton Bruckner!
Bruckner, in my experience, is one of those “love him or hate him” composers…or maybe that’s not quite fair. Maybe it’s not “hate”, but I’ve definitely encountered listeners for whom Bruckner is amazing, and for whom Bruckner is just someone they don’t really care if they ever hear again. His symphonies are long and, at times, repetitive; he thinks nothing of writing a five-minute exposition and then putting in a repeat. His orchestrations are, at times, very heavy and dense, and if Bruckner himself wasn’t quite a Wagnerian, there is at least a part of Wagner in the scope of his works and their weighty nature.
Unlike Wagner, Bruckner was a man of very deep faith, and I find it impossible to listen to Bruckner without feeling some of that spiritual nature coming through. He writes for the orchestra, at times, as though it were an organ, and his music seems almost designed to fill the cavernous spaces of enormous cathedrals, with long fugal passages and gigantic chorales and a general sense of vastness that is leading the way to Mahler.
Bruckner does not seem to have been the most self-confident of composers, which makes his works problematic for musicologists as he was constantly revising earlier works and muddying the waters as far as determining which versions are definitive. Look at the list of known revisions for today’s work, and you’ll see the problem.
This symphony, the Fourth in E-flat major, is often cited as the best starting point for Bruckner, and I tend to agree. The symphony does have one of the most magical openings to any symphony ever written, with the shimmering strings and then the high horn calls that seem to beckon from a distance. For the listener willing to go where Bruckner is leading, he draws you in, slowly and gently, so that when it all opens up in glory, there’s simply no question that this is where he was going all along.
I actually have not heard a lot of Bruckner, but what I have heard, I love. Here is Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, the “Romantic”.
Next week: another Bruckner. We’ll be doing three of these altogether, so if Bruckner’s not your thing, well, I’ll see you in May!