A famously cultured friend of mine, now sadly deceased, used to express polite amazement at my ability to enjoy the music of Richard Wagner, despite my almost idolatrous devotion to Bach; apparently this struck him as a combination of tastes as improbable as a successful alloy of fire and water. And, on the one occasion that I touched upon the topic of Anton Bruckner in his presence, he merely arched an eyebrow and directed me to the table where the drinks were being served. Consequently, I never quite learned his opinion of the old Austrian schoolmaster, but I suspect it fell somewhat short of rapt veneration.
So it goes. It was ever Bruckner’s fate to elicit pursed lips and skeptically oblique glances from many—perhaps most—serious music lovers. In his own day, he was cordially despised or contemptuously ignored by legions of Brahmsians and other restive “classicalists,” even as he was adored by a small coterie of earnest—sometimes ponderously earnest—souls. To his contemporary detractors, his symphonies were great, lumbering, shapeless monstrosities, whose immense Wagnerian periods and orchestrations made a travesty of what was supposed to be a rigorously structured and elegant form of music. And even now, more than a century after his death (1896), those who dislike Bruckner really dislike him, and utterly detest what another friend of mine once called his “gigantic blocks of sheer sound.”
I confess I was once of the same opinion, or at least affected to be. I don’t know if I ever really disliked Bruckner’s music, but I certainly knew I should dislike it, and set about doing so with a sense of mission. I recall, with several small twinges of embarrassment, sitting around a table with some friends in Cambridge, when I was a student there, playing one of those precious pretentious games people like to play when they’re students at Cambridge. We were inventing farcical technical terms for Bruckner’s music from Greek roots. I proposed “brontoctypic” and “brontobromic” (both meaning “thunderous noise”), but then a somewhat older and wiser friend, with more capacious sensibilities, amended those to “brontophonous” and “brontomelodic.” (There was wine involved, incidentally, which I hope mitigates the offense for all concerned.) That, at any rate, was how I thought of Bruckner’s oeuvre in my salad days: a series of vast, overbearing, Teutonic perorations in music, “thundering” on (and on and on), humorlessly, excruciatingly “profound” and relentless, with scherzos that had all the frothy frivolity of an invasion of the Sudetenland. I was, it seems, not really listening very closely.
Mahler (who regarded Bruckner as his master and “forerunner”) once told Sibelius that a symphony should be a whole world, able to accommodate absolutely everything the composer can pour into it. For Mahler, this meant symphonies that are defiantly incongruous, enormous metropolitan farragoes of disparate parts, always somewhat ironic (even at their most pompous junctures), buoyant and wild but sophisticated and whimsical too, and shot through with Viennese urbanity.
Bruckner’s symphonies are also worlds unto themselves, but of a somewhat more pastoral and elemental kind. Whereas Mahler’s music is what English is among languages, grandly and insatiably heterogeneous, Bruckner’s music is for the most part pure German—and not the lucid Hellenic German of Goethe or the nimble cosmopolitan German of Heine or the sharp acerbic German of Nietzsche, but the plain slow German of rural Upper Austria. It’s a music full of sublimities: flowing streams and mountain winds and—yes—rolling thunders.
But that’s hardly all there is to it. When I learned to slow down my listening, and to adjust my expectations to the atmosphere of Bruckner’s sonorities, I found that his symphonies did not lack structure, and that most of them are utterly captivating if one surrenders one’s prejudices before listening, and that they abound not only in huge tempestuous crescendos but in glittering passages of Schubertian lyricism, at times almost mercurial in its delicacy. And, of course, I fell under the spell of his magnificently beautiful adagios, at which he had no rivals among nineteenth century composers. And then, in addition to all of this, there is that undeniable quality of spiritual fervor—almost mystical at times—which makes the best of his symphonies seem like more than mere music. Perhaps none of this would have surprised me if I had become acquainted earlier with his sacred music—those austerely polyphonic and luminously lovely motets and masses—but, as it was, I was chastened by the discovery.
A great part of Bruckner’s difficulty with many of his contemporaries, of course, was the notorious absurdity of the figure he cut. It was all too easy for his early critics to caricature him as an oaf and a peon—because, as it happens, it wasn’t entirely a caricature. He was not a deeply cultured man; he was not a man of the city; he knew little about art or philosophy or literature. He was simply a musical genius, and nothing more. His manners, moreover, were untutored, to say the least, and if he possessed any sense of style he never let it show. The anecdotes are legion: His habit of wearing trousers with ridiculously short legs so as to leave his feet free for pedal-work at the organ. His infatuation with various beautiful young women and his bizarre belief that it could possibly be reciprocated. The tip he gave the rather patrician conductor Hans Richter to express his delight after the latter’s rousing rehearsal of the fourth symphony (which Richter, kind man that he was, took with good grace and kept as a memento on his watch-chain). And then, of course, there was Bruckner’s deep, ardent, very Catholic piety, which in the artistic milieu of the late nineteenth century seemed to many the very essence of rustic buffoonishness.
Emotionally and intellectually, Bruckner was defenseless against his critics. Many believe it was the lack of confidence inspired by his most censorious listeners that prompted him to revise his symphonies with such unsentimental brutality (leaving us with an annoying plurality of versions for most of them). But he strove on nonetheless, building his massive cathedrals in sound, and producing at the end—in the last three of his nine symphonies—music that was genuinely unprecedented in its logic and its dimensions, and far too beautiful to ignore or dismiss. The last of these works, I’d even go so far as to say, almost succeeds at transcending the limits of music as such.
Bruckner began sketching out his ninth symphony in 1887, but largely set those drafts aside while he worked and re-worked his seventh and eighth symphonies. He returned to the ninth in 1891 and by December 1894 had more or less completed the first three movements; by that point also he knew that this was to be his last symphony and that, in all likelihood, he would never finish it. In this he was correct: the fourth movement, which was to be a great fugue, exists now only in the form of haunting fragments. Perhaps it was his sense that this work would be his leave-taking from the world—he called the leading motif of the third movement his “Abschied vom Leben” (“departure from life”)—that prompted him to dedicate the work “dem lieben Gott” (“to God the beloved”); but in a sense God had always been the object of all his artistry.
As he had done with his eighth symphony, in the ninth he placed the adagio after the scherzo; and this was a fortunate decision, as the third movement was to be the last he composed, and it is only proper that he passed from this world—as his notations read—langsam, feierlich. It’s doubtful that any further musical statement could possibly have improved on the effect of that final, ecstatic, and serene farewell. And, by the end, he was well aware that the fourth movement he contemplated was beyond his failing powers. He briefly considered attaching his earlier choral and orchestral Te Deum to the end of the work instead, and even tried to compose a plausible bridge. But the transition from the grandly somber D minor basis of the symphony to the radiant C major of the Te Deum was too jarring, and no sequence of modulations, however ingenious, could make a single coherent musical experience out of two such very different pieces.
The symphony’s first movement—Feierlich, misterioso—announces in its opening bars, with their dark string oscillations and mournful horn melody, that this is sad music, twilight music, coming at the end of things; even the first great crescendo to which the opening builds is oddly elegiac, and yields to a lighter, more canorous, but still wistful middle section, which then in turn dissolves into a movingly melancholy D major theme. The second movement is the scherzo, though whether music as drivingly propulsive as this initially is should still be called a scherzo is open to debate (is there such a thing as a “sublime scherzo”?). Whatever the case, it is powerful music, moved along on driving string figures, which bracket an interlude of extraordinary sweetness, and it leads beautifully—almost by exhausting itself—into the adagio. That final movement, with its opening, ascendingly chromatic theme—the Abschied theme—and its meltingly lyrical secondary themes, and its hugely dissonant climax, and then its final, artfully fragmentary descent into silence, is full of sorrow and rebellion and resignation and, finally, perfect peace.
There are some pieces of music that, by their nature, should remain unfinished. No fourth movement that Bruckner could have composed this side of death would have fulfilled the deeper design that unfolded throughout all his work. That last adagio is already so otherworldly, and so overflowing with a sweet hunger for God, and so deep a longing for the timeless within time, that only eternity could bring it to its proper completion. And there are some artists who, by all rights, should write themselves into eternity. Bach is obviously the most perfect example, leaving that final great fugue on B-A-C-H in Die Kunst der Fuge abruptly unfinished; one senses that it had to be taken beyond time in order to be made perfect. But Bruckner too was an artist who required more of his art than time could supply.
I should like to take this, I think, as a metaphor for all our lives, each of which is in some measure always unfinished within the limits of time. At least, if faith provides any wisdom that can simultaneously humble and console us, it is this knowledge: each of our lives is an opus imperfectum , which within its own immanent terms must in some sense end largely thwarted and unrealized; but we may truly hope that, sub specie aeternitatis, all the scattered and incomplete truths time contains will be gathered up into a final truth, and everything lost that is worth finding and everything broken that is worth mending will be restored, and all of it will finally be brought to a consummation that fulfills—but also immeasurably surpasses—the work we have always only begun.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.