In the 1950s, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler became a staple of orchestras throughout the world, thanks in large part to the fervent advocacy of Leonard Bernstein. The works of Mahler’s older contemporary, Anton Bruckner, though regularly performed in central Europe by conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Bernard Haitink, were relatively neglected in the United States.
This may have been due in part to the support given Bruckner’s music by the Nazi regime (which came to power more than thirty years after Bruckner’s death). But it was due also to the extraordinary demands placed on the listener by the complex structure and contemplative nature of Bruckner’s symphonies. Typically lasting an hour or more, the works of this organist-composer are sonic cathedrals, often incorporating moments of silence, as though inviting the listener to appropriate what she or he has just heard.
The neglect of Bruckner in North America is happily coming to an end. The Austrian-born conductor Franz Welser-Môst has emerged as a foremost Brucknerian and has regularly performed Bruckner symphonies at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra. He and the orchestra have recorded a number of the symphonies on DVD, making them accessible far beyond the confines of the concert hall.
Another advocate of Bruckner’s symphonies is the Argentine-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim has championed the symphonies through numerous recordings and concert performances over the years, especially with the Orchestra of the Staatskapelle Berlin, of which he is music director. His commitment to Bruckner reached its high point this past week, in a performance of all nine symphonies at Carnegie Hall—the first time all the symphonies have been played in one series in the United States.
This prodigious feat is all the more astonishing, in that Barenboim conducts these monumental works entirely from memory. In addition, most of the concerts included a Mozart piano concerto with Barenboim as soloist.
I had the privilege of attending the final concert, which also featured the radiant Twenty-Third Piano Concerto in A Major of Mozart. It is rare that Mozart will function as a “crowd warmer”—but so it was in this case. The sell-out audience had clearly come for the Bruckner Ninth in D Minor, the same key as Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony, which exerted such a spell upon Bruckner. The devoutly Catholic Bruckner dedicated his last symphony to “the dear God,” and prayed in his final illness that the Lord would allow him to finish his masterwork. In the event, his prayer was not granted. Yet in a deeper sense the three movements he lived to complete could hardly be surpassed. The sublime and harrowing third movement makes any further statement, this side of heaven, redundant!
With the certainty of falling far short, let me at least seek to explain why.
The notoriously insecure and obsessive Bruckner knew any number of disappointments and setbacks, both personal and professional, in the course of his life. His works were slow to gain acceptance among the musical elite of nineteenth-century Vienna, who favored Brahms over the allegedly “Wagnerian” Bruckner. Then, just as he seemed to be finding a more favorable reception by the acclaim that greeted his Seventh Symphony, his monumental Eighth was rejected by the very conductor whom Bruckner considered his “spiritual father.” The composition of the Ninth was delayed, as the harried composer revised the Eighth and compulsively revisited some of his earlier symphonies.
In the midst of psychological turmoil and an increasingly frail physical state, Bruckner labored to complete the Ninth. The third movement opens with a promise of becoming one of those signature “Adagios” that characterized his mature work. A sweeping opening melody seems to confirm the promise, only to be counterpointed by another theme that, through a series of ever more frenzied repetitions, threatens to overwhelm that promise to the point of annihilation.
As I listened to Barenboim drive the orchestra to the limits of its sonic capability, Simone Weil’s sense of a soul-threatening “affliction” came to mind. And then there came, unbidden, the image of Jesus’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. An incessant pulsing rhythm conjured beads of sweat and dripping blood. The movement builds to an astonishing, dissonant climax that sounds like a primal wail of suffering humanity. I am aware of nothing in music that can match this naked cry of despair—echoing the lament “dear God, let this chalice pass.”
And then the propulsive disharmony fades and the tortuous movement transforms into a sigh of peace.
Is the ending of the movement a fatalistic resignation before the terrible abyss? Or is it a faith-filled surrender to the God whom Bruckner had served his entire life? Each listener will hear Bruckner’s testimony differently. But for me, on a Sunday afternoon, it spoke eloquently of transfiguration. As though the long passion was endured and intimations of resurrection had, at last, dawned.
Fr. Robert Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.
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