How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bruckner

One of the most common questions I get both from audience memebrs and fellow performers alike is “I just don’t get so-and-so’s music, what am I missing?”

I think that is a great question, regardless of the composer, whereas hearing “I don’t like so-and-so’s music” is a very sad thing. Why give up? Why cut yourself off? Better to say “I don’t like…. yet!”

I’ve genuinely never regretted getting to know a piece better- even pieces that don’t become central to your love of life can still have something to offer, and with great composers, I almost always find that the very characteristics of their music that I find most off-putting at first become the qualities that I later value the most.

One composer about whose music I hear this “I just don’t get it”  all too often is Bruckner. Of course, I’ve also heard a few “I don’t like’s” when it comes to Bruckner as well.

Bruckner is actually one composer of whom I think most people have read too much about and heard too little of (and here I am, writing more!), a sad fate he shares with Schoenberg, Schumann and Hindemith. In these cases, most of what you read about them is not very helpful or interesting, and, even where true, it’s not the kind of information that’s going to make most listeners want to run out and by the album, or go to a concert with completely open ears and minds.

I owe my love of Bruckner to a dinner party with friends of my parents when I was about 13. For some reason, my mom mentioned that I had recently discovered the music of Mahler….

“Oh, is he the absolutely awful one?” asked one of our fellow guests.

“No darling,” said their spouse, “Mahler is tedious but tolerable because he at least writes some nice tunes. It’s Bruckner that is absolutely unbearable.”

“Bruckner- yes that’s the one! The worst composer who ever lived!” A general murmur of agreement quickly followed: “Terrible!” “Bloated!” “Old-man music!” 

“Unbearable?” I asked. “Why?”

“Oh, you’ve never heard any Bruckner? Lucky you! It’s absolutely horrendous music. It goes on for hours, it’s thunderously loud- written for gigantic brass sections and there are no melodies at all.”

“Really?” I asked.

Another diner then chimed in, “Didn’t the university orchestra do one of the symphonies a few years ago that completely emptied the house?”

“Yes!” someone else answered. “The first movement must have been forty-five minutes long, after which about a hundred people left. Then the next movement was even longer! About three hundred left after that. By the end of the concert, only a quarter of the audience were still there.”

“Well, what does it sound like?” I asked.

“It’s quite hard to describe. We had some records but threw them out- it was just so strange and loud…. and long”

Needless to say, I ran out and bought an LP of Bruckner 9 the very next day, and fell madly in love with it on first hearing.

I could tell you that when I hear Bruckner, I don’t hear religiosity at all, I’ve never heard any Wagner in it, I’m not reminded of cathedrals, and it never occurred to me in my own listening over several early years that it sounded like organ music at all.

To me, Bruckner sounds like the cosmos- or should I say Cosmos, the old Carl Sagan show?


It is all the world, and all the planets and all the stars and all the galaxies. More than almost any other composer, at his most visionary I find his music gives an unmatched sense of the absolute limitless mystery of the universe. I don’t hear faith in his music, I hear awe. I don’t hear certainties, I hear wonder, terror and doubt. It’s very incomprehensible vastness is what makes it so beautiful and so moving. It’s like being lost in nature and looking up at the night sky and having the stars sing to you- their voice is more terrifying, more strange and more powerful than ours.

But that might not help you want to run out and get the record. Maybe you just need to hear that it’s the longest, loudest, strangest, most awful music ever written. It worked for me.



c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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7 comments on “How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bruckner”

  1. A.C. Douglas

    You wrote: “I could tell you that when I hear Bruckner, I don’t hear religiosity at all, I’ve never heard any Wagner….”

    On the latter, at least, You’re joking, right?


  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi A.C.

    No, not joking. I love Wagner and I love Bruckner, but to me, they work with ideas and move notes around in completely different ways. Their orchestration, even allowing for Bruckner’s use of Wagner-tuben, also sounds different to me, and looks different on the page when I study them. That’s not to minimize Wagner’s influence on Brucker or Bruckner’s respect for Wagner, both of which I’m aware of. I just feel that bruckner’s individual voice is so unique and so complete that when I’m in his world, it’s the only voice I hear.


  3. Kenneth Woods

    I think we agree here… To me, a quote works best when it sounds like it belongs in the new context. Similar example would be the Wagner quotes in Shostakovich 15, or the Mahler 2 quote that forms about half of the motivic material in Shostakovich 10. In both cases, it’s clear we’re in the sound world of Shostakovich, not Wagner or Mahler. Likewise, Bruckner 9- borrowed material, yes, but unique sound world…. Bruckner may have some Wagner in it, but it, to me, sounds nothing like Wagner. I hear much more Schubert.


  4. james smock

    all too often, people who claim to be “music lovers” restrict their passion to a tiny handful of composers. If you love bach, you should really check out vivaldi. if you love mozart, don’t you owe it to yourself to explore some haydn? I’m sure one can see the “slippery slope” at work here. wouldn’t it be great to have 10 times as much music to love? all the composers who occupy our great pantheon are here for a reason. Even bruckner. So go on…take a chance. who know’s what you’ll discover?

    great posts today, ken. Keep it up.


  5. A.C. Douglas

    Oh, quite right, generally. But the one named example you gave was B’s No. 9 which actually includes *direct quotes* from Wagner; ergo, my comment.


  6. Ben Knowles

    Very much agree with this. Performed Bruckner’s 4th a few weeks ago and a player came to me and asked if I liked it. When I confirmed that I did, she said “hmm… just can’t enjoy it. It’s all build up without it really going anywhere”. Couldn’t believe it – its title of “Romantic” couldn’t be more justified if it tried!! I can understand how some people can find some music hard to get into – it took me a couple of months before I could get through a Lindberg piece and enjoy it. But Bruckner? So beautiful and melodic! As easy to fall in love with as Rachmaninoff was for me

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