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