Bruckner- Freeing emotion from narcissism

When I first encountered the music of Anton Bruckner (the first movement of the 9th Symphony), it was love at first sight.  From the moment I dropped the needle a the edge of the LP, Bruckner picked me up with his mind powers and shook me like a dog. I’ve never been able to understand how anyone could not love this music, and yet there are always people in every orchestra and audience who don’t seem to get it. The other night in a rehearsal of the 7th, our auxiliary third sarrusophone  player was overheard loudly exclaiming “this piece is shit.”

(Ken on Bruckner)

To me this is like saying the Grand Canyon is shit, the Alps are shit or the Pacific Ocean is shit. This is like saying sunshine and fresh air and IPA’s and babies and and books are shit.

I don’t get it.

What is it about Bruckner that makes those who love the music love it so much? Certainly the fact that the powerhouse passages are so gargantuan that one can’t help but want to pick up a spear and charge into battle against the marauding hordes doesn’t hurt. The sheer sound of Bruckner’s music in full flight is, or should be, impossible to resist.

But lost, perhaps, in questions of Catholicism, Nazis, necrophilia, tremolos and performance practice is what makes Bruckner’s music so affecting, and possibly what explains some people’s inability to get close to it- it is some of the most intensely emotional music ever written.

That one almost never comes across a description of Bruckner’s music as “emotional” is, I think, a telling commentary on a broad ranging loss of clarity in our collective thinking about what “emotion” really means. Popular culture, which has long since sunk its poisoned talons into the very heart of our thinking about art of all kinds has gradually made “emotion” a dirty word.

In popular culture, we too often equate “emotion” with extroversion, with narcissism, with a kinetically manifested sense of outward excitement, and with a kind of adrenalized hyperactivity. Pop culture tells us that the most “emotional” artists are the ones who sing the loudest or shake their asses the hardest. When someone cries on camera in a moment of personal tragedy captured by our voyeuristic news media, we’re told that they are responding with intense emotion. But does the person who stands on the steps of the courthouse after trial in tears really feel more deeply or suffer more profoundly than the person who bears their pain from a similar tragedy in still and silent contemplation? Obviously not.

But it is not just that we’ve come to equate emotion with “display of emotion” (in art, “display” and “emotion” used to be considered opposites, not synonyms)- the word “emotion” has come to be tied in our collective thinking with a kind of attention-seeking behaviour, whether in performance (all hail the star performer) or among the public. Emotion has become toxically intertwined with narcissism.

Bruckner was anything but a narcissist. In Mahler’s music, it is clearly the composer himself who narrates our journey, and a huge part of that journey is coming to understand who he was. Bruckner was unknown and remains unknowable.  What little we know about his personality seems alien and baffling to most of us, but what is really striking is the absence of a sense of the “me” in his music. The emotions in Bruckner’s music are incredibly intense, but also completely universal. The narrative voice in Bruckner’s music tells us what the narrator experiences and what the narrator feels with a kind of hyper-realistic directness that is unlike any other voice in music, but at the same time, that narrator never tells you who he is, how he came to be on this journey or why we should be interested him. We’re not interested in him- the journey becomes ours. The narrative voice in Bruckner’s music is reveals a universal expression of every person’s battles with doubt, fear, everyone’s capacity for wonder and ecstasy, and our ability, in moments of true enlightenment, to be fully aware of both our incredible insignificance as individuals, and yet our intrinsic, infinite value.

Many thoughtful and wise people gravitate towards art music because they experience a genuine sense of revulsion at the corruptive influence of narcissism on emotion. Other classical musicians never really outgrow our adolescent connection to music on a purely visceral, thrill-seeking level. Whether one engages with Bruckner’s music with an attitude of over-intellectualized, arid detachment, or flings yourself into it with testosterone-laden aggression, you’re missing the heart of what the music is about. Making it about you is as wrong as making it about Bruckner. And yet it seems to me that these two rather unenlightened extremes of approach and attitude have become the central threads in a longstanding pointless argument about music- not just Bruckner’s music and how we perform it, but about the creation of new music, and the way we think about and perform older music. It’s at the heart of the century-old arguments about the language of music and the relative merits of tonality, serialism and aesthetics. It’s a driving force between the never-ending arguments between those at the loony ends of the arguments between HIP approaches to texture and performance and traditional ones.

I always think it is incredibly unhelpful when a radio announcer prefaces a broadcast of a Bruckner symphony with reference to his cultish worship of Wagner, his extreme religiosity or his penchant for falling in love with sixteen-year-old girls. Even his devotion to sausages and red cabbage is best left unmentioned. These and other biographical factoids may leave us perturbed or curious, but the whole point of Bruckner’s music is that when we start the Seventh Symphony tonight, the voice that speaks that most magical instrumental expression of “once upon a time” in the entire symphonic repertoire is not the voice of the country fiddler and organist from Linz. Bruckner managed to completely and totally free himself of any need to say “look at me” in his music.  The narrator in Bruckner’s music is a witness who doesn’t seek to be witnessed, who understands that the less we focus on who he is, the more directly we can experience the emotional journey he’s taking us on. To perform, or even experience, his music with the sense of honesty, directness and sincerity it requires (and with which it was created) takes a monumental combination of humility and the courage to be vulnerable in our response to it. It’s a huge challenge for anyone, and it’s no wonder that many, if not most of us, fall well short.

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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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17 comments on “Bruckner- Freeing emotion from narcissism”

  1. paul barasi

    Even today, people still make fun of Bruckner and yet he was without guile or malice but was much loved by his students because he was a real friend to them. Brahms was probably no less odd or fixated. Bruckner seemed to have a unique way of envisioning a symphony as a whole as well as in how he then constructed his themes and turned the organ into an orchestra. Now, everything in Mahler is affirmed – even his wurst tune in 9:2 – but back then, everything in Bruckner had to be sanitised and rewritten. There’s a case to be made for getting back to the original, organic, raw creativity, such as in the 1st version of Bruckner’s 3rd. And, by now, there’s a case too, for Bruckner’s time to have come.

  2. Zoltan

    While you primarily wrote why Bruckner’s music is fantastic let me mention a possible reason why some can’t get into it. Before I get to my point I need to digress a bit.

    I was lucky enough to recently play in performances of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and Berlioz’ Requiem (as an amateur, these seem to me as once in a lifetime opportunities!). While before rehearsals I already considered Dvorak’s work a masterpiece my opinion of the Berlioz were less than stellar. I mean, sure, those passages with the four off-stage brass orchestras sound thrilling on record (and believe me, they are much more so in real life) but in-between — there’s no other word for it — I felt boredom. Only during the rehearsals did it slowly grow on me; also thanks to our conductor and her explanations of themes and structure. And then I realized: these pieces were written for a different time! We really are children of our times and I do notice that I seek the thrill of late-romantic pieces instead of Haydn because the “outrageousness” of what he did in his time is not enough “thrill” for me today. Take the Berlioz: at one point he pits flutes against trombones. What an outrageous sonority! Or what about Dvorak’s piece: there’s not one fast movement! But those gorgeous melodies, ah, how come they aren’t provoking intense reactions in others the same way they do in me?

    And this brings me back to Bruckner: he takes *ages* to bring his point across, minutes and minutes until those climaxes develop just to have them die away and start anew.

    (Another digression, maybe that’s why people can’t stand a completion of the fourth movement of Bruckner’s 9th: “What, you want to tell me all that happened in the first three movements was for nothing and we have to start anew?”. I mean, just listen how that magnificent chorale crashes and burns the first time around in the finale! What a roller-coaster that last movement is emotion-wise! There I said the dirty word in a Bruckner-context!)

    I heard the Discovering Music programme of Bruckner’s 9th a few years ago and there’s a comparison to Beethoven’s 9th. Both start in D minor, with string tremolos and simple intervals (thirds, fifths). But Bruckner needs *way* more time to get to the first statement of the first theme. Another example how many feel Beethoven’s music is thrilling yet can’t find a way into Bruckner.

    It takes damn too much time.

    Oh, but what thrill it is to hear that D major after 90 minutes of a multitude of up and downs!

  3. David D. McIntire

    Wonderful thoughts, Ken. Bruckner’s lack of ego is what makes his music so unusual, and (also) I think difficult for many to understand. So much of our standard repertoire is truly ego-driven/produced music, and Bruckner’s stands apart, for reasons that are hard to describe (though you’ve done that nicely). His naiveté is of a piece with his lack of narcissism. For some reason, the sausage and red cabbage thing makes perfect sense to me.

    Zoltan’s comment about Bruckner’s different sense of musical time articulates well another obstacle this music poses for many listeners. I think it’s also the reason that many minimalism fans find Bruckner’s music so wonderful.

  4. Fr. John Abberton

    This is the first time I have commented here. Perhaps you can guess why I am commenting now. I am a Catholic priest and Bruckner is one of my favourite composers. Yes, because he is a Catholic but then so is Dvorak and Haydn and…… Bruckner is unique and I agree with you about the lack of narcissism and the universal embrace of his music. You do not have to be a Catholic or a Christian of any kind to find some depth in his music. In a special way I could imagine a Jewish listener feeling a deep affinity with some of those crashing passages. There is a battle between good and evil here as well as a struggle with the reality of death and the belief in resurrection. There is also, as you said, something about both the weakness and the greatness of being human. I sometimes used to write my sermons listening to Bruckner (perhaps that’s why my sermons were sometimes too long!). Sometimes as I wrote I had to stop to just listen to that music. Some of it is a greater sermon than I could ever hope to write and gets deeper than mere words.

  5. andreas helling

    My first love in Bruckner came when I heard his third. By then I had been a fan of Mahlers music, specially his ninth. The fear of death and the neurocity, memorise from his tragic childhood all could be heard in his music. In some point in my life I felth the need of change and thaths where Bruckner stepped in. The clarity the between good and evil, naivety yes and. strong religiosity yes. I still haven’t today lost my love to all this being and orchestral musician myself and a cellist. I do though understand some critical statements said here about his music and as a player I understand those in the orchestra who thinks there is so little to play or to much tremolo. To finnish this with humor( though not agreeing) the Beecham statement about Bruckner : oh! So many pregnancies but so few deliveries:)

  6. JDW

    The mere time involved in listening to a Bruckner symphony baffles many musical enthusiasts. Few have the desire or ability to attend to large scale compositions, but there is a deeper and more troubling aspect. Bruckner’s music is unsettling. Elemental forces unleash suddenly after poignant, yearning swells of lyricism. Think of the staggering juxtapositions in the 5th’s opening movement. The climaxes are sonically tremendous but, more appositely, they are also harrowing and pregnant with tragic efficacy. The painful beauty, the sublime building of tension, the agon of terrible strength and celestial grace, and the serene resolution of Bruckner’s music form a unique spiritual exercise. A listener must open himself to its peculiar process and quality. (This requires a desire for more than the vaguely transcendent but even this might partially suffice.) We have organized our lives around disengagement and superficiality and, hence, we seek blunted forms of diversion: distraction rather than edification, contraction rather than dilation. We are restless but our restlessness does not lead us down the mystic’s path of purgatio, illuminatio, and unitio. These elements of progressive devotion are strongly present in Bruckner’s music, however, and his religiousness is, to the consumerist audience, a chasm as incomprehensible as Lucretius’ atomism is to a rabbi or monk. The catastrophic upheaval of Bruckner’s 8th, for example, underpinned by deep mysticism at every turn, shapes a musical landscape of earthquakes revealing seams of terrestrial fire and an Erebian gloom of thunderstorms charged and divided by supernal lightning. What sublimity! We would rather not face these peaks or abysses because they not only provoke our emotions but also demand a response that makes us uncomfortable. All of the agitation in Bruckner’s music is not without resolution, though, and he is essentially a tragic artist whose vehicle of catharsis is sound.

    Physical pain is celebrated grotesquely in our society but the suffering of Job or Oedipus, the high tragedy of Samson Agonistes, Bruckner’s 9th? We lack the gravitas and spirit for such works. The faculties engaged by Bruckner’s music are indeed the noblest and profoundest we have and this is what some listeners dislike. Such music speaks to something they long ago disavowed.

    And then there is my wife who protests the world does not need to end with every piece of music!

  7. David Coleman

    My idea as to why Bruckner is either loved or loathed lies, possibly in not so much the music itself but in the character of the man and his works.
    If you listened to a Bruckner symphony for the first time, as if you were listening to a work by any of the established and well loved composers, you could place Bruckner as possibly an interesting niche composer. With a highly original compositional style and sound world. As you go deeper into his works, you start to think that his symphonies are starting to sound rather similar to each other. They all have four movements with similar construction and sound. This is when conventional thinking goes out of the window. Because Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler for example included an element of variety in each of their symphonies. Bruckner just changes and develops slightly from one symphony to the next. Now this is quite intentional, I think because Bruckner believes in his music and is not going to be swayed by the musical fashions of his time. His great faith in God largely fashioned his music.
    One of his biggest downfalls is, unfortunately his lack of self confidence as a man not his music. He seemed to give in to outside pressures from his so-called ” friends” and colleagues to revise and re-write his works. And this is why we are left with such a bewildering array of performing versions of his works. I don’t think that this combination helps in encouraging “popularity”. We are left asking the question, who is the “real” Bruckner?
    This is a shame because, personally speaking I love Bruckner and his music!. The musical world is richer because of him.

  8. Bert Brouwer

    When first I heard Bruckner (in my case the 7th symphony) it too picked me up and shook me like a dog. With Bruckner’s music you get the sense that he really has something to say. This makes comments by for instance Howard Goodall even more puzzling. In his book: “Big bangs: the story of five discoveries that changed musical history”, he said that Bruckner’s music could be appreciated in the same way as a tourist could appreciate Vienna’s grandeur, but when you looked behind the façade you would find that his music lacked emotional depth. In my opinion Goodall couldn’t be further from the truth. It also illustrates that Bruckner’s music refers to some other reality that goes beyond the normal, earthly human experiences, that some people just aren’t in touch with.

  9. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Bert- Many thanks for the comment. My only reaction is that “puzzling” is a rather generous description. I like “beyond the normal” a lot.

  10. Bert Brouwer

    Hi Kenneth – Let me in return compliment you with your essay. That I am generous toward people like Goodall isn’t all that surprising. It is more that I feel sorry for them, because I believe that they are missing something essential in life when they can’t relate to things beyond the normal.

  11. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David
    Many thanks for your comment, which brought to the surface a few thoughts.

    As I mentioned in my post, when I first encountered Bruckner I came at it just as a curious listener. I’d been told his music was very loud and very long, but I didn’t know anything about his religious beliefs, nationality, organ playing or personality. I was lucky to start with a a great recording of the 9th, and it was a totally engulfing experience. As a performer, I have to believe that his music can affect anyone like that- without any apologies or explanations. Sadly, sometimes as people get older we start to define what we like by what we don’t like, and once someone puts Bruckner or any other composer in that “this is different from what I like” box, it’s really hard to get them to listen with open ears, but I believe that a great performance of a Bruckner symphony can reach almost anyone with ears to hear.

    I also feel fairly strongly that Bruckner was very devout, but that he didn’t have a secure and confident faith. All of his music is about doubt- those silences are the moments where he’s waiting for God to answer his question. Each symphony becomes more laden with doubt, and I’m sure one reason he took so long over the 9th was that he’d reached such a high-point of terror and doubt in the first three movements that he was struggling to come up with a believable hopeful ending. The reconstruction of the Finale is, if anything, mostly darker and more full of despair than even the more well-known first three movements. Bruckner needed the structure of religion because he lacked the security of faith.

    Thanks again for reading and responding

  12. Kenneth Woods

    Really well said, JDW. I agree with everything you say. Bruckner used his music to explore that which he feared and that which he didn’t understand. He spent his whole life facing his doubts about God and life. Most people lack the courage to look directly at their own doubts. There is an incredible sense of striving in this music, which is made more poignant by how the way in which Bruckner reminds us how small and insignificant we are.

  13. Kenneth Woods

    Thanks so much for writing, John. Very interesting to get your perspective, of course. Bruckner’s music is touching in the way it is so honest about what he fears and what he doubts. That makes the moments of revelation feel earned and believable rather than contrived and simplistic, as they so often do in religious music. Those sound like the kind of sermons I’d dig- although Bruckner-ian length is not something to aspire to on a Sunday morning in this agnostic’s opinion…

  14. Kenneth Woods

    Fans of minimalism, yes, as well as non-European listeners. There is something strangely Eastern about his music….

  15. David Coleman

    Which is probably why his music seems to go down well in Japan…

  16. Bert

    Carl Gustav Jung’s “Answer to Job” might be helpful in understanding Bruckner’s religious doubts and inner conflict better: can we really be sure that God will keep us save from harm?

  17. Bert Brouwer

    Carl Gustav Jung’s “Answer to Job” might be helpful to understand the psychology behind Bruckner’s religious doubts and inner conflict a little bit better.

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