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.