All of my life, I’ve heard that Haydn is underrated. Have you had the same experience? And I’ve often thought, sometimes said, “If everyone says he is underrated—can he be?” Maybe he can. The same with Bruckner. I’ve always heard that he is underrated. But most everyone I know reveres him as a master, one of the most valuable, lovable, and necessary composers we have. If his symphonies aren’t canonical, there is no canon.

At the Lincoln Center Festival in New York this summer, we heard four Bruckner symphonies. (When I say “this summer,” I mean July 2011.) The festival’s director had a greeting in our programs. It began, “History has unfairly pegged Bruckner as an accomplished organist who wrote motets and secular choral music; when in fact he left behind a rich orchestral canvas that is largely misunderstood.” I found this a curious statement (as you might guess). Bruckner indeed wrote motets, masses, and other choral music. He also wrote a string quintet and a few other pieces of note. The choral pieces, unfortunately, are obscure, because choral music in general has become obscure: its light kept under bushels.

It is for the symphonies that we know Bruckner. He wrote nine of them, as did Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorák, and Mahler. As did Vaughan Williams and Arnold, for that matter. (Haydn blew by the number nine, and went all the way to 104.) If you want to be technical, Bruckner wrote eleven symphonies, for he composed a “study symphony,” sometimes called the Symphony No. 00, and he withdrew another symphony, known as the Symphony No. 0. But the fact remains that he wrote nine numbered symphonies—and could not quite complete the last.

The Lincoln Center Festival put on something called “Bruckner: (R)evolution.” They had a program essay—separate from the director’s greeting—called “(Re)discovering Bruckner.” These parentheses might have been cool when Women’s Studies professors started doing it in about 1981. Is it still cool? And listen to some festival publicity: “The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the most highly esteemed ensembles in the world, appears in their inaugural Lincoln Center residency. Music director and conductor Franz Welser-Möst freshly reimagines Anton Bruckner’s timeless symphonies, illuminating Bruckner’s powerful compositions with modern works by John Adams.”

That would be the American composer born in 1947. Music administrators, and some musicians, are in love with musicology, or pretend to be. They feel that, in their programming, they must make some musicological point. It’s not enough to program Bruckner symphonies because they’re great. Any old fool can do that. You have to prove your musicological or pedagogical worth. Adams “illuminates” Bruckner, you see. You don’t? Then you are not cut out for music administration.

In the run-up to the festival, Welser-Möst said, “Bruckner is in many ways the grandfather of minimalism, and I truly believe that the music of John Adams would be unthinkable without what Bruckner wrote.” Welser-Möst is a bright guy, and I would always listen to what he had to say: but I think he is stretching things grossly. And speaking of stretching things grossly, let me mention an interview that Welser-Möst and Adams gave, posted on the Lincoln Center Festival’s website. Adams said, “I just can’t go to the point of comparing my music to Bruckner’s, because I think his achievement is so sublime that I would be a fool to even compare my music to him.” Then, with a laugh and a smile, he pointed at Welser-Möst and said, “I’ll let him do that.” The conductor obliged. He said that Adams was being “too modest.” Does he really mean that? Or is he just appeasing our music establishment, which believes that modernism must be exalted and that Adams is an immortal-in-the-making?

Probably the greatest buzzword in music today is “relevance.” Music composed many years ago must be made “relevant” to today. A related buzzword is “connection,” or “connectedness.” Here is how the Lincoln Center Festival’s program essay ended: “Romantic Adams and minimalist Bruckner. Or vice versa. From such ideas music connects one generation to the next.” That is innocuous enough. But I say, if you want to program Bruckner, fine, and if you want to program Adams, fine. But we can do without the musicological conceits.

Welser-Möst is an Austrian, and, more specifically, a Linzer. Bruckner too was from Linz (Greater Linz). Prior to the festival, Welser-Möst said he had Bruckner “in my bones.” Does it matter where you’re from, musically speaking? I say no, or for the most part no. Music is largely a mental and spiritual art. Musicality—catching what music is, and how it should go—is not dependent on place. A musician from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, may grasp Bruckner instinctively; a guy or gal from Ansfelden (Bruckner’s home village), no. I will allow, however, that you find rustic dances in Bruckner scherzos.

Philippe Entremont once played Gershwin superbly; so have other French pianists. When Leontyne Price sang the Zigeunerlieder, she might as well have been from Gypsy country, or a Vienna stocked with Gypsies. Of course, she was from Laurel, Mississippi. I once heard the St. Petersburg Philharmonic—which not long before had been the Leningrad Philharmonic—perform the “Leningrad” Symphony in Carnegie Hall. Lousy.

I could go on, and so could you, I’m sure. I happened to take up this question of music and nationality with Welser-Möst, in 2008. We were doing a public interview in Salzburg. He said (and I paraphrase), “It makes a difference, where you’re from, how you grew up. But anyone can learn a musical language.” He remembered that some said he had no business conducting Peter Grimes (the opera by Britten). His retort: “Then how can Simon Rattle conduct Don Giovanni?” Rattle, as you know, is a British conductor, and Don Giovanni is an Italian-language opera by a Salzburger. During the 2008 Salzburg Festival, Welser-Möst was conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in Dvorák’s Rusalka—and some members of the Vienna Philharmonic were not too happy about this. They’re the big man on the Salzburg campus, the VPO. And some of them said, “We have more Czech grandmothers than they do”—in other words, “There are more grandsons of Czechs in the Vienna Philharmonic than in the Cleveland Orchestra.” The Clevelanders retorted, “Don’t be so sure.” I pronounced a pox on both their houses: “Who cares? Aren’t you people musicians?”

The publicists like to say that Welser-Möst has a particular affinity with his “countryman,” or “fellow Austrian,” Bruckner. But what musician—true musician—isn’t a “countryman” of Bruckner, and Haydn, and Mozart, and Schubert, and other Austrians we could name? Hitler and Eichmann were from Linz (though the tourism board may not mention that). When it suits us, we say place means a lot. When it doesn’t, we don’t.

These days, the music market is very tight, and the Cleveland Orchestra seems to have found a niche: the Bruckner orchestra, conducted by a Linzer. Individuals and institutions need an angle, and this is the Cleveland’s, apparently. They trooped to the monastery in St. Florian, in whose school Bruckner studied and taught, and in whose church he served as organist. They recorded a Bruckner symphony there. In his various remarks preceding the Lincoln Center Festival, Welser-Möst said that every member of the orchestra had gone down into the basement, to look at Bruckner’s tomb. They were never the same. After being at St. Florian, they understood Bruckner as never before, and were perfectly at home in his music. That’s what Welser-Möst said, anyway. Can he believe it?

Bruckner’s life is a joy to study and talk about, and so is his music. One could go on for hours (and has). But let me confine myself to a few facts. He was an excellent organist, true, probably one of the best in Europe. Yet he wrote virtually no organ music. He worshiped Wagner, and I do not intend much of an exaggeration: On his knees, he once said to the older composer, “Master, I worship you.” But he wrote no operas. Bruckner was very far from a man of the theater. In fact, one of the best-loved anecdotes about him relates to his attendance at a performance of Götterdämmerung. Being Bruckner, he concentrated on the music. Afterward, he said to someone, “Tell me, why did they burn that lady at the end?” He was a master of choral music, and a highly religious man: yet he wrote no oratorios.

What he wrote was symphonies. He devoted his maturity to his nine. The First and Second are seldom played, which is a pity. The Third, we hear a bit more: It’s his “Wagner Symphony” (dedicated to you-know-who). The Symphony No. 4 is probably Bruckner’s most popular; it’s nicknamed the “Romantic.” The Fifth may be the most Bachian, featuring in the Finale a massive double fugue. No one in Bruckner’s time knew counterpoint and other Baroque techniques better than he. The Sixth Symphony, like the first two, is seldom played—talk about a light under a bushel. But the final three are more or less staples.

The slow movement of the Seventh—just to take one of the movements—is one of the most beautiful, sublime, and transcendent ever composed. It was—here is a personal word—the first Bruckner I ever loved. It served as a “gateway” into Bruckner at large. Later in life, I learned that he was thinking of this music as a memorial tribute to Wagner. I also learned that German radio played it when announcing the death of Hitler. Oh, well. The Eighth Symphony is probably the grandest and most monumental, in this series of grand and monumental symphonies. And the Ninth is Bruckner’s summa—dedicated to “my dear God.” Sensing that he would not be able to complete the last movement—that he would not live long enough—he toyed with the idea of tacking on his Te Deum. This idea was never consummated, and all the better: The Te Deum, while a good piece, is not in the same league as the symphony. And most of us regard the Ninth as plenty complete, ending with its slow movement, an Abschied (farewell).

Seeing as we’re talking about Ninths, let me mention another curious fact about Bruckner’s life and work. By some accounts, it was Beethoven’s Ninth—his choral symphony—that inspired Bruckner to write big, ambitious, and important symphonies in the first place. Bruckner was a master of both choral music and symphonic music, as you know. But he never put a voice in a symphony—not once. Mahler did, many times. Bruckner, no.

All of his symphonies have multiple versions, because he was revising all his life—and allowing others to do so, and not allowing them, and so on. This entire area is murky. After Bruckner’s death, still more people took their whacks. You can devote a full musicological career to “the Bruckner problem,” i.e., the problem of these revisions: Which are the truest, which should be adhered to? Everyone has his opinions, and that includes me. But ultimately I take a liberal view: I like pretty much all the versions, considering them all (more or less) Bruckner. I take the same line on Mussorgsky. We can war and war over his works: Are Rimsky-Korsakov’s and Ravel’s treatments too refined? Is he better rawer, coarser? Frankly, I like him both ways.

Nothing can keep Bruckner from coming out, nothing can block the spiritual power behind his works. He is communing with God, seeking after God, expressing Him through his art. These are religious works, no way around it. And Bruckner was, again, a very, very religious man. He had his kinks, naturally—his “issues,” we would say today. Who doesn’t? But he strove to be holy, or at least to know and honor holiness. He kept a daily record of his prayers—a written record. When he heard church bells ring, he would drop to his knees, even if he was teaching a class. Many of his works—maybe most of them—are, in a way, to his “dear God.”

Bruckner fans should not be embarrassed by this or shrink from it. But some embarrassment and shrinking are inevitable. I will again quote from the Lincoln Center Festival’s program essay: “Many conductors embraced [Bruckner] as a supreme symphonist. Others too easily pigeonholed his symphonies as ‘gothic cathedrals in sound,’ the work of a devoutly religious man who understood nothing but his own faith.” Even if he had understood nothing but his own faith—wouldn’t that have been understanding a lot? People pass whole lifetimes—busy lifetimes—understanding a lot less. Further on in this essay, there was this: “Bruckner was more than a simple man devoutly writing musical love letters to God.” Honestly, I have never heard a better description of those symphonies. The writer might have meant it with a sneer, or with cheek, but we don’t have to take it that way.

He continued, “The composer was, certainly, at times socially awkward.” That’s putting it mildly. “Yes, he too often accepted others’ advice about his own music. And, very much, his Catholic faith anchored him through life. But Bruckner’s musical breadth was exceptional.” Where is the contradiction—the contradiction between deep faith and musical breadth? Didn’t Bach have those things as well? Bruckner “was a magnificent organist, who mesmerized audiences in performances across Europe . . .” Again, where’s the contradiction? Bach played the organ magnificently and mesmerizingly, too. Perhaps I have misunderstood this essay, doing it an injustice.

In any case, Bruckner’s symphonies are inspired and inspiring works. They are full of struggle, searching, triumph. They defy evil. They buck you up, console you, pull for you, prod you on—ennoble and elevate you. Like Beethoven, Bruckner is one of your best friends. He’ll be with you through thick and thin.

At the Lincoln Center Festival, the Cleveland Orchestra played four symphonies: the Fifth, the Seventh, the Eighth, and the Ninth. Gun to my head, those are the best—the best of Bruckner’s nine (although I hate to do that to the Fourth). These symphonies unfolded over four concerts. Three of the symphonies were paired with Adams works, which is to say, a John Adams piece preceded each of them. The Eighth was long enough to have a concert by itself.

For all my griping about Adams—and I have griped a lot over the years—he is a good composer, at times a very good composer. His talents are undeniable and large. I think one reason some of us gripe is that we’re reacting to the nauseating hype about him: “the Beethoven of our time,” “a genius for the ages,” and all that. We say, “Come on . . .” The hypers create a backlash. In his program greeting, the festival’s director wrote that Franz Welser-Möst would bring us “new insight into both masters”—both Bruckner and Adams. I hope that he gulped, at least a little, when writing “both masters.” Even a blush would have been in order.

So, what does it take to be a Bruckner conductor? It takes excellent overall musicianship, of course. Full command of orchestra, scores, and self. It also takes a sense of architecture, a sense of pacing: a fitness for the long haul (for these are long, questing, and, really, cohering symphonies). And it will not surprise you that I think it takes a certain spiritual fitness. Some years ago, a conductor asked me about Bruckner, saying he did not conduct him and did not really “get” him. I mumbled a few sentences, ending with something like, “And, of course, these are religious works.” The conductor said, “That’s it! It’s the God thing. That’s my problem.” In 2009, interviewing Lorin Maazel, I asked whether, in his view, a person had to be a believer to conduct Bruckner. He said, “No, not at all. I’m certainly not, but I have a streak of spirituality. I think that every musician worth his salt simply must, and Bruckner’s music has a breadth and depth and an innocent genius which I find absolutely unbelievable.” (By “unbelievable,” he meant “great,” not “not credible.”)

Welser-Möst’s conducting of the Fifth was astonishing. It was correct, in a way: The notes were certainly there. But where was the music? This account was persistently bland, moderate, innocuous. The Adagio should be a balm, and then tear your heart out. It had practically nothing. After the Scherzo, you should feel like you’ve been through a war. In this account, you might have had a walk down the block, or an okay tuna sandwich at an okay diner. The Finale had shockingly little passion or strength or uplift—or excitement. And it’s the most exciting music in the world. Festival PR had promised us that Welser-Möst would “freshly reimagine” Bruckner. This was the fresh reimagining? Fuddy-duddies like Eugen Jochum may not have had the priceless benefit of John Adams, but, you know? They could conduct Bruckner.

On this night in Avery Fisher Hall, the Fifth was boring, and it’s anything but. I had a friend with me who had never heard a Bruckner symphony, live. As far as I’m concerned, he still hasn’t.

I would not have attended a subsequent Cleveland/Bruckner concert, but I figured I should, for the sake of the piece I’m now writing. The Seventh, I’m happy to report, fared much better than the Fifth. Welser-Möst was almost a new conductor. The music had its feeling, as well as its notes. It was basically itself. To be sure, the Adagio has been much more moving. Also—not that we need to pick on technique—it’s actually possible to play the pizzicatos at the end of this movement together. The Clevelanders’ got worse with each one. Furthermore, the Finale ought to be much, much nobler. From Welser-Möst, it was a little rushed through, a little shallow, a little callow. But I was grateful for this performance, considering what had been done the night before.

The Eighth was even better. Welser-Möst allowed it its energy, its logic, and its soul—or most of its soul. Once more, the Finale was short on nobility (or soul, if you like). It was somewhat smooth, polished, slick—there was a gloss on it. I think the music should have a little more roughness, a little more heart—more of a “human” quality. But this performance, like that of the Seventh, bore no resemblance to the opening night’s Fifth. As for the concert featuring the Ninth, I did not attend it. I suppose I thought, “Why not leave well enough alone?”

I’ve been hard on Welser-Möst here, but I respect him a great deal. And I love that he loves Bruckner. I wager he would agree with me that Bruckner is always “relevant” because he always “relates” to anyone receptive to what he has to offer: in any time or place. We are “connected” to him because his music speaks to anyone with a receptive ear (and head and heart). It has nothing to do with John Adams, and it has nothing to do with St. Florian, or any other physical setting.

As it happens, I’m writing these words a day after a visit to, yes, St. Florian. I gave a lecture on Bruckner to a group of Americans. And I went down to the crypt, where Bruckner’s remains lie—beneath the “Bruckner Organ,” which he loved so much, and played so well. Behind his tomb is a cell piled from bottom to top with skulls: 6,000 of them. This is a creepy scene, great for Halloween, but not so great for understanding Bruckner, in my mind. The place has nothing to do with Bruckner—with the music. It is of magnificent historical interest, however. As I write these words, I am just around the corner from the house where Mozart grew up, in Salzburg. I have stayed here many times. Do I get a special sense of Mozart? More than in, say, Moose Jaw? No, not at all. Of the man, maybe. But music—the best music—dwells in a realm apart. You can visit anytime you like, wherever you are.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 1, on page 111
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