Bruckner’s 8th, again

I do see what Mahler meant about the need to revise Bruckner.  The last movement is structurally weak, a kind of medley of several different bits, some very good, some ho-hum, but none connected in any apparent way to any that goes before or comes after.  One need not love Beethoven, but his symphonies make sense, one part growing organically and seemlessly out of the one preceding.  So do Mahler’s.  Although I lack the necessary tuition in music to say why this should be so — even I can tell that Bruckner’s very obviously do not.

Some thoughts on encountering Bruckner, at last

As a certain Leopold M. once observed to his far more famous son, the frequency of good days decreases parabolically with age, until, at some point — about now, for me — one is no longer ever well; and content just to bless any merely ordinary day.

As ordinary days go, last Saturday sucked a class-C hurricane:  the usual boring health nonsense, unfaithful girlfriends, disloyal friends — and others asking to borrow money — was more than augmented by a veritable conjunction of bad juju:  ordered goods undelivered, phone calls unanswered (and others interrupted), online bookings rejected, ATM cards eaten by some machine, brokers calling to say previously confirmed orders hadn’t really gone through, emails bouncing and others arriving without the requested assignments, some bureaucrat or another saying I haven’t produced a sufficient number of pink copies of something, an unexpected accountant’s bill for 1500 big ones.

I arrived home exhausted, disgusted, sick in my heart. I poured myself a stiff one and turned on Mezzo and… was hit in the face by something odd, weird, breathtaking, and…  mystifying.  What on earth…? Pierre Boulez was stone-facedly waving his hands at something… odd…  deeply Germanic, and really very good, which was yet not Beethoven; and, though… both too serious to be either Schubert or Brahms, yet, on the other hand, too… manly (in the non-whining sense) (or should I say, polite?) to be Mahler.

I had a pretty good guess:  it had to be the one German I had not known.

And it was:  Bruckner’s 8th, 4th movement, the last 20 bars or so of it.

Having promptly located a recording by Jochum, I now realize why Mahler, who’d thought Bruckner his most important artistic influence, insisted on correcting Bruckner’s scores:  it has a rather weak middle.  But the ending is superb:  a sharply climbing motif — anyone but a German might call it hysterical — a questioning note, poignant, yet heroic enough to stop just short of panic —  repeated — repeated? sliced! — incessantly into the sea of all of the symphony’s major themes suddenly rising about it in the strings like a fast-gathering dusk… into a kind of triumphant… cacophony.

It was very good, indeed.

Bruckner was an odd fellow:  a village school teacher’s son made good, he’d never learned to rebel, trust himself, or ignore his bosses (the von’s, it is said by the usually anti-aristocratic bourgeois historians, but really — the Viennese; the bourgeois always find a way to blame us for their own faults).  Still in his forties he was commuting from Linz to Vienna to take courses — and certificates (1).  And when critics ripped into his work, he rewrote it. (Very admirable, this, if you ask me; one can’t help feeling many composers’ work could have been greatly benefited by half the humility).

Anyhow, what I wanted to say is this:

1) I am thankful for art because without it my life would be nothing but the predictable succession of dull, boring, painful same-old-same-olds.

2) And:  who would have ever thought that — at my age — I still had new things still to discover?


But I have to proceed advisedly with my new-found project of listening to all of Bruckner’s symphonies:  important friends — ones who often pass through my living room at strange hours — and never ask to borrow a penny — are offended by the Germanic symphony thinking it… rude.   Badly mannered.  And therefore… repulsive.

Let’s not confuse depression and anxiety with depth, they say.

And right they are.

They are not the only ones, either.  Simon Pinker — er — Rattle, sorry, what was I thinking? — faced a rebellion by his bosses (the Berliner Philharmoniker is owned by its musicians) for refusing to play the Germanic repertoire.  Oh, God, he mumbled to himself, let’s not have this heavy handed… thing, again!  No, no, no, said his bosses, let us have this heavy-handed thing, this is who we are.

One has to admire this single-minded commitment to one’s heritage, however — ah — tiresome — it may be.


(1) Note: nothing more bourgeois than a certificate, including the certificate of nobility.  It has always been thus:  if you need one, you aren’t.