Composer: Josef Anton Bruckner
Date of Birth: 4 September 1824
Date of Death: 11 October 1896
Period/Era/Style: Middle Romantic-era
Contribution(s): Bruckner was an Austrian composer best known for his symphonies, masses, and motets. The first are considered emblematic of the final stage of Austro-German Romanticism because of their rich harmonic language, strongly polyphonic character, and considerable length. Bruckner’s compositions helped to define contemporary musical radicalism, owing to their dissonances, unprepared modulations, and roving harmonies.
Unlike other musical radicals such as Richard Wagner and Hugo Wolf who fit the enfant terrible mould, Bruckner showed extreme humility before other musicians, Wagner in particular. This apparent dichotomy between Bruckner the man and Bruckner the composer hampers efforts to describe his life in a way that gives a straightforward context for his music. Hans von Bülow described him as “half genius, half simpleton”.
His works, the symphonies in particular, had detractors, most notably the influential Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick, and other supporters of Johannes Brahms who pointed to their large size and use of repetition, as well as to Bruckner’s propensity for revising many of his works, often with the assistance of colleagues, and his apparent indecision about which versions he preferred. On the other hand, Bruckner was greatly admired by subsequent composers including his friend Gustav Mahler.
Compositions: Sometimes Bruckner’s works are referred to by WAB numbers, from the Werkverzeichnis Anton Bruckner, a catalogue of Bruckner’s works edited by Renate Grasberger.
The revision issue has generated controversy. A common explanation for the multiple versions is that Bruckner was willing to revise his work on the basis of harsh, uninformed criticism from his colleagues. “The result of such advice was to awaken immediately all the insecurity in the non-musical part of Bruckner’s personality,” musicologist Deryck Cooke writes. “Lacking all self-assurance in such matters, he felt obliged to bow to the opinions of his friends, ‘the experts,’ to permit … revisions and even to help make them in some cases.” This explanation was widely accepted when it was championed by Bruckner scholar Robert Haas, who was the chief editor of the first critical editions of Bruckner’s works published by the International Bruckner Society; it continues to be found in the majority of program notes and biographical sketches concerning Bruckner. Haas’s work was endorsed by the Nazis and so fell out of favor after the war as the Allies enforced denazification. Haas’s rival Leopold Nowak was appointed to produce a whole new critical edition of Bruckner’s works. He and others such as Benjamin Korstvedt and conductor Leon Botstein argued that Haas’s explanation is at best idle speculation, at worst a shady justification of Haas’s own editorial decisions. Also, it has been pointed out that Bruckner often started work on a symphony just days after finishing the one before. As Cooke writes, “In spite of continued opposition and criticism, and many well-meaning exhortations to caution from his friends, he looked neither to right nor left, but simply got down to work on the next symphony.” The matter of Bruckner’s authentic texts and the reasons for his changes to them remains politicized and uncomfortable.
Reception in the 20th century: Because of the long duration and vast orchestral canvas of much of his music, Bruckner’s popularity has greatly benefited from the introduction of long-playing media and from improvements in recording technology.
Decades after his death, the Nazis strongly approved of Bruckner’s music because they saw it as expressing the zeitgeist of the German volk, and Hitler even consecrated a bust of Bruckner in a widely photographed ceremony in 1937 at Regensburg’s Walhalla temple. Bruckner’s music was among the most popular in Nazi Germany and the Adagio from his Seventh Symphony was broadcast by German radio (Deutscher Reichsrundfunk) when it broadcast the news of Hitler’s death on 1 May 1945. However, this did not hurt Bruckner’s standing in the postwar media, and several movies and TV productions in Europe and the United States have used excerpts from his music ever since the 1950s, as they already did in the 1930s. Nor did the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra ever ban Bruckner’s music as they have Wagner’s, even recording the Eighth Symphony with Zubin Mehta.
Bruckner’s symphonic works, much maligned in Vienna in his lifetime, now have an important place in the tradition and musical repertoire of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The life of Bruckner was portrayed in Jan Schmidt-Garre’s 1995 film Bruckner’s Decision, which focuses on his recovery in the Austrian spa. Ken Russell’s TV movie The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner, starring Peter Mackriel, also fictionalizes Bruckner’s real-life stay at a sanatorium because of obsessive-compulsive disorder (or ‘numeromania’ as it was then described).
In addition, “Visconti used the music of Bruckner for his Senso (1953), its plot concerned with the Austrian invasion of Italy in the 1860s.” The score by Carl Davis for the restoration of the 1925 film Ben-Hur takes “inspiration from Bruckner to achieve reverence in biblical scenes.”