Cambridge University Press
0521823544 - Bruckner’s Symphonies - Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics - by Julian Horton

1   Introduction: the critical problem

Stephen Johnson concluded a recent article about Bruckner and the cultural politics of Nazi Germany with the following exhortation:

What is certain is that as regards performance and textual fidelity, and maybe much else, Bruckner’s music stands in urgent need of reassessment . . . Let’s hope that this time it can be done with something like impartiality.1

In making such an appeal, Johnson by no means expresses a novel attitude amongst Brucknerians. Protestations of misunderstanding, calls for reappraisal and concerns about the dense problems generated by the music form possibly the most consistent feature of the composer’s reception. Perhaps to a greater extent than the music of any of his contemporaries, Bruckner’s music has come to be defined by its attendant problems.

   The issues comprising ‘the Bruckner problem’ in the broadest sense have been both geographically specific and geographically indifferent. On the one hand, Germanic and anglophone reception histories have followed markedly different paths. The appropriation of Bruckner during his lifetime by the more extreme elements of Viennese Wagnerism, and subsequent right-wing annexations culminating in the Nazification of his music, quickly established the symphonies in the Germanic canon at the cost of a lasting affiliation with fascism. In Britain, by contrast, Bruckner was, until fairly recently, widely regarded as a defective continental curiosity, and despite an increasingly secure place in the repertoire, his defence as a ‘canonical’ composer is often still necessary. In America, he has received more systematic support than in Britain, thanks to the founding of the American Bruckner Society and its Journal Chord and Discord, although the secure position of the music in the American concert repertoire is also recent. Whereas Austro-German musicology has long sought theoretical, historical and philosophical strategies for dissecting Bruckner’s music, post-war Anglo-American musical analysts have all but ignored it. On the other hand, problems and preconceptions have persisted that are not circumscribed by national trends. Editorial involvement with Bruckner’s works has become increasingly international. Many of the infamous textual difficulties generated by Bruckner’s revisions and editorial collaborations have recently received fresh attention from European, American and Australian scholars. Similarly, the critical tendency to conflate music and biography has not been geographically restricted, but is apparent in the work of writers as diverse as Donald Francis Tovey, Robert Simpson, Constantin Floros and Carl Dahlhaus.

   The single factor uniting these trends is consistently their revisionist motivation. During and shortly after the composer’s lifetime, this arose from the desire to defend him against the ridicule of Hanslick and the Brahmsian faction, and usually involved belittling the Brahmsian concern for classical formal archetypes in the face of Bruckner’s bold modernism, which, as one reviewer put it, ‘is precisely greatness and sublimity in symphonic artworks’.2 Later in the twentieth century, reappraisal in Germany was restyled as a rearguard action against cultural decline, as for example in Karl Grunsky’s nationalistic characterisation of the ‘struggle against Bruckner’ as a symptom of anti-German artistic decadence.3 Such protestations took on a more forceful, institutional conviction during the Second World War. In an ironic inversion of the earlier emphasis on Bruckner’s progressive credentials, the Nazis perceived anti-Brucknerian feeling as another facet of degenerate, Judaeo-Bolshevik modernism.4 After the war, supporters in Britain bemoaned the mistaken alignment of Bruckner and Wagner, while Austro-German musicologists countered pre-war characterisations of the symphonies as the epitome of absolute music with programmatic readings.5 In the last decade, the revisionist inclination has been taken up by American musicologists, who have stressed the need to remove the layers of prejudice that Bruckner’s music has accrued.6 Johnson’s ‘urgent need of reassessment’ has a long, diverse and sometimes politically controversial lineage.

   Many of the claims made in the spirit of reappraisal are contradictory to the point of aporia. Bruckner has been praised as a Wagnerian and for having nothing to do with Wagner; as a composer of absolute music and of programmatic symphonies; as a dangerous modernist and a venerable reactionary; as an unworldly mystic and a ruthless pragmatist; as an apolitical innocent and as provider of the soundtrack to German military expansionism. And although some of these readings respond decisively to manifest extremism – few today would seek to defend, for example, the Nazi appropriation of Bruckner – the near-continuous state of reassessment has in many ways become as much of a problem as the matters it has sought to address. Partly, this is the product of a prevalent scholarly specificity. Attempts to resolve individual matters of reception, philology, analysis and interpretation have been consistently preferred over studies addressing ‘the Bruckner problem’ in the broadest critical sense. As a result, the consequences for other fields of enquiry of conclusions reached in one area of research are infrequently examined in detail. This is especially true of the vexed question of the editions. Decisions regarding the content of an edition have profound consequences for the conduct of an analysis, but research often stops short of investigating this relationship.

   More fundamentally, the persistence of revisionism may be attributed as much to the absence of a critical overview as to the presence of intractable scholarly problems.7 And here we broach the central motivation of this book: to investigate ‘the Bruckner problem’ in the broadest sense in a comparative, rather than a disciplinarily specific, fashion. This responds to the basic conviction that a path through the musicological difficulties generated by Bruckner’s music, and more precisely by the symphonies, can be cleared by treating them as points of interdisciplinary convergence, rather than simply as isolated problems demanding isolated solutions. Such an approach, it is hoped, could be instrumental in breaking the repeating cycle of reappraisal that in many ways comprises the enduring common ground of Bruckner scholarship. The greater part of this study will be given over to a series of case studies that prosecute this aim by exploring the consequences of allowing problematic issues to intersect, or to be refracted through a succession of diverse methodological debates and applications. The technique is purposefully pluralistic and critical: it seeks to test the self-containment of fields of enquiry, not to consolidate methodological specificity. By way of introduction, this chapter offers brief surveys of four key fields of debate that will be examined in more detail at a later stage – issues of reception history, editorial policy, biography and analysis – with the twofold purpose of obviating revisionist tendencies and establishing guidelines for more detailed consideration.

Trends in reception history

Germanic and Anglo-American Bruckner reception over the past hundred years has been defined to a large extent by differing responses to the question of Bruckner’s canonical membership. In Germany and Austria, the symphonies entered the repertoire relatively rapidly, and critical discussion consequently focused on a body of work, the canonical status of which was comparatively firm. In Britain and America, there has been a much more gradual progression from widespread hostility to canonical acceptance via protracted critical debate.

   Before the Second World War, British opinions of the symphonies were almost unanimously negative. In an emphatic rejection of Bruckner’s own hopes for his works in England, the first performance of the Seventh Symphony in London in 1887 met with little sympathy. Charles Barry voiced criticisms that were to become standard objections:

Reasons for [the symphony’s failure] may be found in extreme length – a fault substantially aggravated by lack of proportionate interest –, in an exaggerated and spasmodic manner only allowable when the composer follows the changing and contrasted sentiments of a poetic text, and in an extraordinary mixture of scholasticism with the freedom of the Wagnerian school.8

Forty-two years later, the situation was scarcely different. A review of a performance of the Fourth Symphony on 6 November 1929 ascribed the work’s critical reception to a paucity of material, concluding that

[Bruckner’s] command over form, which is not allowed to abdicate, but which is the servant of his ideas, does not suffice to compensate for [the material’s] diffuseness. One feels that the musical material of the symphony is not really strong enough to support so vast a structure.9

The first London performance of the Eighth Symphony, given by the London Symphony Orchestra under Klemperer on 20 November 1929, provoked a similar response. The Times’s critic noted the work’s ‘peculiar difficulties . . . great length and the curious disjointedness of its structure’, whilst the Daily Telegraph judged it inaccessible to anyone not from Upper Austria:

If you are not an upper Austrian . . . you are content to accept its often rather ponderous rhetoric as belonging to those spacious Teutonic days when every first-class composer not only demanded a big orchestra, but was generally oblivious to the possibilities of a small one.10

Performances of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies in 1936 elicited tentatively receptive comments, mingled with the old complaints of tedium and formlessness. A reviewer for the Musical Times found the outer movements of the Sixth ‘burdensome’ and the inner movements flawed, but attractive enough ‘to raise the name of Bruckner in this country’.11 The same journal received the Seventh in an identical manner: Bruckner ‘conceives fine characters’ but is unable to ‘unify their action’, as a result of which the work ‘raised [Bruckner’s] stock’ without securing his reputation.12 Immediately after the war, journalistic resolve stiffened again. The Times’s correspondent observed on 21 May 1948 that British and American audiences had no time for Bruckner in particular, and for what he described as ‘the Austrian Nationalists’ in general, including also Mahler and Schoenberg in this category. He therefore likened Bruckner to Stanford, as a composer-organist whose fame did not extend beyond his national boundaries. Inevitably, material deficiencies were cited as the chief obstacle, particularly Bruckner’s ‘appalling lengths’ and ‘redundancies’.13

   A succession of articles that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s attempted a critical accommodation. In the late 1950s, Deryck Cooke and Robert Simpson conducted a war of words in the Musical Times against predominantly hostile preconceptions. Dyneley Hussey’s faint praise proved especially provocative:

Tiresome though he may be, one cannot but end up liking the old bore and admiring the patent nobility of his aspirations. His most tiresome habit is his way of pulling up dead at frequent intervals, and then starting the argument all over again, usually with repetitions of what has already been said. One has the impression . . . that we are traversing a town with innumerable traffic lights, all of which turn red as we approach them.14

Cooke responded with forceful accusations of musical ignorance: ‘[Hussey’s] review only demonstrates that where there is no understanding of a work . . . there can be no real evaluation’.15 Consistently, reappraisal involved dissociating Bruckner from the mainstream symphonic models against which he had previously been measured. A Times article of 1960 entitled ‘Antipathy to Bruckner Still Felt’ asserted that the symphonies ‘are not argumentative after Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner’, and should properly be understood as combined products of the organ loft, Catholicism and Bruckner’s rural childhood, whilst a similar article of 1964 described the music as ‘monolithic, concerned exclusively with God and religion’.16 William Mann consolidated this view in 1967, regarding the symphonies as assertions of faith, rather than as following the ‘struggle–victory’ archetypes of the Beethovenian symphony.17 Uncritical acceptance of the music is finally evident in Joan Chisell’s 1969 review of a performance of the Fourth Symphony under Horenstein.18

   This progression is reflected in the British musicological literature. Tovey’s essays on the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies and Gerald Abraham’s scattered comments in A Hundred Years of Music, published in 1935 and 1938 respectively, betray varying degrees of contempt. Both employed comparison with Brahms as their point of orientation. Abraham used Brahms as a benchmark of competence against which Bruckner compared unfavourably:

Bruckner’s long-drawn ideas generally lack both the fertility of good themes and the beauty of genuine melodies: take, for instance, the opening subjects of the Second, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.19

Tovey similarly invoked the Brahmsian comparison as a context for Bruckner’s manifest technical inadequacy. His analyses vacillate between an acceptance of the quality of individual passages, and patronising description of formal deficiencies:

[Bruckner’s] defects are obvious on a first hearing, not as obscurities that may become clear with further knowledge, but as things that must be lived down as soon as possible . . . Listen to [his art] humbly; not with the humility with which you would hope to learn music from Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, but with the humility you would feel if you overheard a simple old soul talking to a child about sacred things.20

For Tovey, Bruckner’s problematic angle of relation to the mainstream could be reduced to a dichotomy of form and content: an uneasy conflation of Wagnerian style and a conception of form ‘as understood by a village organist’.21 Julius Harrison was even more abrupt, dismissing Bruckner in two sentences: he was a ‘pedantic’ and ‘self-conscious’ Wagnerian, whose symphonies ‘are in no wise worthy to rank with those of the great masters’.22

   The trend towards accepting Bruckner by arguing for his distinct status crystallised with Robert Simpson’s The Essence of Bruckner, still the most extensive English-language study. Again, the symphonies are considered essentially anti-Beethovenian, concerned not with the dynamic overcoming of struggle or the heroic assertion of the subject, but with the ‘patient search for pacification’, the gradual removal of obstacles to the calm expression of the material’s essence.23 When Bruckner fails to achieve this, it is for Simpson because he has not recognised the incompatibility of this ambition with the conventions of symphonic form. He cites the Third and Fourth Symphonies as the most problematic works in this respect, detecting an open conflict, in the first movement of the Third and the Finale of the Fourth, between the implications of the material and the conventions of sonata form. The subtext is once more that Bruckner places an emphasis on spiritual revelation that separates his music from the essentially secular orientation of the symphonic mainstream. The teleological processes of the Beethovenian symphony could thus only impede Bruckner’s works, because they rely on a concept of maintained structural ambiguity that was anathema to the eternal verities of Bruckner’s faith. This idea was reiterated by Wilfred Mellers, who perceived Bruckner to have transformed the symphony into a ‘confession of faith’, and by Deryck Cooke, for whom ‘Bruckner . . . abjured the terse dynamic continuity of Beethoven, and the broad fluid continuity of Wagner, in order to express something . . . elemental and metaphysical’.24

   Over the last fifteen years anglophone scholars, particularly in America, have embraced new approaches to Bruckner. William Carragan, John Philips, Paul Hawkshaw and Benjamin Korstvedt have attacked anew the dense philological problems; Korstvedt, Bryan Gilliam, Margaret Notley and Stephen McClatchie have provided novel perspectives on many aspects of reception history; Timothy Jackson, William Benjamin, Edward Laufer and Derrick Puffett have brought fresh analytical strategies to bear on the music. In general, Bruckner’s position in the repertoire has been consolidated and, late in the day, he has gained admittance to what Korstvedt describes as ‘the American musicological canon’.25 Nevertheless, the conception of Bruckner as an anti-dynamic composer has persisted. Benjamin Korstvedt recently affirmed Simpson’s conviction that the Brucknerian coda embodies pacification rather than overcoming:

[T]he conclusive cadential preparation [of a Bruckner symphony] does not present itself as the final paroxysm of a long symphonic struggle, but rather as a self-possessed expression of splendour . . . the final tonic major is not wrested from the darkness with Beethovenian might, but granted to us with awesome ease.26

Korstvedt concurs with Derek Scott in understanding the source of such gestures to be ‘lux sancta, the holy light of salvation for the believer’, rather than the enlightened humanism of Beethoven.27 Timothy Jackson similarly considers the symphonies as religious narratives in which the heroic subject is always ultimately redeemed by faith.28 Even today, a haze of otherness clings to Bruckner: he has, to an extent, been granted canonical space only by distancing his music from the symphonic tradition he sought to inhabit.

   All this stands in stark contrast to the trajectory of Germanic scholarship. Before the war, writers in the post-Hegelian tradition made extravagant claims for Bruckner’s music-historical significance. August Halm, Ernst Bloch and Ernst Kurth all saw in Bruckner the synthesis of a dialectical music-historical process that defined western music since the Enlightenment. For Halm, Bruckner initiated a musical culture that synthesised the antithetical tendencies of fugue and sonata, embodied in the music of Bach and Beethoven respectively.29 Hence, whereas in Halm’s view fugal counterpoint subordinated form to thematic material and the sonata principle subordinated material to the demands of the form, in Bruckner’s symphonies the ‘culture of theme’ discovered in Bach re-emerges in a symphonic context:

Bruckner is the first absolute musician of great style and complete mastery since Bach, the creator of dramatic music – which is the enemy and conqueror of music drama. If the fugue wanted to be fertilised by the spirit of the new music, it had to create contrast in the manner of treating the theme while leaving its thematic unity intact.30

Halm intends this synthesis in a broader sense than the simple importing of fugal techniques into the sonata design, a device of which Beethoven also made considerable use. Rather, Bruckner’s engagement with Wagner’s chromatic style elevates his melodic material above the concisely motivic themes of Beethoven and into a realm where the subordination of melody is no longer a prerequisite for the construction of sonata forms: ‘Bruckner . . . finds [in Wagner’s harmony] a new purpose, a new content for melody. Not a service to form, to something superordinate, but something which it could create in itself.’31 Halm’s ideas were taken up by Bloch, who construed Bruckner as realising the symphonic potential of Wagner’s style without the baggage of dramatic, programmatic or overtly poetic allusion.32 Halm and Bloch effectively up-end Wagner’s aesthetics of music drama: rather than conceiving of the symphony as a stage en route to music drama, they consider music drama as ‘the not-yet emancipated symphony’, to use Carl Dahlhaus’s phrase.33

   The construction of such historical schemes found its most substantial expression in the work of Ernst Kurth.34 Halm’s formula of ‘Bach, Beethoven and Bruckner’ became ‘Bach, Wagner and Bruckner’ in Kurth’s work. His underlying contention was that the motivating force in musical history is the resolution of voice-leading tension, understood not simply as an acoustical phenomenon, but as the build-up and discharge of melodic ‘energies’ that, in a Schopenhauerian turn of thought, amount to manifestations of a creative ‘will’. In Bach’s music, and generally in the contrapuntal style of the high Baroque, melody is perceived by Kurth as dominating harmony and form. After the hiatus of classicism, which suppressed music’s essential linearity beneath a pervasive homophony, Wagner’s mature chromatic style introduced a type of harmony motivated by chromatic alteration, and therefore reinstated voice leading as a governing principle. In Kurth’s view, Bruckner’s achievement lay in his application of Wagner’s ‘intensive alteration technique’ to the creation of symphonic forms, made possible by devising a type of material process that organised symphonic structures around the accumulation and discharge of melodic tensions. Unlike the classical sonata principle, in which motivic processes articulate a tonal scheme, Bruckner’s sonata forms are driven by melodic intensifications, of which tonality and harmony are structural effects. Consequently, Kurth conceived of Bruckner’s forms as compounds of ‘symphonic waves’ (symphonische Wellen).35 In a revision of Halm’s model, Bach’s ‘culture of theme’ and Wagner’s ‘culture of harmony’ became a ‘culture of form’ in Bruckner’s symphonies.

   These historical narratives were given a disturbing slant by the Bruckner reception of the Nazi period, with commentators turning the Hegelian method to overtly political ends: the ethnocentricity implicit in the views of Kurth and Halm became explicit in National Socialist cultural politics. Bruckner’s music was considered in the highest sense purely German; consequently it stood as a bulwark against the degenerate, cosmopolitan forces of musical modernism, which in practice were considered synonymous with an imagined Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. At a time when British reception still largely viewed Bruckner as marginal and incompetent, German reception was marked by a crescendo of hysterical lionisation that secured him as an institutionalised artistic symbol of the regime. As a consequence, post-war Germanic scholarship has understandably sought less controversial directions. As editor of the complete edition, Leopold Nowak set about a reappraisal of the aims and methods of the Gesamtausgabe, which had become infused with the politics of the Third Reich.36 The trend in pre-war discourse towards establishing Bruckner as the quintessential composer of absolute music gave way to attempts to read the symphonies as consciously programmatic, for example in the work of Constantin Floros, while Bruckner’s historical context and Austro-German reception has been traced in some detail by Floros, Manfred Wagner and Christa Brüstle, amongst others.37

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