I Hate Bruckner, Part I

I hate Anton Bruckner.

For the last two years, whenever I’ve had any spare time, I’ve been drifting through Grout’s History of Western Music and taking notes at the end of each chapter. I then listen to Youtube videos of the mentioned works and follow along with scores on IMSLP. Even though Grout succeeded in sucking nearly every human element out of his narrative, I’ve uncovered a lot of great pieces this way and put them into historical context. I’m a nerd and I’ve enjoyed the project. Always.

But this week…


Bruckner. For some reason, I hate this guy.

I don’t remember when I first heard his music. But I do remember the impression it left: what the hell?

It’s entirely possible I read about him before I heard any of his music. He was an insecure country bumpkin. His heroes were Wagner, Beethoven, tremolo, this rhythmic pattern, and Christ. He came to a Beethoven exhumation without permission and cradled the skull. And he was obsessed with teenage girls, even when he was old enough to be the girls’ grandfather, going so far as to keep a list of who he found physically desirable. I can deal with one or two creepy traits in an artist…because let’s face it, most of the great composers were creeps in one way or another…but Bruckner. He just takes the creepiness to a whole new level. For some reason literally nothing endears him to me. He seems like the great composer version of the lonely old guy who hangs around gas stations, mumbling things to himself and asking female clerks easily answerable questions. You know he’s probably harmless – maybe he’s even nice – but you have no desire to get any closer to find out.

I listened through the eighth symphony the other day while reading through the IMSLP score. I was twitching throughout the entire thing. The music repelled me – repelled me in a way no other music ever had. And I couldn’t explain why, which made me even twitchier. I GUESS MAYBE BECAUSE EVERYTHING FELT AS IF IT WAS IN CAPITAL LETTERS! EVERYTHING WAS LIFE OR DEATH OR BRASS OR TREMOLO FOR SEVENTY-FIVE MINUTES STRAIGHT! AND JUST WHEN I THOUGHT IT WAS ALMOST OVER I LOOKED AT THE CLOCK AND SAW THERE WAS STILL AN HOUR LEFT TO GO OH MY GOD SOMEONE GET ME OUT OF HERE!

I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fauré is my favorite composer, and the two couldn’t be more different. Bruckner is sun, Fauré is moon. Fauré is the wistful urban sophisticate who sums up delicate, ephemeral emotions in emotionally ambiguous nocturnes. Bruckner is the one who apparently can’t say anything worthwhile without a hundred-piece brass section blowing away for over an hour.

A totally scientific comparison of what goes through my mind when I listen to Fauré versus what goes through my mind when I listen to Bruckner

But I’ve been thinking about it, and realizing I’m not giving Bruckner a fair shake. Since I learned his biography before I had a chance to really dig into his music, I know I was biased against it from the start. Should what a composer did in his life influence what we think of his work? I don’t know that it should – so why does it? Personal life aside, why is his work so repellent to me? (Because I’m pretty sure I’d still hate it even if I thought he was a super amazing guy…) What exactly about his work is repellent to me? Orchestration? Harmony? Tempo? Lack of contrast? Everything? How can one person cry at one passage’s strength and beauty while I start cackling at its absurdity? Will I someday hear a Bruckner interpretation that I enjoy? How much of my hatred is the fault of conductors and performers? How much of my hatred is my fault? What exactly causes certain people to love certain styles of music, and others to loathe others? Could I ever – gasp – love Bruckner, if I invested the time and energy and resisted the ever-present urge to make fun of him?

Stop making me think, Bruckner! It was so much easier when I could just point and laugh at you.

So. This might be masochistic but I’m putting myself through the wringer again, re-listening to Bruckner 8 and live-blogging it, trying to answer some of those questions. I may even – and this is blasphemy – cut out the parts I don’t like, thereby adding my own wrinkle to the Bruckner Problem. I’m perversely curious as to what such a symphony would sound like. If in the future I use this project as evidence that I knew nothing at the age of twenty-two, so be it.

Do you love Bruckner? Why? Please convince me I’m a mean sixth-grade girl bullying a naive nerd, because there’s a part of me that wants to love Bruckner. Really. Honestly.

Do you hate Bruckner? Why? Help me understand this strange reaction I’ve never had before. Because, in case you didn’t hear yet, I hate Bruckner.

Do you have no opinion about him? That seems to me to be the most shocking position of all. How can an hour of this possibly evoke a “meh”?

Next time…the live-blog.


Filed under My Writing

12 responses to “I Hate Bruckner, Part I

  1. musicalassumptions

    I have had wonderful experiences hearing Bruckner, but I really can’t stomach what Karajan does to him. I was lukewarm about Bruckner until I heard This guy with this orchestra.


  2. musicalassumptions

    I was lukewarm about Bruckner until I heard this guy conduct this piece with this orchestra.


  3. This is a very funny post–I go through the same mental process about Philip Glass. (I hate Glass! But have I given him a fair shot? I don’t care, I hate Philip Glass! That sort of thing.) When I think of Bruckner, the word that comes to mind is bombast, though I’ve not listened enough to be fair to him either. Now, Fauré, that’s another matter. I haven’t listened to a lot of his work, either, but I’m always happy when I do. Most recently, I heard a string quartet of his at the Met Museum. Heaven, right here on earth.

  4. musicalassumptions

    Try listening to “Company” for string quartet, Sue. It might temper your hatred a bit.

  5. Pingback: I Hate…Er, And Now Sort of Like Bruckner, Part III | Song of the Lark

  6. David Singerman

    Bruckner is one of the greatest of composers. He is probably the greatest composer of religious music in the 19th century. Just listen to his E-minor mass, just scored for chorus and wind. Or try the glorious motets, each around 4 minutes long. (You will find plenty on youtube, so you don’t need spend any money).If you want a really beautiful symphony, try his seventh. Some of the most beautiful melodies ever written. For starters, try the second (moderato) theme of the adagio. After this you may want to get back to me.

  7. Ferenc

    Hi Emily,
    You have a great blog, and this piece was no exception! I was wondering your thought on Grout’s “History of Western Music”, as I was looking to start a somewhat similar process to the one you mentioned in this article, of reading through it chapter by chapter. Do you think it is a good historical text on music?
    Again, great blog (I found your blog from your posts on Violinist.com), and very captivating writing!

    • Thanks!

      If you are highly motivated and disciplined, and enjoy hard slogs, then yes, it’s good. If you want to start on Bach or later, there have got to be better texts (although I’m not sure what those might be). Grout starts very early and spends a lot of time in the pre-Bach era. What I’ve found to be helpful…although I’ve fallen off the music history wagon lately…is to use Grout as a sort of outline, then branch off with full biographies about composers. Hope that helps.

      • Ferenc

        Thanks for the reply! I am fascinated with music history, and honestly I wouldn’t mind starting pre-Bach, so I’ll give Grout a try. Have you pursued becoming a music historian or musicologist (I noticed you mentioned this in a later article)? I ask because I am very interested in the field myself. I am a violinist who chose not to attend a music college, and now I am kicking myself for it! I am trying to learn as much as I can on my own time (music history, theory, etc.), and it is a slow uphill trudge.
        You can email me your reply if you want, I apologize, and I don’t want to clog up your comments with my questions.

        • Eventually I’d like to go into music history or musicology, particularly the role of women, gender, and sexuality in music history. The only problem is going to school costs $$$$$, and the only realistic traditional career to have afterward is in academia, which for a variety of reasons doesn’t appeal to me personally. So I’m considering options post-Minnesota-Orchestra lockout, which (weirdly) opened up a lot of opportunities for me. :) We’ll see.

          Let me know if you get into Grout! I completely sympathize with how tough it is to learn history and theory on your own. It’s a slow uphill trudge indeed.

          • Ferenc

            I know what you mean, school is a HUGE cost today. It has been the one factor that has been making me rethink this, constantly. Having to pay back student loans for the rest of my life just doesn’t seem like much fun.
            Well good luck with what you chose to do, I’m sure you’ll be great at it!
            I’m ordering the Grout book now, thanks for the tips!

  8. Peter

    Hi again. Just to make it easier, the coda I was referring to begins at 7:30 in the Karajan video. Not my favorite performance – for example, it’s damn hard to make out all the overlapping themes at the end. Even so, I listened to it a few times, and every friggin time it got to 8:09, I got chills…

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