I Hate…er, Strongly Dislike…Bruckner, Part II

So! What were you guys up to this weekend?

I didn’t do much. I practiced. Wasted time on Facebook. I didn’t feel well, so I napped. Played with my dog and my cat. Thought about taking a bike ride, but I have allergies, so I decided to postpone that. I also sat on my bed and pondered my closet for a while, trying to figure out if I should put my winter clothes in storage. You know, normal low-key stuff.

Oh, yeah, and I also caused a major [bleep]storm on violinist.com.

So…whoops? I guess? I’m a ninety-pound size-two girl with a soft voice and a sweet smile who last caused a ruckus eighteen years ago when I was put on the only time-out of my childhood because I wouldn’t stop flicking the kitchen lights on and off. Seriously. For anyone who I offended, I do feel (sort of) bad (although not so bad that I’m retracting any of what I wrote). I never meant to imply that it’s a good thing I hate Bruckner, or that you should hate Bruckner, or that anyone should hate Bruckner, or that I’ll always hate Bruckner. To be honest, “I Hate Bruckner” was written more to let off snarky steam than to make an intellectually cogent case for anything. I wasn’t expecting having to write Part II with hundreds of raised virtual eyebrows waiting for me to continue my heretical argument. Naïve? Probably. At least I admit it.

Part II was originally going to be a liveblog of me wading through Bruckner 8 for a third time, trying to pinpoint what exactly about it is so repellent to me. I may do such a thing in future, but it didn’t take long to decide that reliving the comment section in all its glory would be much more exciting and educational.

So. To get everyone up to speed… In “I Hate Bruckner, Part I” I wrote:

In the Adagio we behold nothing less than ‘the all-loving Father of mankind in all his infinite mercy!’ Since this Adagio lasts exactly twenty-eight minutes or about as long as an entire Beethoven symphony, we cannot complain of being denied ample time for the contemplating of the rare vision. At long last, the Finale – which, with its baroque themes, its confused structure and inhuman din, strikes us only as a model of tastelessness – represents, according to the programme, ‘Heroism in the Service of the Divine!’ The blaring trumpet figures are ‘heralds of the gospel truth and the conception of God.’ The childish, hymnal character of this programme characterizes our Bruckner community, which consists of Wagnerites and some added starters for whom Wagner is already too simple and intelligent.

Oh, wait – that’s actually not me; that’s brutally sarcastic music critic Eduard Hanslick writing in 1892. Sorry, I get us mixed up sometimes. (As soon as I found that quote, I knew I had to shoehorn it into this blog somehow. Can you believe we’ve been having this debate for over a century? We’re treading the same ground that Brahms and Wagner et al. did. Ecclesiastes 1:9, y’all.)

Anyway. Actually, what I really said in “I Hate Bruckner” was that 1) I hate Bruckner and 2) I’m frustrated that I can’t explain why. I also compared him to a creeper who hangs out at a gas station, and then made a short amateurish video that Hanslick might have made if only he’d had access to Windows Movie Maker. Okay, you should be up to speed now.

I wish I had the skill to weave in summaries of all the responses I got into some kind of cohesive narrative summary, but I don’t, so I’m going the list route. Below are summaries of the most common types of comments I got, along with some musings on the (fascinating) questions they raised.

1) Hate is a terrible word to use in the context of talking about great composers. It puts readers off, undermines your argument, and reeks of sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake.

I respect that. I discussed a bit about what the word “hate” means to me in the Part I comment section. Which was an interesting thing to verbalize, as I hadn’t really thought much about it since ninth grade, when I started using the word “hate” in earnest. I won’t repeat myself here, but if you’re interested, head on back for a fuller discussion.

That being said, I do think there is something to be said for engaging with a piece, having a strong negative reaction, and then expressing it in direct, honest language. In this particular context, I don’t regret my word choice. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

2) Yeah, I definitely agree; Bruckner was a major creeper. It doesn’t help when one knows he was one of Hitler’s favorites. / How dare you call Bruckner creepy? Bruckner’s personal life is no business of ours. He had nothing to do with the Nazis!

Okay, so…wow. What a huge topic. And the more I think about it, the more surprised I am that we don’t talk about it more. How does a composer’s life influence our understanding of his work, and how should a composer’s life influence our understanding of his work? Is there an established field of study that attempts to answer these questions? Because I really think one could spend an entire musicology career on them.

Here’s a pattern I’ve come to spot in my own thoughts… If I like a composer’s music, I will be much more inclined to be forgiving of their personal shortcomings. (Beethoven was a terrible father figure to his nephew? But…the seventh symphony!) If I don’t like a composer’s music, but have sympathy for his personal suffering, it will enhance my appreciation of his work. (Shostakovich was fighting for his life with his art? Okay, now this angst makes sense.) If I don’t like a composer’s music, and then I find out things that bother me about his biography, that puts up an additional barrier to me liking his music. (Ninety minutes of bombast and lists of hot students? Yeah, no wonder I don’t like him.) Is this logical? Um, no. But it’s a consistent pattern, and I’m aware of it now. So hopefully in future I can keep this in mind and better pinpoint why I feel the way I do about certain composers’ work.

I am, however, still wondering how the life and deeds of an artist should tie into how we approach their output. (Even subconsciously.) I write stories instead of symphonies. Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that I someday have the honor of writing a novel that is studied after my death. How would I want my biography tied up with my book? I don’t know. However, I do know that readers would be able to draw a heck of a lot richer conclusions about what I created by knowing something about who I was. Because, like any artist, I hide in my work. My work and I have a symbiotic relationship, and often it’s impossible to see the dividing line between the two. Surely Bruckner operated in the same way – don’t all artists? I feel like it should be the right of the people of the future to dig through any facts they may possess about me and make judgments – positive or negative – on me and my work. And if what they find makes them more or less likely to like me or my work, then that’s their business. But everyone obviously feels differently. What would Bruckner have wanted? Does it matter? I don’t know.

That’s a long way of saying, I’m still formulating thoughts on the subject. Which is good. This is such a huge meaty question, with so many broad implications, it would be a shame to be able to chew it all over with conviction by one’s early twenties. However, I do confess that nobody has convinced me one way (music should be heard independently of a composer’s biography) or the other (the biography of a composer should be kept in mind as we engage with his music). Which leads me to believe the real answer is somewhere in the foggy complicated middle.

One thing I’ve decided for sure, though: the Bruckner Nazi charge is irrelevant. Anything that happens to a composer’s work after he’s dead? Off-limits. For instance, Perry using Copland-esque music in this ad doesn’t make Copland a Republican. (Permit me a moment to giggle at the thought of Copland endorsing Rick Perry.) (And just in case anyone jumps on me, I’m not implying that conservatives are Nazis; Copland/Perry was just the first classical-music-in-politics comparison to come to mind, as it was prominent in the news not many months ago.) (Okay, moving on quickly before another flame war erupts…*dashes off*)

3) Aside from the issue of whether it should have any bearing on how we listen to Bruckner… Keeping lists of names of much younger students who you find physically attractive isn’t necessarily a creepy thing to do. People do a lot worse.

This was a recurring theme that, to be honest, shocked the socks off me. I’m not arguing that people don’t do worse, but…still. Wow. I’m not sure if this chasm in perception is due to a difference in age, gender, sexuality, or something else entirely, but it certainly is a tremendous tremendous chasm. I’m not gearing up for an argument; I don’t want to rehash what’s already been thoroughly hashed; I think either you find the fact The Lists existed disturbing, or you don’t, and I’m not going to waste breath attempting to convince anyone of anything. I just want to note for future reference that behaviors I take for granted as [insert adjective here] may not be viewed as such by large swatches of the population. And just as I expect other people to keep in mind where I’m coming from, I need to keep in mind where other people are coming from. Of course this is Empathy 101, but still, we can never be reminded too often.

This point also has made me think about how I, a young non-heterosexual female, engage with a history written largely by older heterosexual men. That’s quite a lot of bias on both sides to contemplate, and I have a feeling it will take a lifetime to sort it all out.

4) You should write an essay about what you love about Fauré.

YES. I’m totally crazy over this idea. Praising a composer whose work I love is much more my style; trust me. I’m not sure when I’ll get to this, but consider it to be on the docket. My passion for Fauré is so much stronger than any hate I might have for Bruckner. Prepare for a rhapsody of praise!

(The discussion continues in the next part…or two. I’m not sure yet whether to have two or three parts. Because there were a lot of responses to sift through. Bear with me.)

(Also, I haven’t decided if I’m going to engage in the comment section this time around. As rewarding as it was, it did take a lot of intellectual energy out of me, and I’ve got stuff to do…like practice. So if I don’t get back to you, don’t take it personally. However, if you really want to continue the discussion, as always, PM me, and I’ll try my best to get back to you privately.)


Filed under My Writing

5 responses to “I Hate…er, Strongly Dislike…Bruckner, Part II

  1. I would love, love, love to read what you write about Fauré!

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

  3. Ramon Khalona

    You should listen to the Bruckner string quintet. Seriously.

  4. Minh-Tam Trinh

    You listened to Bruckner’s largest symphony, the 8th; how about his masses? What do you think of the Mass in E minor? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpAdeuUcFZA)

    I find it interesting that you adore Fauré and shun Bruckner – I think these composers are very close emotionally and artistically. This is perhaps most striking to me in their choral writing. Both Fauré and Bruckner favored the old church modes as a means to break free of the more insipid harmonies of the late 19th century: Listen for the (minor) v6 chord in both Fauré’s requiem and the aforementioned mass. They were looking for a sound more austere – even more spiritual – than the lushness of Wagner or the flash of Saint-Saëns – what Glenn Gould called an “endless range of gray tints,” speaking about Bach’s Art of Fugue. I think the connection to Bach is justified: Late Fauré, such as the Nocturne No. 13 or the String Quartet, exemplifies the same spirit of almost-willful harmonic iconoclasm, and late Bruckner echoes it too, most of all in the Ninth Symphony. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKY7wqAzwZU&t=37m30s)

    Neither Fauré nor Bruckner were terribly interested in orchestral color. The former actually had most of his orchestrations done by his students. You may think Bruckner’s orchestra is excessive, but if you look at the scores, his handling of the various choirs is incredibly controlled: In all cases, he chooses instrumental color solely for its effectiveness at bringing out the melodic idea, not to draw attention to unusual or exotic timbres. Rather, what both composers paid deep attention to was counterpoint and spacing and contour. The story goes that Bruckner was never very fast at counterpoint exercises as a student, but he would turn in sheets and sheets of extra ideas and examples for each assignment. There are sonorities in Bruckner that make me think of Palestrina or Beethoven’s Missa solemnis: I honestly don’t think the chord spacings in the vocal parts of Mozart’s Requiem can compare!

    And more generally, I don’t actually think Bruckner is as “bombastic” as you say. To me, bombast is a kind of pretention – a clamoring for attention where none is deserved. Just because the music itself is painted on a large canvas, does not mean its sincerity cannot match its size. By comparison, Mahler is genuinely histrionic (for a purpose): Bruckner was too reticent to write in the same way. His musicality was deeply tied to his spirituality, and he was forever insecure about his ability to communicate his spiritual feelings to musical audience: Hence the constant and innumerable revisions. He was really trying to achieve the same introspection that Beethoven’s late quartets find. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn3cY4j0-MA) Certainly his contemporaries wrote reams of nonsense about the supposed profundity of his music, but that usually wasn’t written by Bruckner himself.

    But maybe the real challenge in listening to Bruckner is getting used to his sense of form. With Beethoven, Mahler, Schoenberg, I find that listeners often think they’re reacting negatively to harmony or bombast or opaqueness, but the real reason they don’t like it is that their experience of large-scale temporal structure – of architecture in time – is being pushed to an extreme. I remember I hated most of Mahler’s symphonies the first six or seven times that I heard them, but after that, the various divisions in each movement stuck in my mind more clearly, which allowed me to follow the dramatic journey more cogently. Bruckner’s music is organized into massive thematic blocks – e.g., he typically has three, as opposed to two, primary themes in the expositions of his sonata-allegro movements, each taking several minutes to state. His music is intimate, but not in a shy, parlor-like way as in Fauré. It is intimate in the way that one’s experience of a medieval cathedral or a landscape in the Alps can be intensely private. I hope that that makes sense.

    • Fabulous response, thanks much for taking the time to write it for such an old entry!! Next time I get around to thinking about Bruckner (my musical studies and listening tend to go in cycles), I will look at this comment… :)

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