The prospect of hearing the Boston Philharmonic under Benjamin Zander undertake the Bruckner Ninth in the pleasing acoustic of Sanders Theater intrigued me in no small part because of my recollections of a brilliant performance of the same work by the same forces at the over-reverberant First Congregational Church in 1979, the year of BPO’s founding.
The concert began with Beethoven’s often maligned Triple Concerto, featuring the Boston Trio: Irina Muresanu, violin; Jonah Ellsworth, cello; and Heng-Jin Park, piano. Much of the critical literature considers this to be of inferior inspiration, not really worthy of Beethoven, and there’s no doubt that it is hardly performed as often as any other Beethoven concertos. But it has all the vigor of Beethoven’s infallible sense of structure, and the straightforward melodic ideas follow each other in agreeable succession. I hadn’t realized that Beethoven had composed the easier piano part for the benefit of his 16-year-old pupil, the Archduke Rudolf, who played at the premiere, in 1808; Ben Zander, in his well-aimed and witty remarks before the performance, suggested that Beethoven had wanted to be sure that Rudolf mastered his scales. The violin and cello solos are more difficult, and include a good deal of high-register display, but there was fine expressiveness too from all three confident performers, especially in the slow movement. The finale, Rondo alla polacca reminded us that this Triple Concerto is above all a merry work, even jolly. And by coincidence, the BSO was offering another triple concerto at the same time: Gubaidulina’s, featuring violin, cello and bayan accordion.
The new New Grove article on Bruckner (1824-1896) is 28 pages long, and that is a self-referential indication of his importance. Bruckner is one of those composers whom musicians either love or loathe—for most listeners there is seldom a middle ground or take-it-or-leave-it position. I remember listening intently in my university office to a radio broadcast of the Boston Symphony’s performance of Bruckner’s Ninth when the music department chairman came into the room and ordered me, in tones of summary indignation and vehemence, to turn it off. On the other hand, I know some intelligent listeners who worship Bruckner’s work to the point of dismissing all other composers as mere amateurs, Beethoven and Wagner not excepted.
From the evidence of both his career and his compositions, Bruckner might have been the perfect academic. He began as a country schoolmaster and worked his way up to becoming a professor who repeatedly sought academic advancement; he had many students, some of whom formed important careers. He was an organist of formidable ability. (In 1986 I heard an organ recital in the beautiful Baroque Piaristenkirche, in Vienna, where in 1861 Bruckner had passed a formal examination in organ playing that stunned the examiners.) He never ceased studying, analyzing, and revising his larger works. At an early stage he worked on counterpoint and form with Simon Sechter, a forgotten composer who had given one counterpoint lesson to Schubert shortly before the latter died, in November 1828—thus the improbable direct line to Bruckner, who admired Schubert profoundly (and one wonders how much of Schubert’s immense achievement Bruckner would have been likely to know, other than songs and piano music and the B minor and Great C major symphonies, as most of the larger works remained unpublished until Bruckner’s final years). Bruckner adored Beethoven boundlessly as well, and there’s a well-established legend of Bruckner making his way onto the scene of Beethoven’s exhumation in 1888, holding Beethoven’s skull in his hands, and talking to it with reverence. (Beethoven and Schubert had been buried in Vienna’s tiny Währing Cemetery in 1827 and 1828 respectively, and Schumann visited the graves in 1839; when the expanding city swallowed up the Währing district, their remains were reburied in the Zentralfriedhof, out in the sticks, leaving behind a couple of monuments.) One might say that Bruckner was desperately committed to correctness in his compositional technique; in his sketching, he was known to rule off page after page of four-measure phrases long before he wrote down any notes. Throughout his career, Bruckner had to endure the slings and arrows of his Viennese contemporaries; the critic Eduard Hanslick savaged his music, and Brahms, his younger rival and a consummate musical realist, regularly deplored Bruckner’s Wagner-inspired mystical excesses. (But see the wonderful description of a Brahms-Bruckner reconciliation dinner at the Red Hedgehog restaurant in 1889, in Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor.)
Bruckner left a few examples of keyboard and chamber music, including a string quintet that may be important, but other than symphonies he concentrated on sacred music for chorus, sometimes a cappella but more often with instruments. My earliest experience with any of Bruckner’s music was his beautiful Mass No. 2 in E minor, with wind instruments (1866); one doesn’t hear it often because choral directors chafe at its vocal difficulty. His Te Deum is probably more often heard, but it is heavy.
The art of the symphony began for Bruckner with two early unnumbered examples and continued through nine numbered works, extending the principle of “heavenly length” through heavy length, and finally to empyrean grandeur, with a ponderousness that is never the same as pomposity. Everything about his symphonic thought is expansive, leisurely paced, and exalted in a Wagnerian sense; he was humbled by Wagner’s example, but his assimilation of that sound is more lyrical than dramatic, and in an unmistakably individual manner that in the later works explores a world of harmony unlike any other. The Seventh Symphony, the first to bring the Wagner tubas into the symphonic realm, is an actual tribute to Wagner, who died while Bruckner was composing it. The enormous Eighth Symphony, with an opening bass melody having the same rhythm as the opening theme of Beethoven’s Ninth, could be related to the exhumation. Bruckner’s Ninth is likely the greatest of all of his symphonies, but it is unfinished, in three movements. The weaknesses of Bruckner’s style that I’ve already referred to are everywhere evident; the four-bar phrases and mechanical repetitions are everywhere dependable; and yet I come back to this final symphony with respect and even amazement, time and again.
Zander employed forces that Bruckner demanded: 3-3-3-3 [without auxiliaries]; 8 (four Wagner tubas)-3-3-1; timpani; strings 14-14-10-12-8. The tuba player had two instruments—I assume the normal F tuba, with the C contrabass where needed. The BPO gave us something in many ways remarkable: for its near-perfect precision, worthy of the best of world-famous orchestras; for the resonance of sound that filled the hall and regularly achieved fff in the most triumphant manner but was not even once too loud; for the fine blend of brass that never overpowered the rest of the ensemble (from my vantage point in the balcony, this was ideal); for the clear demonstration that in Bruckner the dramatic element is invariably subsumed to the lyrical. There is mystery (“Feierlich. Misterioso”), there is mysticism, there is Catholic piety, there is other-worldly strangeness: all evolve from the shade of Schubert no less than from Wagner. Zander remarked that Bruckner’s Ninth has the architecture of a cathedral in music; if so, the dome is D minor with a blazing triple-dotted opening motive; the crisp, fleet-footed Scherzo is a frieze of gargoyles and gnomes; while the third movement is a despairing procession to the crypt that Bruckner knew he couldn’t complete in time. Though the composer would have doubted it, I even hear French connections: the Trio of the Scherzo is the darkest F-sharp major in any work I know of since the Prelude to d’Indy’s Fervaal, composed at about the same time; the successions of nondominant sevenths in the Scherzo have a psychological kinship with the muted-trumpets section of Debussy’s Fêtes, also from about the same time; and the ghostly, even chilling French-sixth chord in four Wagner tubas (third movement, mm73-76) would have provoked a knowing smile from Bruckner’s fellow organist, the two-years-older and deeply Catholic César Franck.
There were many such moments of penetrating communication, not forgetting Zander’s lengthy but entirely appropriate pre-concert explanations of the structure of the Bruckner. The evening as a whole was coherent, the audience entirely sympathetic. This was, we all learned, truly lovable music. Boston can take unequivocal pride in such a good orchestra, so well led by one who gives this difficult music the understanding it deserves.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.