March 16: Bruckner and His Contemporaries

Many years ago I took a graduate course on James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Two themes dominated that ten-week period, for me:  first, Joyce’s own statement, that one would need his (Joyce’s) education, to understand his book; the other, that one should be able to read the book, cover to cover, with no outside help, and be enthralled by it, understand on ones own terms that it is a great book.  I did not have time for the latter:  the pressure of papers and tests was too great, and I was responsible for too much information; and, though I did what I could about the former, reading always with two or three reference books open to both sides of the principle text, checking everything I did not recognize, I really could not re-educate myself sufficiently to personalize much of what Joyce was saying.  In the end, I had but a partial grasp of a major work, and went on with the rest of my schooling, feeling inadequate at best.  I have read the book a couple of times since, and know it better now, than I did forty years ago; but just to glance at my copy of it, in my bookshelf, is to be humbled.  I will never know that book. What I did learn from that experience, and others like it, was to take this two-pronged approach with any work, especially any musical work that I propose to perform (since that is my profession).  If I have an inkling that I will be inspired by, even knocked over by, some piece (and years of experience do sharpen my senses in this respect), I put it on an “active” list, await an opportunity to program it, and then set myself to studying it—the work itself, music and text—as well as its composer, history, and context.  I begin with my emotional, visceral, response; but then I seek explanation, corroboration, for my response, and look for ways to explain the piece, to talk about it, excite others about it.  Confronted with numerous interpretive possibilities, I explore the tradition, the conventions, and attempt to make informed decisions about what I will do with it, myself.  Effectively, I deconstruct the work, consider as many of its facets as I can deal with, and then place it within my own, or the ensemble’s and audience’s own, context.

For the past several weeks I have studied, and written about, the craft and the context of Bruckner’s Mass in E minor.  In planning the concert, I programmed small motets as introduction to our performance of the Mass, which would provide context for me, for the singers, for the audience, and serve as an appropriate setting for this major work.  I listened to, and studied, numerous recordings, of both the motets and the Mass, to try and understand, learn from, the work of other conductors and ensembles, who have already dealt with the questions that confront me, and have come up with working solutions.  In rehearsing the pieces, I have made practical, necessary adjustments in response to Chorale’s experience learning and singing them.

Finally, though, I return to my initial, visceral response to the music; attempt if necessary to wean myself away from all the “right answers” I have studied, to discard the reference books, and immerse myself, once again, in the powerful, special beauty that attracted me to all of these pieces, large and small, in the first place, hoping that my own imagination and musicality will alchemically combine with the work, and produce an interpretation, a performance, which is honest and personal at the same time, satisfying both me and the composer.

I first encountered Bruckner, through his motet Os justi (which we will sing on this program), when I was nineteen years old, long before I began thinking about music.  Singing was almost entirely a mode of emotional expression for me, at that time-- and Os justi hit me right where I lived, where things most mattered.  It was my gateway to Bruckner—a gateway that has never closed. It has been an endless thrill, an ever-intensifying emotional journey, to work on his Mass in E minor these past three months; and no amount of deconstruction, nor reading and consideration of critical commentary, has undermined that initial infatuation.  Though I tremble before Bruckner’s honesty and genius, and fear falling short of the work’s demands, I am as excited as I can be, looking forward to our performance on March 16.