Weird, Biographical Bruckner

John Eliot Gardiner’s new biographical study of J.S. Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, takes up where Bach’s other biographers leave off. Gardiner exhaustively combines all he can find about the cultural milieu in which Bach flourished, adds his own feelings and impressions based upon a life of studying and performing Bach’s music, and makes some educated guesses about the sort of man Bach was, and about why he acted and produced as he did.  Quite a task:  Bach did not purposefully leave much information about himself, and no one else followed him around, keeping track of him.  In general, composers of his time, and preceding him, did not do so; their works, rather than their biographies, are their legacy.  The growing fascination with the lives of composers, both on the part of the public and in the expression of the composers themselves, began about the time of Mozart’s death, exploded with Beethoven, and has been commonplace ever since; a composer like Ned Rorem is arguably better known and celebrated for what he writes about himself, than for his music.  The life stories and opinions of Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Barber and Menotti, are an art form in themselves. We are fascinated with biography, factual and fanciful.

I commonly read up on the composer in question when preparing a major work with Chorale-- I want to know what I can, both to help in preparing the music, and to aid me in writing program notes.  I don’t pretend to be a musicologist, but I also don’t want to perform in a vacuum.  Anton Bruckner, composer of our current project, led a well-documented life, which has inspired not only books and articles, but movies; nonetheless, as the Wikipedia article about him states, the “apparent dichotomy between Bruckner the man and Bruckner the composer hampers efforts to describe his life in a way that gives a straightforward context for his music.”  Read about his life, and you encounter one man; experience his music, and you encounter quite another.

Those who study Bruckner’s life describe him as relatively simple. provincial man, with modest tastes and aspirations, who saw little of the world.  We aren’t aware of self-aggrandizing fantasies, megalomania, even pride or arrogance; he seems to have spent the first half of his life without any plans or intentions beyond being a school teacher and church organist.  Karl Grebe writes, "his life doesn't tell anything about his work, and his work doesn't tell anything about his life, that's the uncomfortable fact any biography must start from."  He worked hard and constantly, first in preparation for teaching, then at his musical studies; he seemed surprised at the fame that came his way, and accepted it with humility and self-effacement.

We do know of a few oddities about Bruckner.  One was his obsessive-compulsiveness, known as numeromania in his time-- he was compelled to count things:  leaves on trees, blades of grass, bars of his compositions, the pearls on a friend’s dress.  He completed the first version of his Mass in E minor in November 1866, and soon thereafter was admitted to a sanatorium, where he remained for nearly a year, recovering from complete nervous collapse.  We also know that he often demonstrated a morbid fascination with death and dead bodies, and very explicitly required that his own corpse be embalmed.  Strangest of all, though, was his fascination with teenage girls—specifically, with marrying one: he proposed to many young girls, all of whom refused him, right up to and past his 70th birthday.  He listed the names of girls who appealed to him in his calendar and his diaries, and at one time was accused of “impropriety” with his female students. In the end, he died a bachelor.

Eduard Hanslick, an influential music critic who lived and worked in Vienna during Bruckner’s productive years, particularly disliked Bruckner’s music and it’s relationship to the music of Wagner and Liszt, and frequently attacked him in print, at one point referring to the “nightmarish hangover style” of Bruckner’s symphonies.  Hanslick championed Brahms, and was able to instigate, through his writings, a feud between the followers of the two stylistic camps—a feud in which, incidentally, neither Brahms nor Bruckner participated.   There is something about Hanslick’s phrase, overblown though it is, which rings true-- so much more happens in Bruckner’s music than the waking, placid surface of his biography, and of his outward intentions, suggests—he revolutionized the form, content, procedures, of the Romantic symphony, from within himself, seemingly without intending to do anything so radical. And the seeds of his symphonies lie in his masses, where he worked out his ideas, again without claiming or announcing any intent to do so.  In his attempt to hang on to the older style, Hanslick was probably right to focus his vitriol on Bruckner; the latter, in his persona as a simple provincial man, may not have recognized what his inner person was doing, but that inner person was changing the musical landscape in ways that would define the future of music.