One thing that bothers me about cookery programmes, for which my appetite has long been satiated, is the equal enthusiasm the experts express no matter what they dish up.
I mean, please, how is is possible to rave about offal, oysters, anchovies and the like with the same effusiveness as crème brûlée, Sachertorte, sauce béarnaise? It has left me with the constant suspicion that chefs, just like the rest of us, are averse to certain foods, but to admit it would be a betrayal of their art.
Finding top musicians fessing up to a particular dislike of a composer can be just as hard. But I am not a musician. Today I am setting myself, and in doing so responding to, a challenge. You will know that the purpose of this blog is to share music that I love. Today, dear reader, I am going outside that brief. And well out of my comfort zone.
I did a quick look back on the last 100 posts and was pleasantly surprised to see that we have covered 45 different composers. There remain some glaring omissions on the list (him, Liszt, being one of them), so there is still plenty of material out there.
The image at the top of this post did not crawl there by accident. ‘Symphonic boa constrictors’ was how Brahms described the symphonies of the Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Bruckner was the eldest of 11 children. He learnt and played the organ with precocious skill from a young age, but seems to have suffered a lifelong inferiority complex. It’s perhaps not hard to see why. He was constantly put down by his teachers; his symphonies were not well received in his life, and he was something of an odd-ball: he dressed strangely in over-sized clothes; he was obsessed with numbers and teenaged girls, to whom many he made unsuccessful marriage proposals, remaining a bachelor to the end, a lifestyle almost certainly driven by his unwavering Catholic faith which seems to have persuaded him that anything other than a virgin would be sinful.
And he was quite odd-looking, too.
I wonder if his lack of self confidence goes some way to explaining the length of his symphonies. Let’s give this a simple comparison: his first nine symphonies total about 10 hours of listening – Beethoven’s nine symphonies, about 6. The average length of a Bruckner symphony, 65 minutes, is the same length as Beethoven’s longest, his ninth. There’s a lot of repetition. Sometimes it can feel as if the piece has finished long before the music stops.
If you are looking for jollity, you will struggle to find it here. Bruckner’s symphonies are works of profound solemnity.
I accept fully that it is all a matter of taste: I know some who say he is their favourite composer. And I also accept whenever I have heard a live performance, the sheer monumentality can be an overwhelming sound.
So what’s the problem for me?
The man is a tease of the highest order. With Mahler, whether you like his music or not, he never fails to deliver the climax: the crescendo always delivers what you are hoping and waiting for. Bruckner, by contrast, could have invented the term ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ long before any Brexit negotiations: endless passages of promising foreplay, leaving you expectant, and then…NOTHING!
At the risk of emulating one of his shorter symphonies, I will deter you only a little longer. The Scherzo of his 7th Symphony is about as light as he gets, albeit with its own weighty moments. Günther Wand (pronounced Vand, not Wond, however fitting that might be for a conductor) was one of the true experts in Bruckner’s music, a reputation achieved from his ability to secure lengthy rehearsal times. Here he is in his late 80s, extracting a sound full of colour, contrast and clarity. It is one of those rare passages which does not demonstrate my frustration, and hence one I enjoy – and it’s not a bad tune either.
I may yet come round to him more, and I have certainly enjoyed this mini exploration.
Oh, and in an exception to the chef analogy, I did find one musician who wasn’t crazy about Bruckner – Leonard Bernstein. I’m not the greatest fan of Lenny, but he did write the best musical of all time and I won’t debate that.
Click on the image – thoughts welcome!