The Thing about Bruckner

People disparage Anton Bruckner all the time. He’s too repetitive and not very original, and so on—there are lots of (well-documented) clichés. I think it’s because they don’t really understand what he’s about. This isn’t a blindly pro-Bruckner rant either. Hear me out!

The thing is, Bruckner wasn’t a composer. Well, he wasn’t only a composer: he was indeed a composer, but also a scholar and an organist. I have no means with which to judge his organ playing, but from what I read, he was among the best of his time. As a composer and a scholar, however, Bruckner was always overshadowed by what amounts to his unfortunate historical position: there were a lot of really important developments just before him, and a lot of really important developments just after him. When you consider this alongside his well-known tendency to revise his own work, and the fact he wasn’t a first-rate composer or scholar, it’s no wonder he isn’t remembered as a first-rate composer or scholar.

Thus I claim that we should listen to Bruckner’s music as he might have.

Consider that Bruckner is a scholar-composer. Though it’s not widespread knowledge among music theorists, it is well documented that Bruckner used, extended, and taught the formal theory of his teacher, Simon Sechter. In writing, this theory was picked up by Arnold Schönberg, Erwin Ratz, and then William Caplin, thanks to whom it is well-known and widely taught today as “form-functional theory.” Because we also know Bruckner analyzed his own music using concepts from that theory (sentence, period, compound sentences and periods, along with basic and contrasting ideas), it seems reasonable to me that we should use form-functional theory to help understand Bruckner’s symphonies. (We don’t need such a historical endorsement, but the endorsement makes the current absence of such analyses all the more intriguing).

I was recently prompted to listen to the second symphony, which I don’t really like, and the eighth, which I do. I discovered something I confirmed with further listening: as a unit, Bruckner’s symphonies evolve from over-grown Classical-style monstrosities into elegant and sneaky predecessors of 20th century styles. What most impressed me this time is a situation I’ve yet to find or create a term for, where musical elements articulate different formal units, or where they articulate the same formal unit but with different start and end points.

The most striking example (from the top of my head) is a passage in the third (slow) movement of the eighth symphony. It’s both a tight-knit sentence and a transition between large formal sections. The first phrase is loud with brass-heavy orchestration, and it seems like the psycho-energetic conclusion to the large formal unit, even though the harmony and melody together articulate a presentation phrase, which is the *start* of a small formal unit. The second phrase is quiet, emphasizes the strings, and seems like the psycho-energetic transition between formal units, even though it uses model-sequence technique and ends with a half-cadence, like the continuation phrase we expect to follow a presentation phrase.

Described as I did, this isn’t record-breaking, and it isn’t even that we couldn’t possibly find an example of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven doing something similar. What is new is that no analyst in their right minds would call this “a sentence,” because sentences simply don’t “belong” where this one is. “Okay then,” somebody’s thinking, “if a sentence doesn’t belong there, then it isn’t functioning like one, so it isn’t a sentence, right?” Right, but on the one hand, the end of a large formal unit almost never resembles a tight-knit theme, and on the other hand, the reason this passage works as it does because of the mismatch between different musical elements, which is what I was talking about two paragraphs ago.

When we listen like this—with the theory Bruckner helped develop—we have a very different perspective of a musical moment that at first seemed to be completely straight-forward. The fact most musicians’ (self-professed!) knowledge of Bruckner’s symphonies seems to start with the fourth and end with the seventh is unfortunate at best. If everybody had a chance to experience the growth of this admittedly ho-hum composer, we would share a much subtler understanding of the development of this undeniably important genre. It wasn’t Brahms who saved the symphony from Beethoven, it was both Brahms and Bruckner together. In fact, Bruckner’s role as an educator means he may have had an even greater influence than Brahms.

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