The Misfit

Seeking Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner (zwischen 1925–1936)
(Photo: Anton Huber (Reproduktionsfotograf), Wien Museum)

Anton Bruckner was a God-fearing Catholic from a simple family background. Brought up in the Austrian provinces, he was always an outsider in Vienna’s polite society. The many anecdotes about his strange behaviour make it hard to assess his character objectively. Who was Bruckner and what motivated him? In search of the evidence.

The conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt once compared Bruckner to a “moon rock”. He literally “burst on to the musical scene, leaving us feeling that he had no predecessor and no successor”. This impression of a composer standing in isolation is not strictly true – after all, Bruckner learnt a good deal from Wagner and Liszt and later influenced Mahler, albeit in only a limited way – but his music does indeed appear to be sui generis. Who was the man who wrote symphonies that are fascinating and alienating in equal measure? What does his life tell us about his character? And how is this character reflected in his scores?

“Life and works say nothing about each other,” the German composer and author Karl Grebe argued in a well-received study of Bruckner in 1972. “His life tells us nothing about his works, and his works tell us nothing about his life.” So should we stick to Bruckner’s music and regard it as strictly separate from his life? It certainly seems advisable to avoid simplistic parallels, not least because few letters, diaries and contemporary accounts have survived from Bruckner’s most creative years.

Bruckner was no intellectual. He was not in contact with the leading figures of his day, he had no intellectual interests, and he never took part in debates on current affairs. He was and remained a God-fearing man from provincial Upper Austria who never lost his regional accent. His dress was old-fashioned and unflattering. He cultivated rigorous prayer rituals and felt more at his ease in the relaxed ambience of a tavern than he did in polite society.

Inextricably caught between truth and fiction

Bruckner soon became a problem for biographers, because so many anecdotes have come down to us in variously embellished versions, describing both his strange appearance and his equally idiosyncratic behaviour. In all of these stories, reality and fiction have become inextricably linked, making it almost impossible to distinguish the one from the other. The first principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Hans von Bülow, described Bruckner as “half genius, half simpleton”, a cruelly dismissive judgement.

After Bruckner’s death in 1896, even the obituaries were dominated by clichés about his character. He became a kind of projection screen for every conceivable mystification. The myth of a “simple, unspoilt” country bumpkin meant that he was predestined to be held up as an antidote to soulless modern civilization, a civilization that had ostensibly lost touch with the authentic, indigenous strengths of the common people.

It was tempting to appropriate this view for ideological ends. The stereotypes ranged from “God’s street musician” and a “mystical peasant” to the “German musical hero” of the National Socialists, as Goebbels described him in 1937, when unveiling a bust in the Walhalla Hall of Fame at Regensburg.

The image of a helpless oddball

In the 1970s, the spirit of the age encouraged the elimination of every anecdotal embellishment in the interests of scientific objectivity, but this no longer seems to be an option today, not least because it would mean abandoning far too much of our understanding of the composer’s psychological makeup. Among contemporary eyewitnesses there was widespread agreement that Bruckner was extremely awkward in his dealings with women, that he revealed a notably obsequious attitude to figures of authority, that he was particularly fascinated by executions and by death and that he radiated an aura of earthiness bordering on the foolishly naive.

Bruckner evidently realized that his failure to conform in Vienna marked him out as an eccentric. Modern scholars continue to argue over the extent to which he accepted his status as an outsider and even cultivated that image. In his recent biography, the musicologist Felix Diergarten seeks to relativize a number of the stranger aspects of Bruckner’s behaviour with reference to entirely practical, quotidian factors.

What about his voluminous clothes, including trousers that were always too short? These were the result of his tendency to sweat and his need to ensure that his legs were unencumbered whenever he was playing the organ. The image of a helpless oddball? In certain circles this could have been more of an advantage than a disadvantage. Or so Felix Diergarten argues. And there are eyewitness accounts of Bruckner practising his lively gestures in front of a mirror. Even the picture of a man obsequiously bowing to authority and speaking in an old-fashioned, subservient tone that embarrassed the people around him may have reflected a social climber “who acted as he did because of his insight into the mechanisms of the existing power structure”, a man who had no scruples when it came to getting what he wanted in his pursuit of his own success.

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A life involving a total change of scene

None the less, few of the more curious aspects of Bruckner’s behaviour in Vienna can have been the result of calculation, and many must have stemmed from his inability to conform – he had, after all, grown up in very different conditions. His childhood had been marked by the rural structures associated with the death throes of eighteenth-century absolutism. But by the time Bruckner moved to Vienna as a forty-four-year-old in 1868, the city, with a population nearing a million, was undergoing a period of dynamic growth. The development of the Ringstraße brought the city an impressive modern aspect.

In keeping with his origins, Bruckner had initially gone into school-teaching, thereby following in the footsteps of both his father and his grandfather. At this time, the position of a schoolteacher was associated with the role of a church musician in Austria, which explains why even as a child, he had already begun to play the organ and taken his first lessons in basso continuo. Bruckner began his life as a village musician in straitened circumstances and went on to become a university lecturer who wrote symphonies which lasted up to an hour and a half in length and were performed at the Vienna Musikverein. His social rise is the story of a metamorphosis that could only have been accomplished on through serious support from others, persistent hard work of his own, and an unshakeable faith in the validity of his own mission in life.

A devout Catholic who wrote more symphonies than church music.

The German musicologist Laurenz Lütteken has impressively shown how, in his quest for recognition, Bruckner applied indiscriminately for a wild variety of positions, with no apparent logic, clearly losing sight of the hierarchies that still existed at this time between the parallel worlds of court and city. He needed to find a public post that would provide him with the material support that he needed to work as a composer – and at the same time allow him not to have to worry about professional duties or to cultivate contacts with others.

This meant that in many instances Bruckner did not even attempt to understand the relevant social mores or to conform to the way of life associated with the positions in question. The “moon rock” was a man of many contradictions: a devout Catholic who wrote more symphonies than church music.; and a composer who had discovered his own personal style through the music of Wagner, but who had no time for the Wagnerian music drama as a concept. When Bruckner died in Vienna in 1896, he was internationally acclaimed as a composer, but he still wanted to be buried back home at Sankt Florian. One could say that his musical vision was not entirely of this world.

Anselm Cybinski