Anton Bruckner, composer of `heavenly lengths'

Carefully structured, his music stands apart from others of 19th century

Classical Music

May 23, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

He wore perpetually baggy trousers and shirt collars a couple of sizes too big for his neck. He clearly enjoyed meals, and was never happier than when he was washing them down with a Pilsner beer. His prominent nose, bald head and barrel chest gave him the look of a simple, solid-stock Austrian farmhand, and he even spoke in a peasant dialect.

But Anton Bruckner was a decidedly noble composer who built mighty cathedrals of sound and purity. Although anyone is welcome to join his congregations, the pews aren't always full. There have long been hard-core believers, who suggest something of a cult, flocking to performances of his symphonies with the fervor of medieval pilgrims to Rome.

Others who find themselves unsuspectingly or unwillingly at a Bruckner concert - often just because they've got a season subscription - can find the experience tough going. Not because of dissonance, the usual instigator of audience unrest. Bruckner, born three years before Beethoven died, was very much a 19th-century composer, thoroughly comfortable with traditional harmony. And yet, his music stood apart in his own era, and stands apart to this day.

If you're one of those not yet in the Bruckner camp, give this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program a listen - the last 70 or so minutes of the concert, conducted by Gunther Herbig, will be devoted to Symphony No. 4, which the composer titled Romantic. You just might end up a convert.

A little preparation wouldn't hurt. At the very least, allow yourself time to read Janet Bedell's typically thorough notes in the BSO program book. Better yet, get hold of a recording of the piece - or any of Bruckner's symphonies, for that matter - and spend some time with the music before arriving at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

It's also well worth reading up on Bruckner's life. He was quite an interesting guy. He had an obsession with corpses (he strained to see the exhumations of Beethoven's and Schubert's graves) and a thing about Mexico (combining both interests when he had a chance to see the body of the assassinated Emperor Maximilian).

He was forever proposing marriage to very young ladies, but was always turned down. He loved dancing.

And he was easily flustered when someone paid serious attention to his music. At a rehearsal for the premiere of the Symphony No. 4 in Vienna, conductor Hans Richter stopped the music at one point and asked Bruckner to clarify what note he had intended. "Any note you like," the composer said. After the rehearsal, Bruckner rushed up to Richter and actually tipped him - "Take this and drink a beer to my health," he said. (Richter kept the coin for the rest of his life.)

The Bruckner traits

Like all great composers, Bruckner put his life into his work (well, not the dead-body thing).

The more familiar you can become with the characteristics of Bruckner's musical language - a language all his own - and his equally distinctive sense of structure, the easier it is to be drawn into his world.

The first thing you notice about that world is that it moves to a very slow clock. Bruckner is never in a hurry, even at a fast tempo. He wasn't the first composer to revel in the spaciousness of time. When Bruckner was born (in 1824), Franz Schubert was already beginning to stretch out musical forms so far that he achieved what Robert Schumann once described as "heavenly lengths." When you hear some of Schubert's late piano sonatas, chamber works and Ninth Symphony, you can't miss the presaging of Bruckner.

(If you caught the BSO's performance earlier this month, when conductor Mario Venzago offered a theoretical completion of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, you should be in a perfect, Bruckner-ready frame of mind.)

The second thing that you can't miss in a Bruckner symphony is the bricks-and-mortar approach to construction. Themes - more commonly, groups of themes that can be heard together as a single, large thought - are laid out like so many granite stones; usually, there's even a pause between these building blocks so that you can't help but notice the differentiation. "Whenever I have something new and important to say," Bruckner explained, "I must stop and take a breath first."

This stylistic trait drove many of his first listeners to distraction (his Symphony No. 2 acquired the snide nickname "Pause" Symphony in Vienna because of it), and some people still seem to find it odd. That's why it's not a bad idea to envision Bruckner's orchestral works architecturally.

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