Don't expect an instantly hummable melody, by the way, in a typical Bruckner theme. He wasn't a tunesmith but, rather, a meticulous architect who saw the potential for beauty or drama and, above all, development from the smallest components of a melodic line. More often than not, the particular, underlying rhythmic nature of a Bruckner theme will become an integral part of the design in a symphony movement. The Scherzo of the Symphony No. 4 is an obvious example; the whole movement derives from the galloping theme announced by the horns.
It's always a good idea to pay close attention to the first notes of each movement in a Bruckner symphony. In the case of the Romantic Symphony, the entire score seems to evolve from a horn call that emerges out of the mist in the first movement, like a beacon on a mystic isle. Even the distance between the first two notes of that horn theme (in musical terms, a "fifth") becomes a significant device in the blueprint for the symphony.
If you can imagine each stone being carefully put into place, each column and beam rising, as Bruckner works with his musical materials, it's easy to follow the plan of each symphony. And, thanks to the composer's penchant for creating gradual, gigantic crescendos - he'll repeat and repeat a melodic and rhythmic pattern to increase the intensity - you can't miss the laying of a capstone. And when you reach a Brucknerian height, the sight can take your breath away.
And that brings up the most important trait of all in Bruckner's music - a sense of the divine. "For him, God and the world of transcendent spirit were realities which he never questioned," Bruckner scholar Derek Watson has written.
The most obvious manifestations of the composer's Catholic faith are in his liturgical choral works, each gloriously filled with the spirit of a true believer, yet totally accessible to the most temporal-minded. But the symphonies are just as imbued with a spiritual quality that inevitably leads in the finale to a kind of musical apotheosis.
This is true even of his Symphony No. 9, which was left unfinished when he died in 1896. It really doesn't need the kind of grandly expansive fourth movement that his other symphonies have, since the third movement Adagio that he did complete is the perfect last word, and just about as close to celestial beauty and the "transcendent spirit" as you can get in music. Only some of Gustav Mahler's symphonic works provide such a journey into a profound, spiritual realm.
Mahler's sound-world incorporated a lot of earthly qualities as well, of course, making his symphonies much different, for the most part, in scope and impact from Bruckner's. But the two composers do sometimes walk along the same paths; there are wonderfully rustic, folksy tunes in the third and fourth movements of Bruckner's Romantic Symphony that would have been thoroughly at home in a Mahler work.
Mahler, by the way, was one of Bruckner's earliest and strongest advocates. At the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, which Bruckner himself conducted in Vienna in 1877, catcalls and whistling competed with the music. Most of the audience left long before the end, but Mahler and two dozen other music students stayed in the hall to cheer on the hapless composer.
Other premieres proved more successful, at least with the public, but Bruckner had a hard time getting respect from critics.
Typical was this broadside: "We recoil in horror before this rotting odor which rushes into our nostrils from the disharmonies of the putrefactive counterpoint ... Bruckner composes like a drunkard." Even fellow composers could be cruel. Brahms accused Bruckner of perpetrating a musical "swindle that will be forgotten in a few years."
Bruckner didn't find much sympathy in this country, either, during his lifetime. At a performance of his Seventh Symphony in New York in 1886, a third of the audience was gone halfway through. American critics blasted Bruckner for "puerile" orchestration and "musical imbecility"; one even proclaimed him "a tonal Antichrist" who "composes nothing but high treason, revolution and murder." And those were the kind reviews.
Once Mahler became a composer, he encountered much the same sort of coldness or outright hostility in his lifetime as Bruckner did, but, starting midway through the 20th century, his music became remarkably popular virtually everywhere. Most major orchestras, including the BSO, can be counted on to play at least one Mahler symphony each season, while Bruckner is limited, at most, to once every two or three years.
Perhaps Bruckner's time will yet come, the way Mahler's did. He deserves it.
"They want me to compose in a different way," Bruckner said. "I could, but I must not." For that, his devoted followers will always be grateful.
Bruckner CD sampler
For extraordinarily deep insights into the power and beauty of Anton Bruckner's symphonies, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler can't be beat, whether leading the Berlin or Vienna philharmonic.
If you can stand dated sound, it's well worth trying to find his '40s-early '50s recordings of symphonies No. 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9.
There are many sonically up-to-date discs to consider, of course, including these recommended performances:
Symphony No. 4 (Romantic). Berlin Philharmonic, Gunther Wand, conductor (RCA/BMG Classics).
Symphony No. 8 and No. 9. Dresden Staatskapelle, Eugen Jochum, conductor (EMI).
BSO and Bruckner
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday (abridged program)
Tickets: $27 to $75 Thursday and Friday; $20 to $47 Saturday