Bruckner and 20th –Century Politics

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Bruckner and 20th –Century Politics performed on Jan 13, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This concert is designed to invite the audience to think about how we come to appreciate and hear the music of the past. It would be nice simply to be able to answer that it is all a matter of the “music itself.” It would seem logical that music that was written down can be considered a constant, much the way we might regard a fixed distance or a monument. We might argue that Mozart wrote such and such a piece, published it, and there it is. When we read about how past generations loved that piece, we hum the very same bars of music to ourselves that they must have. Likewise, the Statue of Liberty, although it may have been cleaned and refurbished periodically, remains much the same thing. It is unchanging, relatively speaking. Generations of school children who have been taken to see it would recognize it, identify it, and never think there was much to contemplate in terms of difference.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes pose a more daunting problem. They recently have been “cleaned,’ apparently to restore them to the condition they were in when they were done. We now can see them, scholars claim, as Michelangelo “intended” them to look, and as they did when he was finished. However, the reputation of these paintings, as well as most of the powerful interpretations of them and the posthumous fame of the artist, was based on the darker and entirely different appearance that these “same” works acquired since they were completed. The whole nineteenth-century cult of Michelangelo, all the millions of treasured reproductions, and our understanding of Renaissance art history were based on quite different-looking images.

The same holds true, perhaps on a more extreme scale, for our view of Greek classical architecture. For more than a century we have prized the white, austere surfaces of classicism that are now tourist attractions and have been reproduced in our finest neo-classical public buildings. It turns out, however, that the Parthenon might have looked quite colorful, decorated in bright pastel and other brash pigments. Over time, the gaudy color disappeared, leaving the white surface, which the Greeks who built the Parthenon might have thought naked and ugly. The sober dignity of classical architecture–an ideal to which we have been committed for so long- may now vanish as something “authentic.” In its place we have the unsettling notion that what the ancients built and treasured was, in terms of its colors and combined effect, more akin to the aesthetics of our brightly colored suburban malls and the worst of post-modern architecture than to the Lincoln Memorial.

In music, this kind of unsettling change has been accomplished most dramatically for Baroque and Classical. Efforts to utilize the instruments and performance styles in use at the time the composers were alive have altered the surface of what was once seemingly unchanging and familiar music. The Mozart we accept today just is not quite the same as the Mozart Bruno Walter was accustomed to thinking about and performing. We rarely, if ever, will hear Bach, Handel, Mozart, or Haydn performed in a manner resembling the approach Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms, or Bartók took in performing the works of these composers.

The balance between what remains the same and what is different can be exaggerated, of course. There is possibly more sameness than difference, but the differences are constant and play a decisive role. Perhaps the fetish of so-called “authentic” performances has run its course. The obsession with “historical authenticity” has a tendency to obscure the competing and equally valid questions regarding the range of possible meanings and interpretations that can be associated with any text, irrespective of what the composer may have “intended” (if one could ever really establish what that was in terms of a musical performance).

The case of Bruckner, as Paul Hawkshaw has so elegantly argued in the essay that accompanies this program, is even more daunting. The texts themselves have been, from the beginning, in disarray. The kind of certainty about what the Fifth Symphony of Bruckner “is”–by comparison with the Beethoven Fifth, the Mahler Fifth, or the Shostakovich Fifth–simply eludes us. There are, no doubt, passionate and close-minded advocates of this or that version, but an inflexible claim to certainty and expertise in Bruckner must always remain suspect. Richard Osborne wrote in Gramophone in August 1991 that in the case of the Bruckner 5th, the matter is “simple”; and that “once we have scotched the validity of Franz Schalk’s 1893 version. it is relatively plain sailing”.

Unfortunately, the Schalk version, which dates from 1896, not 1893 (the first orchestral premiere was in 1894) has, as the work of Ben Korstvedt and other scholars suggests, more claims to authenticity, respectability, and to reflecting Bruckner’s wishes than heretofore suspected. Bruckner actually may have approved of the version of the symphony whose printing took place in 1896, the year of his death. Not only was the Fifth known for the first third of this century in the version being performed today, but that version may have reflected the composer’s own revisions, even though some of the suggestions may have come from a loyal disciple.

Bruckner was not the only composer to reconsider aspects of a work after the first performance and at the urging of trusted colleagues and students. Korstvedt has shown that the revisions of Symphony Nos. 2 and 4 and of the Quintet did reflect Bruckner’s wishes. We do not know what version he heard in the first four-hand piano performance of the Fifth. Schalk maintained that Bruckner explicitly approved of the additional brass at the end of the work. The 1896 edition may be a perfectly valid representation of the Fifth.

We are so accustomed to respecting “true” painstaking scholarship that we fail to retain a healthy skepticism. Every music student has had the experience of looking for the “Urtext” edition-the uncorrupted “real” unedited and distorted text. In Bruckner’s case the motivation and the procedures behind the creation of the “Urtext”–the meticulous scholarship begun in the 1930s, particularly on the Fifth Symphony–was National Socialist ideology, masquerading as “neutral” scholarship. “Facts” simply did not speak for themselves. Even anti-fascists and Jews of that era were unwittingly influenced by a view of Bruckner encouraged by the Nazis. After all, the tainted “critical edition” of the Fifth was published in 1935, deceptively, as a “neutral” scholarly achievement.

For the listener, however, there is a larger question at stake. We have fallen into the habit, in the United States, of thinking about Bruckner too much in terms of the Nazi appropriation of him and his music. No doubt, in his lifetime and afterwards Bruckner was the darling of those who championed the worst form of reactionary and intolerant politics, particularly anti-Semitism. But the popularity of Bruckner during the Nazi era was not an obvious legacy for the composer or the music.

Most important, the Nazi embrace took its toll on the way the music was played. The spirit, tempos, and timbres of practically all Bruckner performances–especially those praised by critics and Bruckner enthusiasts–are based on models that date from before 1945. Contemporary conductors thoughtlessly turn to Karajan or Furtwängler or examples set by other German and Austrian contemporaries between 1930 and 1945 to find the true approach to Bruckner. But Karajan and Furtwängler–and too many of their colleagues–were more a part of the world of Nazism and its ambitions to present Bruckner as essential and true Aryan culture than should make us comfortable.

The easy disclaimers (interpretation is just a matter of looking at the “same” music, and doing what somehow is “objectively” in it) won’t work. Given the importance of Bruckner to the Nazis, why do we assume that the “German” performance tradition of the mid-twentieth century is the place to begin? After all, Bruckner’s music has never quite achieved the popularity it deserves. In the United States, the Fifth–perhaps because it was Hitler’s favorite Bruckner symphony–is one of the lesser known symphonies. Perhaps a fresh approach to the texts and a distancing from received performance traditions will help.

This concert therefore tries to present Bruckner anew. We start with his early and strikingly patriotic Germanenzug. Bruckner’s sympathies were perhaps more congruent with his unattractive reactionary pan-German patrons in Vienna than many scholars are willing to admit. But the distance between mid-nineteenth century patriotism and Nazism should not be passed over lightly. We move to some lighter material, the Abendzauber, written for the same male chorus for which Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube was written a decade earlier in 1867; an organization that, as Hawkshaw correctly points out, was feared in the 1840s by Metternich because its leaders were in the forefront of liberalism and the movement to democratize the Habsburg Monarchy. Among those who lost their lives in the 1848 Vienna revolution were organizers of the Vienna Men’s Choral Society.

We then turn, in Psalm 146, to the most powerful aspect of Bruckner’s personality: his devout Catholicism. Bruckner was an unassuming, provincial Austrian genius with few pretensions. He was loved by his students. His use of dialect, his simple mode of dress, and his manners were the source of much humor and may have offended some of his more cosmopolitan colleagues. But above all he was truly a man of God. Today’s performance of this youthful work is a world premiere.

This brings us to the Fifth. It may not be the stirring, warlike work that was performed in 1937 to illustrate Aryan masculinity, spirituality, power, and grandeur. The cruelest fate has been the extent to which Bruckner, the devout and brilliant organist, counterpoint teacher, and composer was tarnished posthumously by the Nazis. Unlike Wagner, Bruckner was not a rabble-rousing anti-Semitic polemicist. What in his works can be interpreted plausibly as politically nefarious, as might be done in the case of Wagner? The Fifth may be about theology and faith as music, as are other works.

The question posed by this concert, therefore, is: Can we listen to and appreciate Bruckner in a way that puts the Nazi era behind us? To do so not only requires that we play repertoire and use editions that are less laden with the Nazi legacy. It also demands that we perform Bruckner differently: independently of the suspect traditions that have come down to us.