Bruckner’s Divided Vienna

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Bruckner’s Divided Vienna, performed on Dec 1, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Rarely have politics and music engaged each other with such tenacious consistency as in the case of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Vienna and German-speaking Austria. The recent elections in Austria that have enlarged the power of Jorg Haider and his People’s Party may seem at first glance to have little to do with tonight’s concert. But as the politics of the Salzburg Festival in recent months have shown (in large measure through the insightful commentary by Cornell historical Michael Steinberg) culture, particularly surrounding music, has long been political in Austrian life. The president of Austria, Thomas Klestil, and Haider have all attacked the current leadership of Salzburg in terms strikingly similar to the critical vocabulary used at the turn of the century against Mahler and his innovations at the Vienna Opera.

The consistent politicization of music stems from the divisions that occurred in the rapidly growing metropolis which Vienna was after 1867, when constitutional reform made migration to the city from within the Empire much freer. The pieces by Brüll and Goldmark were written and premiered in the twilight years of a liberal era in Vienna. The 1860s and early 1870s had been a time of rapid economic expansion and massive physical reconstruction in the city. But the stock market crash of May 1873 ushered in a long era of disillusionment and decline. By the time the Löwe version of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was first heard, a new radical politics was in the ascendancy, marked by a nostalgia for pre-industrial artisan economy, anti-Semitism, and the aggressive assertion of the superiority of Germanic culture and people. Despite the fact that Vienna was a multi-ethnic and polyglot capital, by the end of the nineteenth century it had become a place that mixed an open and creative cosmopolitanism with a narrow-minded provincial rigidity most often expressed in rabid anti-Semitism. Jews were the city’s most visible and significant minority. Their visible and extraordinary contribution to cultural life was widely understood.

The political divisions between liberal traditions and a new radical political conservatism which was nativist and reactionary had their musical mirror. Brahms who settled in the city in the early 1860s was identified with the liberal tradition. He was north German and Protestant, and his friends were predominantly liberals and included many Jews. Brüll (who had the distinction of having his portrait painted by Franz von Lenbach) was one of Brahms’s closest friends. What linked them was not only Brahms’s admiration for Brüll’s spectacular pianism and Brüll’s allegiance to an anti-Wagnerian compositional tradition, but a shared outlook which was open to progress and to tolerance. It should be noted that Brüll’s music was more successful and is more compelling than recent scholarship suggests. More of his music deserves a hearing. Even though Goldmark absorbed many Wagnerian habits and was an enthusiastic admirer of Wagner’s, in the politics of Vienna, Goldmark and Brahms were allies and friends, despite differences in compositional and aesthetic outlook. Goldmark, a Hungarian Jew, was an outsider in the terrible racial politics which engulfed the city.

The career of Anton Bruckner denotes the other side of the story. Brought to Vienna from Linz as an organist and teacher of counterpoint and legendary as an improviser, Bruckner was anything but cosmopolitan. Unlike Brahms, Brüll, or Goldmark, he remained true to his local roots, resisted the pleasures and blandishments of elegant urban life, proudly displayed his regional dialect and remained devoutly Catholic. His rise to fame among a younger generation of students and musicians in the 1870s and 1880s was only in part due to his embrace of the Wagnerian. Bruckner seemed the true heir to Schubert–a genuinely local genius whose strength appeared to derive from things decidedly Austrian and Catholic. Although Löwe was himself of Jewish birth, an important source of support for Bruckner as an antipode to Brahms and later even to Mahler (who deeply admired Bruckner and performed his symphonies, albeit with cuts) came from Bruckner’s willingness to be used as a cultural symbol against what was perceived to be the growing influence of foreign elements in Viennese culture. In this debate cosmopolitanism took on the negative connotation which it has retained to this day as a code word for “Jewish” and the influence of the “other.” Bruckner permitted himself to be the honorary head of a new academic Wagner society in Vienna, distinct from the one Goldmark helped create, which had as one of its bylaws the explicit provision that no Jew could be a member. The right-wing press and politicians lauded Bruckner, and he developed the aura of a local Wagnerian master whose genius was underestimated and unrecognized as the result of a conspiracy of Jews and cosmopolitans who controlled public opinion and who failed to understand the spiritual essence and greatness of Bruckner’s music. Bruckner became the embattled, marginalized master, struggling against people like Eduard Hanslick, institutions such as the Neue Freie Presse and an apparent cabal of influence peddlers and second-rate foreign artists including Brüll and Goldmark, who were supported behind the scenes by Brahms. Brahms did not think much of Bruckner’s music, and there was little fondness between the two men, who ended up dominating the musical life of the 1880s and 1890s.

This was the ugly world into which Gustav Mahler stepped in 1897 and in which the young Arnold Schoenberg struggled to make a career. This was the environment in which psychoanalysis was branded as a Jewish science and alliances on behalf of new art, literature, and music, were constantly threatened by provincial politics, anti-Semitism and intolerance. As Benjamin Korstvedt makes clear in his essay, Bruckner, who was genuinely a spiritual and harmless figure surrounded by intense and loyal admirers, was deeply uncertain about the final form his symphonies should take. It is true that this insecurity may have derived from the difficulties he encountered among Viennese critics and with Viennese audiences.

But some of Bruckner’s uncertainties were compositional in nature and not political. He had relatively little experience with orchestration. As a result, Bruckner like any other composer shared his work with loyal admirers and often took their advice. He was grateful for the support he received, given that he was by no means an unqualified public success. Among his first supporters was the Viennese publisher Gutmann and Löwe, both of whom were of Jewish origin. In the case of the Fourth Symphony, he clearly agreed to and endorsed the first publication and the changes it contains from earlier versions. But the contemporary suspicion that foreigners had meddled with the true Aryan and Austrian master who was helpless against the “evil whisperings” of people really incapable of understanding his true essence, survived in Brucknerian circles and among Wagnerians well into the 1920s. It should therefore come as no surprise that when a new critical edition of Bruckner came into being under the aegis of the Nazis, that Löwe’s version of the Fourth would be discredited. Bruckner was probably Hitler’s favorite composer, and his music was, as Bryan Gilliam has convincingly argued, considered a source for an alternative to both Christian and cosmopolitan spirituality. Bruckner’s music provided the sounds of a new Aryan religion.

The restoration of the original versions in the critical edition had the effect of bringing back to the stage an often more austere orchestral sound and less concise forms of many of the symphonies. Only a few conductors, out of instinct, championed the versions published in Bruckner’s lifetime, the versions which had helped make many of the symphonies including the Fourth world famous. These included Eugene Ormandy and Hans Knappertsbusch. A new generation of scholars including Benjamin Korstvedt (whose pathbreaking scholarly work on the Fourth Symphony in part inspired this program) and Crista Brüstl, have pierced the veneer of objectivity and scholarly care associated with the work of Haas and Nowak, the editors of the critical edition. The fingerprints of Nazi cultural politics have now been exposed. The irony is that in this case the Nazis did not invent history; they simply extended and augmented an attitude spawned during Bruckner’s lifetime.

Tonight’s program therefore offers three individuals who represent the spectrum of Viennese taste in the 1870s and 1880s. On the most musically conservative side stands Brüll. Here we see the irony of an alliance between musical conservatism and progressive liberal politics. In the middle we find Goldmark, who managed a synthesis between Brahms and Wagner. The modern, represented by the figure of Wagner, was linked to reactionary nationalist politics. In Goldmark’s career art and politics become separate. Aesthetically he was more inclined to Wagner, but socially and politically he kept his distance from Wagner’s political implications. In Anton Bruckner we hear a profound religious conviction, a brilliant and inspired appropriation of Wagnerian techniques and new impulses within symphonic form. Although he seemed a naïve individual, grandeur, profundity and subtlety have legitimately become the hallmarks of Bruckner’s music. For most of the twentieth century, outside of Austria and Germany, the tensions between Brucknerians and Brahmsians which seemed sharp and unbridgeable to their contemporaries in the 1880s disappeared long ago. Conductors from Mahler on have performed the works of both composers with equal conviction and allegiance. It is tragic, however, that as the memory of World War II and the Holocaust recede, the Viennese political discourse which accompanied the creation of the works on tonight’s program is still relevant and continues to wreak its havoc.