Bruckner’s Journey

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Bruckner’s Journey, performed on Jan 10, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) birthplace is described by The New Grove Dictionary as “Ansfelden, nr. Linz.” This reveals a key factor in considering the career of this formidable Austrian composer—that is, that he was not a native of Vienna, or even Linz, but of a provincial place “nr. Linz.” The distinction between the “cosmopolitan and urban,” regarded as rich in culture and sophistication, and the “provincial,” regarded as some sort of hermetic backwater, is an old one; indeed it dates back to antiquity. Thucydides strongly implies such a distinction in the Funeral Oration of Pericles, where Pericles boasts of what could be called the “cosmopolitanism” of Athenian life and culture. Later in Europe, the arrogance of capital cities and their social elite as the standard bearers of value in everything from linguistic accent to literature to fashion flourished when the power of the feudal landed aristocracy began to wane. This sense of superiority through social taste and custom grew acute in eighteenth-century Vienna. Although Emperor Joseph II sought to centralize imperial administration at the end of the eighteenth century, a powerful, autonomous upper middle-class had not yet developed. Therefore the imperial court, as well as the homes of wealthy nobles, were the seats of formation of taste both in art and music, cultural forms maintained primarily through the patronage system. Esterhazy’s court at Eisenstadt and the Archbishop of Salzburg set artistic standards every bit the equal of the capital city of Vienna. Only towards the end of the century did culture begin to concentrate in royal cities, particularly in German-speaking Europe.

Paris and London of course were already advanced urban cultural centers earlier in the eighteenth century, because of a more progressive and aggressive economic and political climate. Haydn famously discovered the benefits of a more expansive, wealthier urban base of appreciation during his famous tours of London. Jean-Jacques Rousseau offers a very different view of urban elitism in his bitter critique of late eighteenth-century urban values and aesthetic taste as false progressive conceits of the fashionable ignorant. In this he prefigures the scathing, ambivalent assessment of Paris one finds in the pages of Honore de Balzac, who spares nothing in his savaging of Parisian pretensions with respect to journalism, and the resultant tastes in literature, painting, and music. However social critics felt about the quality of their aesthetic decrees, London and Paris by the mid-nineteenth century were the arbiters of culture for their respective homelands, much as Athens served for Pericles as the “school of Hellas.”

Such dominance over the countryside and smaller towns could not have occurred without the development of what scholars like to term “public space,” the forum for a new class with expanded privileges that overtook society in the early-nineteenth century. The dominant participants in this new public space were not landed aristocrats but civil servants, professionals, and commercial leaders that constituted a new consumer middle class. These individuals belonged to reading societies, subscribed to publications, bought books and attended concerts. In the twentieth century their power increased, and so did the process of centralization proportionately. New organs of dissemination, newspapers and journals, proliferated fashion and aesthetic taste beyond city walls into the landscape, and fortified the key cities’ positions as central authorities. Such dominance over the provinces, expressed in the snobbery and arrogance of urban dwellers, invoked a deeply ambivalent reaction. Provincial residents both admired and imitated their city cousins, as Emma Bovary illustrates, but there was also a fear and insecurity concerning the elitism of the big cities, and their inaccessibility for those not born there (as Emma discovers). A wonderful metaphor of such fear in American literature can be found in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, in which the witches of the east and west represent the perils as well as the allures of New York and San Francisco.

But as Pericles pointed out long ago, cosmopolitan sophistication was not merely a function of civic wealth or political importance (consider how culturally moribund Washington and Brasilia are compared to other centers in the United States and Brazil) but precisely the openness and diversity to be found in dynamic urban environments. The notion that a great center of artistic culture was also a crossroads for a vast cultural (in its anthropological sense) spectrum became especially significant in Vienna. Its fin-de-siécle reputation as a great center of art, literature, and architecture as well as its importance as one of the first focal points of modernism were closely tied to the city’s function as a destination point of emigration. The economic boom of the 1860s, the World’s Fair of 1873, the subsequent financial crash and, above all, the political reforms that followed Austria’s defeat in 1866 in its war with Prussia, served to mushroom Vienna’s population. The growth consisted of immigrants from Moravia, Bohemia, Galicia, and the eastern parts of the Empire as well as the southern regions of the Habsburg monarchy. Vienna became a polyglot city. Its most distinctive minority was its Jewish population, which by the eve of World War I accounted for over ten percent of the city’s population.

The multi-ethnic and multi-national character of Vienna and other cities considerably complicated the distinction between the cosmopolitan and the provincial as Pericles defined it. City and country no longer equated with the snobbish sophisticate and his provincial cousin. Rather, the provincial came to signify the native inhabitant rooted in land and tradition, and the cosmopolitan the foreign-born, relocated neighbor, the natural and the assimilated. Modern nationalism and religious and ethnic differences became cross currents in a growing tension between the provincial and the cosmopolitan. A case in point (nearly contemporary to Bruckner’s life) was the writer Max Brod, a German-speaking Jewish polymath also fluent in Czech, who promoted the worldwide fame of the pan-Slavic provincial Czech composer Leós Janáček. The distinction here is not merely between Prague and Brno, or even Vienna and Prague, but between Czech and German, Christian and Jew. In the Habsburg monarchy before 1914, the cosmopolitan was often polemically confused with the anti-traditional, the infiltrative modern, the rootless and abstract. The provincial was viewed as pure, nationally centered, spiritual, and in touch with basic moral and conservative values. Populations outside of Vienna claimed to be uncorrupted by the blandishments and decadence of big city life marked by a largely non-Austrian community with an artificial polyglot culture. (This was the feeling in many of the urban centers; for example, as a young man Béla Bartók was suspicious of the high culture community of Budapest.)

This was the environment into which Anton Bruckner entered as a composer in mid-career in the late 1860s. The tension he felt between provincial and cosmopolitan was a formative principle in his career. The works on tonight’s program document the transformation that Bruckner underwent with a considerable degree of discomfort from an organist and musician in Linz to a major musical force in the capital city of Vienna. The Mass in F minor, first performed in Vienna in 1872, won the approbation of the great critic Eduard Hanslick (later a vocal skeptic of Bruckner’s symphonic achievement). By all accounts, Bruckner was a deeply religious and unpretentious man. When he came to Vienna, his skill as a master of counterpoint earned him the professorship of counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory. His virtuosity as an organist and his capacity for improvisation that had distinguished him in Linz led to important posts in Vienna. But Bruckner never adjusted completely to Viennese life, nor to its urban cosmopolitan high culture. He wrote for the Vienna Men’s Chorus which itself increasingly became a bastion of nostalgia for the myth of a provincial, old Vienna without all the immigrants. His relations with the power brokers and the major institutions were tenuous, despite efforts on his behalf by Johann Herbeck and Hans Richter, both of whom wielded considerable power as conductors.

The widening gap between nativism and cosmopolitanism in Vienna between 1880 and 1896 was mirrored in the opposition between partisans of Bruckner and Brahms. Bruckner was seen as a champion of an authentic Austrian Catholic tradition with a nativist sensibility, and therefore the heir to Schubert. His music (despite its debt to Wagner) seemed to be a spiritual link to the past and an antidote to the facile cosmopolitanism one might encounter in varying forms from the music of Brahms to the operetta tradition pioneered by Johann Strauss. Bruckner succeeded in Vienna as a foil, not lightning rod, for conservative political and cultural sentiments. His music was enthusiastically endorsed by a generation of rebellious young students who sought to combat a reigning academic aesthetic enshrined in the Vienna Conservatory, where Bruckner taught counterpoint but not composition. Bruckner was not comfortable in society or with the Conservatory’s governing board or even its faculty as Brahms was. In addition, Brahms was a favored presence in the leading high-culture salons of Vienna. Bruckner was ill at ease in such situations. He embarrassed himself at one formal dinner party attended by nobility, leading business people and artists when he exclaimed his horror in his Linz dialect at being served raw fish eggs, that is, caviar.

Social maladroitness falls on the benign side of Bruckner’s fame in Vienna as an antipode to the cosmopolitan establishment. There were also darker implications. For example, he allowed himself to serve as the honorary chairman of a new academic Wagner Society—a different one than that to which Guido Adler and Gustav Mahler once held memberships. This new Wagner society had in its bylaws the explicit prohibition of Jews as members.

Predictably, since his death Anton Bruckner has been the subject of a fierce scholarly debate, especially concerning the editions of his work. This debate has been fueled by a pronounced desire to preserve his provincially pure standing and to protect him from such cosmopolitans as his own disciple Ferdinand Loewe, who was of Jewish origin. Bruckner scholarship in the last century became tainted by nationalists, and ultimately by national socialists. To this day the debate continues between a “loyal Bruckner” community of German and Austrian scholars and a more critically-minded assemblage of international scholars (including some young Germans and Austrians) who refute the traditional image of the composer, and seek to acknowledge the facts of his biography and the cultural politics of the city in which Bruckner lived, the Vienna that contained both the provincial and the cosmopolitan.

Tonight we offer two relatively rare and under-performed works, which date originally from Bruckner’s Linz period and his transition to Vienna. He reconsidered them from the retrospective of his own struggle to become established as a composer in the capital city. Some argue that Bruckner softened the provincial touches of his earlier versions and listened to arguments to imbue his music with a veneer that was more palatable to the sophisticated Viennese audience. He let his disciples suggest cuts and changes in instrumentation, and he himself revised aspects of the music in the 1880s and 1890s so that it would more likely win favor in Vienna. In fact, much of the critical revisionism of Bruckner in the twentieth century has been what might well be termed a misguided effort to return to the “original” Bruckner, as though the environment of Vienna and its standards of taste were a deleterious influence. The choice to perform the later versions of these two works is itself a comment on the danger of investing the tensions of the past with contemporary aesthetic value. There may be earlier, equally authentic versions of these works, but we have an opportunity to listen to a great composer who like all other creative artists absorbed the influences of his life sequentially without losing the distinctive fingerprints of his initial aesthetic vision. For whatever reason, Bruckner reheard his own music. This concert is a reminder that historical divisions in politics and culture possess a creative residue. This residue transcends the hate and mistrust and violence that descended on the modern world, in part in the service of a conflict between center and periphery not only over mores and taste, but wealth, privilege and standards of living.