Bruckner and Romanticism as Weirdness and Horror

Listening to even a strong performance of Bruckner’s eighth symphony, you get an idea of why so many people find the composer impenetrable. Even, indeed, why they find him a bore.

Its great slabs of sound revolving in sequence, sometimes developing, often building in density and dynamism, often still simply repeating (though with each repeat of course comes a frisson of difference), present an obstinacy of argument that can be hard to reconcile with the expectations we have for nineteenth century symphonic works. Namely, that they finesse through refined proportion and clear dialectical positioning some sort of dramatically appreciable rise or fall. Bruckner is much more exorbitant than that. Excessive, even. (Or, as Eduard Hanslick said of this symphony after hearing its 1892 premiere, ‘repugnant’.) We are teased with the sound world of the high romantic age, yet at the same time we find the work agitating against its inheritance, promiscuously anticipating its musical residue in heavy metal, minimalism, and in the fragmenting symphonism of the twentieth century.

Yet in this lure to romanticism, this temptation in sound, Bruckner founds the heart of his practice. He nurtures a tension of aesthetics by pushing his material and his audiences to their limits, beyond the ken of romantic musical working, overblowing the effect with cleavages in the form and distension in the design. Like Mahler, Bruckner fragments poise and introduces a hypertrophy of thought, yet the overbearing feeling here is not fragmentation, but rather a hardening, a calcification of the material. Great thematic terraces, liquid metal edifices of smelted sound buttressed by headbanging timpani tattoos rotate, imbricating along the way, burnishing to a new intensity of dream by the end of the thirty-minute movements.

The Scherzo, as in so many of Bruckner’s other symphonies, is both the pulsing heart and the rotten core of this piece. Incessant return, revenance by way of parataxis, considers philosophical notions of eternal recurrence, yet couches these in the sensual, diverting attention by way of a shift into duple metre, or a caress in the phrasing as the material is leading inexorably back to the thematic heart, once again, as always.

The timpani player should anchor the whole show with a bravura display of percussive headbanging. The timpani writing in the Scherzo, where you build on one tonality eked out on one of the drums, before shifting stunningly into a more effusive, devastatingly certain bang-patter across the other three, centres the whole thematic argument in a discourse of stable uncertainty. The timpanist’s thumping climaxes at those junctures in the Finale where the isolation of the component thematic parts threaten to rupture into some sort of cataclysm add echo and depth to both the sonic and the dialectical flow of the whole burnished thing. What does it mean to locate the heart of a major, complex, 80-minute work, in the clatter of a timpani player? In this case, I think we can align the image of the sage timpanist deploying precise machination yet banging through the heart of darkness in a rite of frustrated nuance, with the image of Bruckner busy composing this work, too clever and yet too barbaric at the same time for his contemporaries. It all seems a little different now…

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9 Responses to “Bruckner and Romanticism as Weirdness and Horror”

  1. Ivanhoe Says:

    Never laughed so much in my life. You’ve obviously swallowed several dictionaries – or was this ‘review’meant for Pseud’s Corner?

  2. Stephen Graham Says:

    A lot of great writing to be found in that wonderful bastion of the middlebrow, Pseud’s Corner. It’s not a review by the way, but thanks for reading! And I’m so happy to have provided you with the biggest laugh of your whole life 😉

  3. Ivanhoe Says:

    I actually read it on the musicalcriticism website where you had expanded your article to include a performance in Brussels. I’m still wondering for whom your dense and obscure article is intended. Surely not for a Bruckner lover like myself who has been attending Bruckner performances regularly since my 1st at the RFH in 1955.

  4. Stephen Graham Says:

    Well I’m sorry it’s not for you but you have to remember that not everyone shares your perspective. Depending on the occasion, publishing venue, and subject, I write in dif styles – often on MC my reviews will be much closer to the colder, more neutral critical language you may be looking for. But there’s many people out there who employ the sort of voice you so object too here; it’s perfectly valid to criticize the way I have used that voice, but the choice of the voice in the first place, I would suggest, is beyond reproach (at least in my estimation). Thanks.

  5. SWX Says:

    I followed Gerd Albrecht’s performance to your article. With the help of dictionaries, I finaly finished reading, but I admint I’m still totally confused…

  6. Stephen Graham Says:

    Well, SWX, I had a look at your sight, and you’ll be glad to know that I, too, am totally confused. Prob for different reasons though!

  7. Anonymous Says:

    There are two difficult words in this essay: “parataxis” and “imbricate,” with “hypertrophy” lurking on the cusp. Anybody who needs a dictionary for the rest just proves once again that a fondness for classical music in no way guarantees any (other?) kind of intellectual attainment or curiosity.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Agreeing with Anon . . wasn’t sure of ‘parataxis’ or ‘imbricate,’ but could guess them well enough via context. Other than those instances, there was nothing particularly ‘difficult’ about the writing, and I actually found some of it quite beautiful and interesting.

  9. robotsdancingalone Says:

    The debate rages on! Thanks to both anons. The internet is endlessly fascinating: two separate people found their way to this old blog post and invested enough to comment…

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