What if Bruckner was the pinnacle of classical music and nobody laughed?

Mark Swed of the LA Times is a good writer, and is certainly quite knowledgeable on the subject of classical music. I enjoy reading him from time to time because he is never afraid to share his opinion. An admirable trait in my eyes.

However, why must every piece performed in the LA area have epic historical context?

Music Review: Maazel's brilliant Bruckner Eighth

I must say that I'm getting a little sick and tired of the brilliance of Bruckner symphonies.

A little rain is not going to stop a Brucknerian.

Yes, but this might...

figure obvious joke: Referencing LA's traffic problems is funny because it's true.

And when it comes to the master’s Eighth Symphony, flood means nothing to a pilgrim.

figure doctored photo: Ah, making fun at the expense of the poor and unfortunate. It's nice to see, though, that they managed to save the necessities. A six pack is the only way I'd make it through Bruckner's Eighth too.

But for those not in the thrall of Bruckner’s massive frozen architecture, any excuse to stay home is welcome.

Frozen architecture? His music is an igloo?

figure frozen architecture: Brucknerian symphony.

On Thursday, when Lorin Maazel tackled Bruckner’s 84-minute symphony of symphonies, there were, as might be predicted, more empty seats than normal for a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Predicted? But this is Bruckner. He's fucking awesome. Plus his music is an igloo.

Nothing else was on the program. The mighty Eighth stands alone.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure a cloudy sky would have been enough to keep me away.

But the crowd was still sizable and mildly cultish. The Eighth is not exactly rare, but it doesn’t come our way all that often.

Kind of like a Phish concert tour, or the McRib sandwich.

figure McRib: Meat-like substance processed and molded into the shape of ribs. Yum.

For the symphonic purist, the Eighth, composed in the late 1880s and Bruckner’s last complete symphony, is not only the most magnificent of all symphonies, it is the end of the classical line.

[Okay, now the serious part.] Say what now?

The "end of the classical line"? That's quite the statement.

With his symphonic successor, Mahler, the symphony got grander still, but it no longer remained pure.

I think there are some serious problems with the idea of this Austro-German lineage of great composers. But yes, Mahler symphonies were larger and more grand on average than Bruckner.

But what of this idea of "pure"? The word pure implies there was some sort of de facto model of the symphony. As I'm sure you know, that isn't true. But the 19th century was an era of great symphonic composers, and after the likes of Bruckner and Mahler, the symphony became less important as a symphonic form. Is that your point?

The genre took on narrative meanings.

Guess not. May I direct you to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (or his Third, or Ninth), Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and some Tchaikovsky's symphonies to name the most obvious pre-Mahlerian examples. Or, if we are to include other symphonic forms, the tone poems of Strauss, Dukas, and many of the orchestral works by hyphenated composers Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov and Camille Saint-Saens.

But I suppose we're talking about the tried and true four-movement symphony symphony. Yes, Mahler's symphonies (and much of the music by composers of the era, including those who didn't write symphonies) did take on narrative meanings in some cases.

It found new ways to present messy emotions and reflect the ego and the excesses of its creators and of its times.

Unlike Beethoven whose music is the model of the humble, well-tempered composer.

As the symphony found new life in the 20th century, some thought it an unseemly, even decadent, turn of events.

Funny how some also found a way to hate all the other music of the 20th century as well, not just the symphonies.

And oh that "decadent"20th century music. Bruckner must have been rolling around in his grave when he heard the effete self-indulgence of Stravinsky's Symphony in C.

For Bruckner there had been only one Creator.

figure Creator: Bruckner was right. It just makes burning dvds so much easier.

And he just stands in such stark contrast to the polydeism of composers like Mendelssohn, Bach, and Handel.

Who could forget the blasphemous Messiahs by Handel, or the famous aria in Haydn's The Creation where Jesus makes fun of Ganesh's extra appendages and hilarious elephant head, but praised his long patronage of the arts and sciences?

The symphony, and the Eighth more than any other, was his ideal monument to the Divine.

This sounds a bit like narrative to me. Maybe not a program, per se, but I've seen narrative before, and this is definitely hinting at narrative...

The typical shorthand description of Bruckner is to point out that he captured the majesty and radiance of Wagner’s sound while staying true to Beethovenian structural ideals.

"...staying true to Beethovenian structural ideals"? That's quite the loaded statement. Do you have an example?

This statement seems to imply that any piece that doesn't meet the structural standards of Beethoven is somehow inferior. Or that there was actually some sort of quantifiable ideal established by Beethoven in the first place.

Forgetting for a moment that Beethoven actually was the first composer to prominently break away from classical forms in the symphony, and famously bring in his own ego and idea of narrative power to the symphony, Beethoven is just a single composer and does not (by himself) establish structural ideals. His symphonies, while great, do not represent some absolute model of perfection to which all symphonies should be compared.

He wrote Beethoven’s Ninth symphony over and over again.

That's sort of the standard Bruckner joke, yeah.

But yes, Bruckner (like Brahms and every other Romantic composer) felt a direct line of their symphonies to those of Beethoven as divined by God, but that doesn't necessarily make it so.


Let me clarify my comments a bit here. There is nothing wrong with writing that Bruckner's symphonic compositions are in a lineage with other great German composers who preceded and followed him. However, there is something wrong when you start to ascribe value to that lineage. This idea of purity of the symphonic form is simplistic version of history at best.

We see this same sort of over inflated importance of extra-musical circumstances in your reviews a here:

Music review: Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' Symphony 'unwound' by Pacific Symphony

Tchaikovsky has been saved by his sad story. At times when absolute music has been in fashion, the morbid Russian Romantic with a flair for melody and melancholy has been out of it. These days, narrative in music – possibly thanks to the ascendancy of pop culture – is prized. And, yes, we love a mystery. Did a tormented Tchaikovsky commit suicide? Was his last symphony testament of forbidden love?

Yes, maybe. But you're framing this question incorrectly. The extra-musical story associated with Tchaikovsky's symphony has been a subject of much debate for many years. Is it interesting? I suppose. But that's not why this music ever went in or out of fashion. As far as I can tell, no piece of music has ever suffered fewer performances solely on the fact that it may have a narrative associated with it.

Could it be, just possibly, that Tchaikovsky's music went out of favor because of its lush orchestration, or highly affected tonal language? Perhaps it went out of favor not because of something it did, but because orchestras wanted to play different, less often performed works...maybe even
new music?

While there are relevant arguments of programmatic versus absolute music, or where Bruckner's symphonies fit historically, these are not the things that make a piece of music good or bad, enjoyable or unlistenable.


I should also note, that despite my protestations, both of these reviews are quite nicely written with wonderful descriptions, and good information. Plus, in an unrelated note, Mark Swed did uncover this alarming piece of information...

Maazel, no mystic he, has no truck...

When will the powers that be snap into action and address the real crisis of America's
truckless conductors? Ganesh be with us if Michael Tilson Thomas were to ever have his truck repossessed.

figure truck: MTT's baby. The only way he's able to navigate that decadent 20th century music.


Sator Arepo said...

So many questions...

So: "frozen" architecture, as opposed to the normal, liquid kind?

Empiricus said...

[brief conversation heard over the CB radio]

Hey Big Mama! This is MTT in the Narrative Crusher. How's the rubber smell up ahead? Over.

Good to hear from you, Narrative Crusher. The rubber's as pure as Beethoven, but the grill is full of 'hoppers' and the rearview is ego personified. Over.

Thanks for the warning, Big Mama. Maybe I'll swing onto the 50 and loop around them decadent bugs. Over.

If you do, make sure to get some grub at the Brucknerian Diner. The serve the best imitation McRib in the entire midwest. Over.

Thanks, Big Mama. We all miss the McRib. Over and out.