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Emily Hogstad

I, And Now Sort of Like Bruckner, Part III

April 26, 2012 at 9:24 PM

To catch up, Part I and II are here and here.

5) The power of Bruckner can’t be assessed from a Youtube video. Go see a live performance.

I don’t know when the next Bruckner performance in my area will be (as it turns out, the last one was April 20 and, uh, needless to say, I didn’t go). But I’ll keep an eye out for future performances. This idea should have crossed my mind immediately, as I’ve written about the great divide between listening to recordings and listening to live performances before. In January I wrote a review of a performance of a piece – Ligeti’s violin concerto – that I don’t know I’d enjoy on-disc, but that in-person actually came across as quite interesting. Maybe for whatever reason Bruckner falls into the same category.

I also think it’s important to remind myself that Bruckner never imagined that his work would be heard via tinny tiny speakers. He clearly intended every performance of his orchestral works to be Events of Epic Sonic Proportion, meant to be experienced communally with a huge live orchestra. Perhaps the modern ubiquity of recordings, and the subsequent…I don’t want to say “cheapening,” but it’s the only word that comes to mind…of musical performance somehow contributes to the perception of his work as being overblown and pompous. Nowadays, unless we hear a Bruckner symphony live, it’s simply not the big communal event that he must have envisioned, and I suppose it loses something integral when it isn’t. You know how performers have their historical practice, attempting to recreate certain aspects of what the performance must have been like in the past? Maybe listeners should have a version of it, too.

6) Bruckner may have had autism or Aspergers or a similar condition.

Wow, here comes another weighty issue…the practice of attempting to diagnose historical figures using modern medicine. This one is way too complicated and controversial for me to even dip a toe in. That being said, I’d be interested in reading any reputable research that has been done on the subject. Or even what people think about this practice in general. It seems to be increasingly common.

7) Um, if you hate him, avoid him. How hard is that?

I feel hesitant about point-blank ignoring a composer whose work I don’t like at first listen. Everyone should be. Many pieces I couldn’t stand at first listen are now some of my dearest favorites. But clearly none of them have had as uphill of a battle as Bruckner. And that’s the struggle I’m trying to document.

8) Be patient. Don’t force the love. Let yourself grow into it. Some things take a lifetime to appreciate.

After mulling all the suggestions over, this one has emerged as my favorite. It glows with a patient wisdom I’ve (clearly) yet to acquire.

The day I posted this essay, I watched the first of Bernstein’s six Harvard lectures. (Highly recommended, by the way.) He said something that nearly made me squeal with delight. I can’t remember the quotation word for word, but it was something along the lines of “I reserve the right to be wrong.” If Leonard Bernstein can reserve the right to be wrong, can you imagine how entitled I am to it? I look forward to seeing how my relationship with Bruckner’s work develops. I’ll be the first in line to denounce this article if my opinion changes.

9) You are a lot of contradictory things.

Yes, I certainly am. I found out in the comment section of Part I that I don’t understand God – I’m an excellent writer – I’m the author of horrific slime – I’m hilarious – I’m a naive sixth-grade bully – I have an antipathy toward men – I’m strangely attractive. I voiced a widespread opinion that wasn’t particularly shocking while at the same time subscribing to disturbingly disrespectful heresy.

Clearly this hubbub speaks less to what I am and more to what Bruckner is: a man who created work so massive, and so massively controversial, that we’re still arguing passionately about it more than a century after his death. Which is an accomplishment absolutely none of us can boast of. That’s a bottom line we all can agree on.


Thanks for taking the time to watch me wrestle with all this in public. You’ve all been very gracious, even when I’ve been upsetting. I owe any insights I may have gotten this week to you…

And yes, to Bruckner. Who I feel I should address directly.


Dear Mr. Bruckner,

Well, this is awkward!

I wish we could sit down and talk. Really. I wish I could take your skull into my hands and stare into it and somehow understand you. But I can’t, so here’s what I want to say. Your work has made an impression. It made me care enough to voice an unpopular opinion. You tested my honesty and integrity as a writer. You made me stop and think some hugely, hugely important questions about how I engage with music and music history. And consequently somehow in the last week or so of hating you, I’ve come to be…almost fond of you. In a really, really weird twisted way. Maybe someday I’ll hear the glory – understand you, the man – hear a magical performance, finally, that moves me to tears – and become an evangelist for your work.

Or, I’ll grow as a listener and human being and still actually kind of not be able to stand a single note you wrote. You know. Either/or.

But. Either way, it’s something – it’s better than what I started out with. You, along with all of my readers, made me think. Being taught is the best thing a blogger can aspire to. As long as you keep me the heck off that list – (and I’m guessing you will) – maybe we can live in peace.

I’ll see you down the road.

Yours, Emily


(And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did end up making the conscious decision to stop responding to comments, even though each and every one of them is truly very much appreciated. I’m actually taking a vacation from my blog’s comment section, period, until the brunt of Brucknergate is past. I felt like for a couple days there that I was so close to the bark that I wasn’t seeing any of the forest. I hope to emerge from the break with additional perspective, although I may not get back in time before the blog is archived. But as always, if you want to have a discussion with me via private message, feel free to initiate one.)

From Michael Tuchman
Posted on April 27, 2012 at 12:58 AM
I've also had trouble with relating to Bruckner. I've had trouble with a lot of Mahler. Are all pieces worth the work to eventually like them? How much of a chance are we required to give a significant work, and how do we tell? Switching composers again - I still can't make sense of 'Transfigured Night'. Do I have to keep listening until I 'see the night?'
From Mendy Smith
Posted on April 27, 2012 at 2:30 AM
It is called "feeling the music", and in the case of Bruckner, almost literally. Better than listening to a live performance is sitting in the middle of one.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 27, 2012 at 4:16 AM
I think that an artist's job is to discover beauty and reveal truth, not to express himself. Brahms was a total cad but he rarely expressed his personal life drama in his art. To my knowledge he only connected himself to one work, the C minor piano quartet, and then very cryptically. Once a putative artist starts expressing himself he becomes open to examination. We get to match their creative effort with their life essence. The artist risks exposure. So Bruckner expresses his awe and his piety and we get to look in and see that his humanity is pretty ordinary--at best. And so it goes with many others. Verdi declared himself a non-believer and wrote the Requiem and Four Sacred Pieces. Wow! Who cares what he believed or didn't believe?! He did the work of an artist. We find Verdi there but we find more than Verdi. We find some of Bach and some of Mozart and some of Brahms and some of Beethoven and some of God who Verdi can't acknowledge in words but glorifies in music. This is the witness that moves me--by their opus shall ye know them. Trust the art not the artist.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 27, 2012 at 5:45 AM
It's a good point, Corwin. Mozart gave credit to God for his musical creations; he seemed to believe he was the humble vessel through which God delivered music. While he seemed to strive and insist on a high level of perfection in his compositions, he did not strive for the same thing in his personal life, which was a mess.

In some ways, it seems to me that the more a person can get over himself or herself, the better his or her art.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 27, 2012 at 1:09 PM
Emily - I have enjoyed Brucknergate. Thanks. I will add my $0.02 to #5. I have heard Bruckner live. I heard one of his symphonies (#7, I think) at a concert given by the Baltimore Symphony to which I went to hear pianist Leon Fleisher play something I wanted to hear. I cannot begin to tell you how much I disliked it. So, I am not sure that you gain much by hearing it live.
From Thomas Cooper
Posted on April 27, 2012 at 7:05 PM
I like was Laurie said about not taking oneself so seriously. The moment I start caring about how I play on stage, the performance turns bad. If I let it all go, and just enjoy what I am playing and enjoy the moment, I play well.
From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on April 27, 2012 at 8:23 PM
"Classical music is soooo boring." "How can you stand that stuff? It all sounds alike anyway." "Who cares about music a bunch of dead white guys wrote a hundred years ago?"

Obviously, LOTS of people, around here at least, care deeply.

Emily, congratulations for stirring up a major whatever-storm. A discussion like this makes everyone think about what really matters- that's why people get so hot. And, girl, if this is the first ruckus you've raised since you were about four, way to go! It was long overdue.

From John Cadd
Posted on April 28, 2012 at 8:00 PM
But what happened to the old guy in the bus station ? Surely a real live human is worth more than a pile of old music manuscripts .We don`t even know his name . What bus did he catch? Did he have a ticket ? Loose ends. Joking but also realising he was in your head mainly and he was suffering from an undiagnosed case of creepiness for talking to the lady ,in your head .
From Lawrence Price
Posted on April 30, 2012 at 12:20 AM
Bruckner did not really resonate with me until one incredible concert with my orchestra, the Vienna Tonkustler, in the main Musikverein hall. We played the sixth symphony, and in the second movement, I discovered Bruckner for the first time. Playing in the orchestra brought it to life for me. It remains one of a few enduring memories of that time and changed my appreciation for his work.
From John Cadd
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 12:28 PM
A video about Brass players and the Bruckner 5th Symphony shows they love him to bits.

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