Milton Moore: The small man who thought big, very big - Anton Bruckner

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Anton Bruckner was an odd, awkward little man who wrote huge grandiose symphonies in the late 19th century. Like his student Gustav Mahler, there’s more than a hint of megalomania in the sheer size of his conceptions, symphonies that run to 80 minutes. I tend to think of Bruckner and Mahler like the outer planets of the solar system: gas giants.

But today is Bruckner’s birthday, Sept. 4, 1824, so we give him his due. There was really no composer quite like him.

Bruckner idolized Wagner, and his symphonies mirror Wagner’s endless chromaticism and sonic heft. Eight of his nine are very similar (the ninth was incomplete when he died). A German who moved to Vienna, he was supremely insecure and revised his symphonies again and again, responding to seemingly any suggestions. The catalog of recordings bursts with versions of each symphony, and conductors love to record this material for its dense challenges and its gigantism.

An organist at heart, Bruckner’s orchestration reflects the sounds of a pipe organ, with plenty of flutes, clarinets, oboes and brass, brass, brass: heaps of horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba and even those baritone Wagner tubes. Two years ago, I got to hear The Royal Concertgebouw orchestra perform Bruckner’s Ninth at Carnegie Hall (a sonic thrill, to be sure), and it’s always spine-tingling, after a long lyric string section, to see the array of brass players lift their instruments for their massed attack like the gun ports raising on a man o’ war.

Bruckner’s music is a weave of influences, from the inescapable Wagner, to the counterpoint and fugues of the godhead Bach, to, of all people, Schubert, in his use of clusters of themes in sonata form, which expands form and time immensely.

I will offer just one movement of Bruckner, since that single movement is 25 minutes long (the length of many entire Mozart symphonies). Headphones don’t do this stuff justice, since there are places where the windows should rattle.

The last movement of his Fifth symphony (in its final revision) encapsulates Bruckner’s most characteristic features: a calm opening, detailed counterpoint (he jumps right into a fugue), charming Austrian beauty in the lyrical theme, brass chorales and blazing ferocity. Brass chorales are a Bruckner signature: Think of a choir made up of brass instruments, similar but so much louder!

The movement moves from the first fugue (at 1:50) to a lilting Austrian dance motif (at 3:07). It’s interrupted by a trademark brass blaze-up (at 6:11), before the fugue returns as a chorale and eventually becomes a wonderful double fugue (two different fugue themes layered) at 12:15. Then, long wandering through the landscape of motifs until the fugal theme blooms as a stirring chorale at 23:25 for the finale.

It’s hard to sit through an entire Bruckner symphony. As the fine general-interest classical music writer Jan Swafford noted, they are “too long and too loud, and generally just too...” But in chunks, this music can be galvanizing.

I bet the brass players out there love it all!

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