Anecdotes from the life of Anton Bruckner (III)

Anton Bruckner revered his musical predecessors. In the shadow of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (who died just three years after Bruckner was born), he was deeply conscious of his heritage.

The Vienna city authorities exhumed Beethoven’s body twice: on 13 October 1863, in order to preserve his remains better in a metal coffin (when photos were taken of his skull), and on 22 June 1888, when his remains were transferred to the Central Cemetery and experts were given time to examine them. On the second occasion, Bruckner insisted on being present and it was he who replaced Beethoven’s skull in the casket. The Viennese writer Carl Hruby, who was a pupil of Bruckner, described the scene in My Recollections of Anton Bruckner (1901):

“The day Beethoven’s remains were exhumed, Bruckner invited me to go with him to the old Währing cemetery. Those who took part in the ceremony will undoubtedly remember the unforgettable moment when, just as the coffin was being lifted up and solemn silence had descended all around, a nightingale suddenly launched into a torrent of sobbing notes from a nearby tree – as if in final tribute to the great mastersinger. The powerful effect was soon spoiled when the representatives of the City of Vienna began squabbling about whether the coffin should be opened in the cemetery or later, in the chapel. In the end they decided on the first option.”

“Bruckner stood in front of me and stared into the coffin, deeply moved. On the way home his mood was serious. The gloomy solemnity of the occasion appeared to have shaken him to the core. Suddenly he noticed that one of the lenses had fallen out of his pince-nez. ‘I think,’ he said, brimming over with joy, ‘it must have fallen into Beethoven’s coffin while I was leaning over.’ It delighted him to know that his eyeglass was buried with Beethoven.”

There are ten symphonies by Bruckner and most exist in more than one version. Bruckner’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1866) was named by the composer “das kecke Beserl”, which translates as “the cheeky brat”. Symphony No. 0 in D minor (1869) was so harshly criticized that Bruckner withdrew it completely and it was not performed during his lifetime. Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1872) has one of the most haunting slow movements.

Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1873) was the one dedicated to Wagner. The original version contained quotations from Wagner’s operas. Symphony No. 4 in E flat major (1874), commonly known as the Romantic Symphony, was Bruckner’s first great success. It begins with magical horn calls. Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1876) is a monumental display of every aspect of Bruckner’s musical invention.

Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879–81) is the somewhat neglected work in the canon, pervaded by what has come to be known as the Bruckner rhythm (two quarters plus a quarter triplet or vice versa). Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-83) is easily the most popular of Bruckner’s symphonies with beautiful melodies and moments of drama.

Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1887) can be described as Bruckner’s journey to heaven (including, for the first time, three celestial harps). Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1894), unfinished at the time of his death, is of the same order as Mahler’s Ninth. A statement of faith in humanity, its opening is noble, its scherzo whimsical and nostalgic, and its concluding slow movement is a quest for the eternal repose into which it subsides.

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