Slow but Steady: Appreciating Bruckner in the Sound-Bite Era

A few months ago in Eugene, Oregon, I experienced a performance of Anton Bruckner's Seventh Symphony that started me thinking about the place of Bruckner's music in orchestral repertoire and how it has changed over my lifetime. The change has not been as dramatic and sudden as that of Mahler's place. Mahler was kind of hurled into the mainstream by Leonard Bernstein and then by Georg Solti in the 1960s (with much credit to such conductors as Mengelberg, Walter, Klemperer, and Mitropoulos for at least keeping the flame alive in earlier generations). For Bruckner there was no sudden lurch forward, but rather a slow, steady sense of forward motion over time. That's rather appropriate, because it could serve as a description of his music as well.

In the 1960s and early 70s, there were some not very perceptive program annotators who would compare Mahler's and Bruckner's music as if it were all cut from the same cloth. In truth the two composers are extremely different, though their works share one thing in common: length. That Bruckner's music has entered the repertoire at all is somewhat surprising to me, because it is completely at odds with today's rapid-movement, sound-bite oriented society. Whereas any Mahler symphony is filled with hundreds of contrasting musical events, some of which hurtle by so fast we aren't certain we've absorbed them--an aesthetic more in tune with our times--Bruckner's symphonies move at a much slower pace, unfolding slowly, the way a flower gradually opens.

I remember the days in the 1960s and early 70s when I was program director of a classical-music radio station in Syracuse and had to seek out and import obscure recordings of many of the Bruckner symphonies. One rarely encountered Bruckner in the concert hall of any city, at least in America. Now his symphonies turn up with more frequency, even in smaller communities. And somehow, perhaps because they are such a contrast to our fast-paced lives, they seem to resonate with audiences. It has been fascinating to watch, over almost fifty years, the slow but steady ascension of this glorious music to a place of honor in our concert halls. 

Bruckner had his own sense of time--an expansive, slow-moving sense of time. His music will not enter the time world in which we live; we must turn off our internal clocks and enter his. But, in fact, that is a healthy thing to do once in a while.  A favorite story of mine--surely apocryphal, but one wishes it were true--is about the American who goes to visit a friend in Vienna. The friend takes him to a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic that consists of one work only, Bruckner's Eighth Symphony (all 80 minutes of it). Afterwards, the Viennese friend asks the American what he thought of the concert, and the American answers: "Well, that piece has many beautiful things in it--gorgeous melodies, wonderfully rich orchestration, power. But my goodness, it goes on and on and on."  The Viennese friend answers gently: "Ah yes. But you see, here in Vienna, we like music."

July 25, 2008 1:27 PM | | Comments (8)



2 years ago I heard a recording of the Bruckner 7th played by the BPO with Rattle conducting at the London proms. Sublime! It is still available on You Tube. Don't miss it!

We are growing quite fond of Bruckner here in Indianapolis. Our Music Director, Mario Venzago, has generally programmed one of his symphonies each year over the past several seasons. He has said many times that one of his proudest accomplishments has been creating with the ISO the warm sound that is unique to Bruckner, instead of having the orchestra just approach the music as if it were a derivative of Mahler.

If I can be allowed a shameless plug, you can hear the ISO's most recent Bruckner performance (the 8th) at

The audience responded enthusiastically to that performance - with five curtain calls. Indianapolis is quickly becoming a Bruckner city! Next season, we perform Bruckner 1 (the 1891 revision).

I have loved Bruckner since I was a teenager. When I listen to his music, I feel as though I am no longer on
However, his music is not always "slow".
The scherzos are highly propulsive and earthy, and the finales often highly urgent.
Some, but by no means all performances
are simply too slow. Just listen to
Furtwangler's recordings, which are often
filled with nervous energy.

More than 30 years ago during a visit to that FM Station in Syracuse, Mr. Fogel played one of his "hard to get" Bruckner imports--a splendid 6th Symphony with Keilberth leading the BPO. It may have been my introduction to the work. Twenty years or so earlier, I recall our "music-ap" class being pinned to the pews in the college chapel as two huge Klipschorn speakers poured forth the DECCA ffrr recording of the 7th Symphony (van Beinum-CGO). And it was the 7th which was my own introduction to Bruckner, even earlier, in my high school days when I had to carry a weighty 78rpm album home on the school bus (praying I would not break one or more discs) to hear a live Minneapolis performance RCA had recorded in the mid 1930s--Eugene Ormandy, conducting.

A wonderful dicription of Bruckner's music; might help music lovers (not only there in Viena)to enter into that special world of great, long and wide sounds. Indeed a real necessity for our present times.

I agree with your assessment, and come from a similar background, having done classical radio full time for more than 30 years (in San Diego, Los Angeles and Monterey.) For the most recent 30+ years I've been writing classical music journalism and criticism and teaching classical music history and "appreciation" to "older" adults in this community. My class in Carmel this coming Saturday is "Mystique of Bruckner," for which I'm still trying to decide which works to play. (I know I'll be using Jochum's 6th, first movement, and probably something conducted by Celibadache.) But, to get to the point, Bruckner retains for me a mystique that I've never fully cracked. A friend of mine, a hornist named John Orzel, said he once asked Lou Harrison who he thought was the greatest composer. Lou, who was a good friend of mine for at least 35 years, said Bruckner, and proceeded to show John the how and why of it.

Of course the problem with a single class to convey the essence of Bruckner is the music's length. I'd suggest playing the Adagio of the Eighth Symphony, but that would take half the class! I have found, however, that the opening of the Seventh is an effective introduction to Bruckner's music.

Henry FogelĀ“s comments apply certainly for the apreciation of classical music in Europe. But as the "friend' says: In Vienna they like music.
We here in Brazil, appreciate classical music besides the rich local interpretations of SAMBAS BATUQUES etc, evidently by the strong influence of african rhytm. But local Sinfony Orchestras composed by young musicians, are extremely able to interpret classical works. And so are our maestros with a high degree of understanding and interpretation.

That's an interesting observation. My favorite observation of Bruckner's music came from a 9 year. Upon hearing Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, he commented that it was God's. He had heard the music as a soundtrack to a cartoon.


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