Saturday, March 28, 2015


Eastside Road, March 27, 2015—
•Anton Bruckner : Symphony No. 8 in c minor
James Feddeck, The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Heard March 26 in Davies Hall, San Francisco
LET ME BE DIRECT : these have been difficult days, because a dear friend is dying, a man who means a great deal to me, for whom I have the greatest respect — I won't go into this further ; the time to write about him hasn't yet arrived.

He has been among a great many other things a performer on the French horn and Wagner tuba, and shares with me an enthusiasm for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. In fact in his very poignant decline he has managed to keep track of the fact that we had bought, a few weeks ago, tickets to the San Francisco Symphony in order to hear the Bruckner 8th, a particular favorite of his. We discussed this several times on the telephone these last few days. Yesterday was the first day we did not speak on the phone, and was the day we heard the performance. He was in my mind at virtually every moment of the performance.

After the performance we stopped in at a couple of favorite places to refresh ourselves, and I looked at my iPhone. There on Facebook was a comment or two from an acquaintance who had heard the same performance:
What I always find so curious about Bruckner's symphonies is how sophisticated the orchestrations are, and how he uses the forces of the orchestra in novel ways, compared to everything else that was being composed at that time. Where did he get those ideas, considering his very humble and unsophisticated and not-worldly life. Very surprising music from someone with that biography.
In fact, I think it's precisely someone from his background who would envision the utterly new kind of music. (I'll retrench on that remark in just a moment.) Nearly everyone who writes about Bruckner — and a lot has been written ; there are so many things to discuss — nearly every commenter has been a city fellow with a good working knowledge of Western European music history, Haydn through, oh, Stravinsky let's say. Bruckner had quite different roots.

He was a villager, the son of a village schoolmaster, a boy and then a man who was tuned to simple, almost rural life, whose music was primarily church organs and part-songs, who studied serious music relatively late in his life, not writing his first symphony until he was forty years old. He was a man used to walking twenty miles in a day, not for pleasure but to get from one place to another. What he heard, in general, was birdsong and the Mass; and what he saw and felt was large flat expanses in his native Upper Austria.

I've always found Bruckner's symphonies in a very special area of the geography of The Symphony. Haydn's symphonies begin at the countryside court of Esterhazy, mannered, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, yet somewhat isolated. (They end, of course, in Paris and London.) Mozart's begin in Salzburg, a provincial capital, and end in Vienna and Prague, immensely metropolitan. Beethoven's begin, like Haydn's, in a sophisticated backwater (Bonn), but quickly move into a noisy studio in Vienna.

Schubert's begin in a teen-ager's joy in the Viennese streets and ballrooms, but in the early 1820s he caught sight of something beyond, and began to explore it — whatever it was — in piano sonatas and chamber works of much greater scope and dimension than he'd worked with until then. The "Unfinished" and the great C major symphony were the symphonic results of this vision, which brought the symphony beyond its earlier position — a sort of instrumental-music analogy of a novel or a play — to become abstract and geographical, a man-made equivalent of a subcontinent.

There is, I think, a direct line from the expansive Schubert to Bruckner, whose symphonies do not worry at developing arguments out of thematic fragments, as Beethoven had done, but instead announce the existence of huge tracts, celebrating their cordilleras and plains; and beyond Bruckner it is Sibelius who continues that line, removing human desire and personality altogether from the musical discussion, God too, to leave only aural phenomena. Beyond Sibelius I think there is only Cage and Feldman.

Thursday's performance was good. The announced conductor, Semyon Bychkov, withdrew with a couple of weeks' notice, recovering from surgery; his place was taken by James Feddeck, assistant conductor of he Cleveland Orchestra until 2013, when he seems to have launched an international career with a number of orchestras in this country and Europe. He had the Eighth well in hand, leading the orchestra and the audience through the huge architecture with big, sweeping gestures, glancing at the score from time to time but communicating fully with his musicians.

The performance was of the 1890 edition by Leopold Nowak. The only surprises came with the great third-movement Adagio: about two-thirds the way through, in a fairly calm passage, a high string on the second harp broke with a crack. (The score calls for three harps, always playing in unison as I recall; this performance had two.) Then, just as the last chord faded out of the four Wagner tubas, someone's cell phone went off, playing a ditty in the same key, apparently — D flat — quietly, to our ears in the first tier, in a glockenspiel-like timbre: fortunately it was quickly hushed.

(One other note: the score indicates that the famous cymbal crashes in this Adagio are to be played dry, as eighth-notes followed by rests; in this performance as in every other I've heard, live or recorded, the sound was allowed to ring.)

And a final note: the program booklet reprinted a particularly fine note by the late Michael Steinberg, who is particularly good with Bruckner, I think. Just look at the magnificent second sentence in this paragraph describing the composer — a sentence worthy of its subject :
Bruckner himself, a country man transplanted uneasily to the big city in his mid-forties, seemed as out of place as his music. To be sure, he had traveled as an organist, and with stupendous and consistent success; but with his peasant speech, his social clumsiness, those trousers that (it was said) looked as though a carpenter had built them, his disastrous inclination to fall in love with girls of sixteen, his distracting compulsions, his piety (he knelt to pray in the middle of a counterpoint class when he heard the angelus sound from the church next door), a Neanderthal male chauvinism that even his contemporaries found remarkable, and his unawareness of intellectual or political currents of his or any other day, Bruckner was not a likely candidate for success in the sort of compost heap of gossip and intrigue that was Vienna, nor indeed anywhere in a world where a composer's success in mak-ing a living and getting performances depends on so much more than skill at inventing music. 

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

Bruckner's symphonies are like journeys.

This is a commonplace observation.

When we are young, and first hear the great works of the past, we are in awe or astonishment at the pleasures and terrors they convey, not having had enough of our life yet to appreciate them. When we hear them again as adults, they become rehearsals or reprises of what we have experienced.

Great musical works--and this is especially true of Bruckner--are invented meditations with indeterminate outcomes, since their last audiences lie waiting in an uncertain future. It's like riding for hours through a landscape, familiar but strange somehow. The music is the landscape, and the horse, and the rider, and the composer is there too, making conversation in your ear.