The Bruckner Problem

He couldn’t stop himself.

Is this the same image I used last time?

While Brahms was perhaps compulsive about perfecting something before he published it, agonizing for ages over a work (his first symphony took something like two decades), Bruckner didn’t as much, at least until after the work’s (first) publication. It could be argued that both approaches were simply in the pursuit of perfection, but I would be more inclined to interpret the former as pursuit of perfect, and the latter as second-guessing oneself.

It’s difficult enough for me to decide on which recording I’ll stick to for these posts, and that doesn’t even mean anything. In some cases, like with Mahler’s sixth last year (almost a year ago!) there were some significant things that were deal-breakers for me. The Atlanta Symphony recording of the piece under Levi, for example, while perhaps a bit too fast, was excellently performed and (as always with Telarc) wonderfully recorded, but they ignored the repeat in the first movement! That kind of ruined it for me. Others were too slow (Barbirolli/Philharmonic Orch) or whatever. Thomas Sanderling’s amazing recording with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic took the cake. It was the definitive winner, to me, but there were a few contenders. Even the issues with the inner movements could be “fixed” if you were picky enough to change the order of the two tracks in iTunes to your desired layout.
I remember agonizing for some time about which of the many recordings of Bruckner’s fourth I would end up using for that piece (more than six months ago!), and it was there that I really began to see the significance of this Bruckner problem. Wikipedia lists seven versions of that symphony. SEVEN! from 1874 to 1888.
So not only are we deciding on an interpretation that we like, which is subjective enough in and of itself, but we are trying to figure out which version of the repeatedly edited and changed work is the definitive one.
The term, says the Wikipedia page on Bruckner, comes from “the publication (in 1969) of an article dealing with the subject, The Bruckner Problem Simplified by musicologist Deryck Cooke, which brought the issue to the attention of English-speaking musicians.”
In fact, if you look here, Wikipedia even offers a full list of versions and editions of the man’s symphonies. Why is this an issue?

Well, first, it is most apparent with numbers 3, 4, and 8. Again, Wikipedia says the following:
The revision issue has generated controversy. A common explanation for the multiple versions is that Bruckner was willing to revise his work on the basis of harsh, uninformed criticism from his colleagues. “The result of such advice was to awaken immediately all the insecurity in the non-musical part of Bruckner’s personality,” musicologist Deryck Cooke writes. “Lacking all self-assurance in such matters, he felt obliged to bow to the opinions of his friends, ‘the experts,’ to permit … revisions and even to help make them in some cases.”

This can be maddening, I would imagine. People like Nowak and Haas have produced their own critical editions of the symphonies, apparently as compilations or collections of the various changes made to the respective pieces. These are apparently the two biggest names involved, but there is another problem. It reminds me of the article I wrote ages ago about Ernst Krenek and the hairy business of finishing an uncompleted symphony (that is, someone else’s uncompleted symphony). Compiling a list of accepted and rejected revisions kind of sounds like tracking changes on a document in a word processor. After all, Bruckner isn’t around anymore, so we can’t ask him, and it seems all the cooks in the kitchen have only complicated matters. He asked friends and colleagues and people, some perhaps less than qualified to comment, on their opinions of his works at various times, and it seems some even took it upon themselves to make changes at some points.

In any case, what seems to come through is a man who lacked confidence in his own compositions, someone who was unsure of himself or desperate for approval. You wouldn’t hear it listening to his symphonies, though… he is bold and big and at the time, quite controversial.
You’ll know if you’ve been a reader for some time that I am by no means in love with Bruckner’s works. I did, finally, come to love the fourth symphony, but not in a way that I am compelled to go back and listen to it on any kind of even semi-regular basis. It’s like one of those events you’re not looking forward to going to but really do enjoy yourself once you get there. That sounds more negative than I wanted it to be. But if, for whatever reason I do put on Bruckner’s fourth and can listen to it from beginning to end, I do enjoy it!
In any case, what I mean to say is that I greatly respect his place in the history books of classical music, but I am not an ardent Brucknerian like I am with Mahler. It’s also always a little bit frustrating to think that a piece may not be exactly as the composer intended, and a bit frightening to think that someone may have obscured that original intention by compiling a list of what they believe to be the important/valid/genuine changes the composer intended. How can you know? (That’s what I was getting at with the Ernst Krenek link.) I’m coming around to appreciating his music more and more, as you’ll hopefully read on Thursday, but this whole issue of versions adds an extra layer to the complexity of deciding on performances to feature.
Wikipedia also says that some of this revision may have been stylistic or strategic, neither of which are the words I’m looking for. His early writing seems to have been quite idiomatic, perhaps difficult to accept at the time, or even challenging technically, so some of those revisions I can understand from the standpoint of … it’s in the interest of having the work played and recognized. The other side of that argument is the integrity of sticking to your guns and saying you want something the way it is, regardless of the prevailing trends or sentiments toward such ingenuity.
All the fogginess and irritation of potential lack of definitiveness aside, what I find perhaps most interesting or perplexing about this idea is that this man, again, whose music seems so bold and powerful, seemed so unsure of himself. I am inclined to perceive this as humility. It’s perhaps no surprise to anyone that Mahler was not an easy person to be on the same continent with; he had strong opinions and ideas and his personality was the same. He had very clear ideas (no matter how strange others thought they were) about his music and what he wanted, but Bruckner seems to have been a second-guesser. This is almost very endearing. It makes him human. Mahler is said to have described him as “half simpleton, half god,” and if you think of this man creating booming, innovative, shocking music, all the while second guessing himself, you can see both sides of that coin that Mahler seems to have seen.
For now, we’re going to have to do the best we can with sussing out the editions and real intentions of the man and his work. Thankfully, the piece we’ll be discussing Thursday seems not to have suffered too severely from Bruckner’s second guessing. See you then.
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