Bruckner: guilty or not guilty?

One hundred years after his death, the reputation of the composer Anton Bruckner remains tarnished by his appropriation by Hitler. By Stephen Johnson
One Sunday morning in 1937 a bizarre ceremony took place in the medieval Bavarian city of Regensburg. Within the Regensburg Valhalla, a replica of the Parthenon built by King Ludwig I to house images of his German cultural heroes, a marble bust of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (who died in 1896) was placed on a pedestal adorned with the Nazi insignia of an eagle gripping a swastika. Hitler himself was photographed standing to one side, bareheaded, hands folded, gazing with solemn reverence at his great compatriot.

The image is at once comical and chilling. But why should it concern us now, in the composer's centenary year? In fact, that ceremony, or rather what it represents, may have a profound bearing on questions about performing Bruckner today, questions that have already begun to be asked in very different musical quarters. For one thing, there's the lingering question of the relation of Bruckner's music to Hitler'smusical and ideological hero, Wagner. Bruckner's reverence for Wagner is legendary, the theme of many colourful anecdotes. But Bruckner's interest in Wagner seems to have been exclusively musical: he didn't discover Wagner until he was 38. Up till then his musical diet had centred on the rococo masses of Mozart, Joseph and Michael Haydn, Schubert's songs, short concert works by Rossini, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Weber, and the keyboard works of Bach - to say nothing of the village dance-bands he played in to supplement his meagre income as a teacher. The two supposedly "seminal" artistic experiences - Wagner's revolutionary Tristan und Isolde and Beethoven's huge, world-embracing Choral Symphony - came when Bruckner was in his forties, his transition from church composer to symphonist already begun.

The conductors Roger Norrington and Nikolaus Harnoncourt have addressed this question in recent performances, stressing Bruckner's classical lineage rather than his supposedly Wagnerian affiliations. And in a new recording of the Eighth Symphony, the normally less iconoclastic Daniel Barenboim has boldly steered the Bruckner performance question into much deeper water. Could there be a darker, political dimension? "There's the whole tradition," he told an interviewer, "not only with Bruckner but with Wagner too, a tradition which, curiously enough, was taken over by the Nazis as the artistic expression of a particular ideology. What I'm saying is that each time you get a great climax, it has to be taken slower, more feierlich, more majestic, to the glory of the Third Reich."

So was the Bruckner performing tradition hijacked by the Nazis? The answers are not so simple. But there can be no doubting Hitler's veneration for Bruckner, amounting almost to identification. Both grew up in or near the Upper Austrian capital, Linz. Both loved the landscapes of the Danube valley - for many Austrians, Bruckner's music is powerfully associated with his countryside. Hitler also drew comfort from Bruckner's rejection by the Viennese intelligentsia of his day - close parallels with his own experience in Vienna, he felt. In his last years, when his health was declining, Bruckner was taken up as a special cause by the newly emergent Austrian Christian Social Party (Christlichsoziale Partei), whose right- wing, nationalist views, championship of "the little man", anti-Semitism, and its leader, Karl Lueger, Hitler strongly admired. The unworldly Bruckner is unlikely to have felt any special sympathy with Lueger's views, but that doesn't seem to have bothered Hitler overmuch.

A high point - perhaps the high point - in Hitler's ideological appropriation of Bruckner came at that Regensburg ceremony in 1937. The festivities also included speeches by Max Auer, president of the International Bruckner Society, and Joseph Goebbels. The full text of Goebbels's speech is included at the end of an article by Bryan Gilliam ("The Annexation of Anton Bruckner: Nazi Revisionism and the Politics of Appropriation") in a recent edition of The Musical Quarterly. Goebbels stresses the "Wagnerian" element in Bruckner. Bruckner's discovery of Wagner's music dramas, he asserts, caused a total personal and artistic revolution. "From that moment onwards," says Goebbels, "the church musician at once retreats almost entirely, and out of him emerges the distinctive symphonist." Max Auer is known to have disagreed passionately: for him the gulf that separated the theatre- centred Wagner and the church-trained Bruckner was more important than superficial resemblances. As Gilliam says, Auer must have "swallowed hard" when he heard what Goebbels had to say at Regensburg, but on this occasion at least he kept his counsel.

It is difficult to say who - aesthetically speaking - was in the right. There may be an element of truth on both sides. Bruckner's understanding of Wagner was certainly narrow and selective.On the other hand, the Wagnerian influence can't be ignored - it is the nature of Bruckner's Wagnerianism that remains a matter for dispute. What really matters is that at a key point in the history of Bruckner performance, the "Wagnerian" argument was asserted, if not actually enforced, by a totalitarian regime. As Max Auer found, dissension became increasingly difficult, even perilous. Conductors whose view of Bruckner accorded with the Nazis' ideas - the still controversial Wilhelm Furtwangler, for instance - were encouraged, and their influence remains strong today. Furtwangler's example in particular cannot be ignored; to dismiss it outright for political reasons would be simply crass. But it may well represent a one-sided view of Bruckner, one which, for a whole complex of reasons, has been given an unfair advantage.

The problems caused by the Nazi's "annexation" of Bruckner extend to the notoriously vexed question of Bruckner editions. The first set of "original" editions of the symphonies appeared in the 1930s, under the editorship of Robert Haas. In its later stages this project was directly supported by the Nazis. After the war that association was inevitably an uncomfortable one, especially after Haas was officially condemned for complicity with Hitler's regime (the justice of that allegation remains debatable). Another editor, Leopold Novak (a rival of Haas), was appointed, and the whole project was begun again.

Novak's prefaces to his new editions are full of criticism of Haas's musicological methods, and these criticisms have been generally accepted as factual - even by those who (like many Brucknerians today) still find Haas's results more musically satisfying. Thus in the Eighth Symphony, just about every English-language commentary reasserts Novak's allegation that Haas arbitrarily added passages from the earlier (1887) version of the symphony to the later (1890) score. Unacceptable, says Novak: "You must not mix your sources." But on examining the newly published microfilm of the manuscript of the Eighth, I was astonished to find that what Haas did was quite different. The passages he allegedly added are virtually all there, in the 1890 manuscript score. What Haas actually did was to restore certain passages that Bruckner had crossed out. Why? He must have seen a letter Bruckner wrote to the conductor Felix Weingartner, in which the composer mentions the cut passages, and expresses the hope that they will prove "valid for posterity, and for a circle of friends and connoisseurs".

Did Novak take advantage of the political blackening of Robert Haas to further his own ends? Were his reasons for attacking Haas's methods more personal than musicological? The issues are still cloudy, and even now, three years after Novak's death, there is a strange reluctance on the part of musical Vienna to talk about them. What is certain is that as regards performance and textual fidelity, and maybe much else, Bruckner's music stands in urgent need of reassessment. This, his centenary year, provides the ideal opportunity. Let's hope that this time it can be done with something like impartiality.