Anton Bruckner makes me lose the will to live
Friday 06 April 2012
The conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin explore Bruckner's last three symphonies over three nights at the Royal Festival Hall, this month.
I don't like Anton Bruckner. I may be a classical music journalist, a trained musician and so on, but I remain deeply, pathologically allergic to the Lumbering Loony of Linz. I've lost count of the well-meaning friends, relations and colleagues who have made it their personal mission to "convert" me. Alas, each attempt has been counter-productive.
An old music exam question helps to articulate the problem: "Brahms termed Bruckner's masterpieces 'symphonic boa constrictors'. Discuss." So, here goes. Bruckner's symphonies are stiflingly, crushingly, oppressive. Once you're in one, you can't get out again. Spend too long in their grip and you lose the will to live. They are cold-blooded and exceedingly long, and they go round and round in circles.
I recall my first Bruckner symphony, No 4, which I attended with my parents, aged 14: even my father, who was a Gramophone subscriber and did like Bruckner, slipped into a gentle slumber. I sought refuge with a pal after some boyfriend trouble, and she put on the slow movement of the Symphony No 7 to console me, and I fear I rather distressed her by saying it sounded like Three Blind Mice upside-down. That movement, by the way, was the music played on German radio when they announced the death of Hitler.
Bruckner (1824-1896) was obsessive compulsive. He had a counting mania – to the point that he would stand under a tree and count its leaves.
He had little or no personal life and legend suggests that he slept in protective clothing because he suffered "nocturnal emissions".
When I was asked to choose my "most boring masterpiece" for a round-up in BBC Music Magazine last year, I picked the Symphony No 7. It is the most frustrating of the lot, because after after the glorious opening minute and a half or so, he fails quite spectacularly to follow it through. All that opening's sunrise-like, mystical beauty dissipates into plinky-plonky, counting-the-notes, closing-passage twiddles. And then you have to sit through the remaining 68 minutes.
I've been trying to like Bruckner for 30 years. I have not once succeeded.
The Bruckner Project, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 on 16, 17 & 20 April (www.southbankcentre.co.uk)
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