THE EARLIER BRUCKNER
Whatever be the final answer of the
mooted question of the greatness of Bruckner’s
symphonies, there is no doubt that he had his full
share of technical profundity, and a striking mastery
of the melodious weaving of a maze of concordant strains.
The question inevitably arises with Bruckner as to
the value of the world’s judgments on its contemporary
poets. There can be no doubt that the furore
of the musical public tends to settle on one or two
favorites with a concentration of praise that ignores
the work of others, though it be of a finer grain.
Thus Schubert’s greatest his one
completed symphony was never acclaimed
until ten years after his death. Even his songs
somehow brought more glory to the singer than to the
composer. Bach’s oratorios lay buried for
a full century. On the other hand, names great
in their day are utterly lost from the horizon.
It is hard to conceive the eclat of a Buononcini
or a Monteverde, whose works were once preeminent.
There are elements in art, of special, sensational
effect, that make a peculiar appeal in their time,
and are incompatible with true and permanent greatness.
One is tempted to say, the more sudden and vehement
the success, the less it will endure. But it
would not be true. Such an axiom would condemn
an opera like “Don Giovanni,” an oratorio
like the “Creation,” a symphony like Beethoven’s
Seventh. There is a wonderful difference, an
immeasurable gulf between the good and the bad in art;
yet the apparent line is of the subtlest. Most
street songs may be poor; but some are undoubtedly
beautiful in a very high sense. It is a problem
of mystic fascination, this question of the value of
contemporary art. It makes its appeal to the
subjective view of each listener. No rule applies.
Every one will perceive in proportion to his capacity,
no one beyond it. So, a profound work may easily
fail of response, as many works in the various arts
have done in the past, because the average calibre
of the audience is too shallow, while it may deeply
stir an intelligent few. Not the least strange
part of it all is the fact that there can, of necessity,
be no decision in the lifetime of the poet. Whether
it is possible for obscure Miltons never to find their
meed of acclaim, is a question that we should all
prefer to answer in the negative. There is a
certain shudder in thinking of such a chance; it seems
a little akin to the danger of being buried alive.
The question of Bruckner’s place
can hardly be said to be settled, although he has
left nine symphonies. He certainly shows a freedom,
ease and mastery in the symphonic manner, a limpid
flow of melody and a sure control in the interweaving
of his themes, so that, in the final verdict, the
stress may come mainly on the value of the subjects,
in themselves. He is fond of dual themes, where
the point lies in neither of two motives, but in the
interplay of both; we see it somewhat extended in
Richard Strauss, who uses it, however, in a very different
spirit. The one evident and perhaps fatal lack
is of intrinsic beauty of the melodic ideas, and further,
an absence of the strain of pathos that sings from
the heart of a true symphony. While we are mainly
impressed by the workmanship, there is no denying
a special charm of constant tuneful flow. At
times this complexity is almost marvellous in the clear
simplicity of the concerted whole, in one
view, the main trait or trick of symphonic writing.
It is easy to pick out the leading themes as they
appear in official order. But it is not so clear
which of them constitute the true text. The multiplicity
of tunes and motives is amazing.
Of the Wagner influence with which
Bruckner is said to be charged, little is perceptible
in his second symphony. On the contrary, a strong
academic tradition pervades. The themes are peculiarly
symphonic. Moreover they show so strikingly the
dual quality that one might say, as a man may see
double, Bruckner sang double. Processes of augmenting
and inverting abound, together with the themal song
in the bass. Yet there is not the sense of overloaded
learning. There is everywhere a clear and melodious
But with all masterly architecture,
even enchanting changes of harmony and a prodigal
play of melody, the vacuity of poetic ideas must preclude
a permanent appeal. Bruckner is here the schoolmaster:
his symphony is a splendid skeleton, an object lesson
for the future poet.
In the FOURTH (ROMANTIC) SYMPHONY
the main light plays throughout on the wind.
The text is a call of horns, that begins the work.
It is a symphony
of wood-notes, where the forest-horn
is sovereign, awakening a widening world
of echoes, with a murmuring maze of lesser notes.
One has again the feeling that in the quiet interweaving
of a tapestry of strains lies the individual quality
of the composer, that the forte blasts,
the stride of big unison figures are but the interlude.
In the Andante the charm is less of
tune than of the delicate changing shades of the harmony
and of the colors of tone. We are ever surprised
in the gentlest way by a turn of chord or by the mere
entrance of a horn among the whispering strings.
The shock of a soft modulation may be as sudden as
of the loud, sudden blare. But we cannot somehow
be consoled for the want of a heart-felt melody.
The Scherzo is a kind of hunting-piece,
full of the sparkle, the color and romance of bugles
and horns, a spirited fanfare broken by
hushed phrases of strings or wood, or an elf-like
mystic dance on the softened call of trumpets.
The Trio sings apart, between the gay revels, in soft
voices and slower pace, like a simple ballad.
The Finale is conceived in mystical
retrospect, beginning in vein of prologue: over
mysterious murmuring strings, long sustained notes
of the reed and horn in octave descent are mingled
with a soft carillon of horns and trumpets in the
call of the Scherzo. In broad swing a free fantasy
rises to a loud refrain (in the brass) of the first
motive of the symphony.
In slower pace and hush of sound sings
a madrigal of tender phrases. A pair of melodies
recall like figures of the first Allegro. Indeed,
a chain of dulcet strains seems to rise from the past.
The fine themal relevance may be pursued
in infinite degree, to no end but sheer bewilderment.
The truth is that a modern vanity for subtle connection,
a purest pedantry, is here evident, and has become
a baneful tradition in the modern symphony. It
is an utter confusion of the letter with the spirit.
Once for all, a themal coherence of symphony must lie
in the main lines, not in a maze of unsignificant figures.
Marked is a sharp alternation of mood,
tempestuous and tender, of Florestan and Eusebius.
The lyric phase yields to the former heroic fantasy
and then returns in soothing solace into a prevailing
motive that harks back to the second of the beginning
movement. The fantasy, vague of melody, comes
(in more than one sense) as relief
from the small tracery. It is just to remember
a like oscillation in the first Allegro.
When the prologue recurs, the phrases
are in ascent, instead of descent of octaves.
A climactic verse of the main dulcet melody breaks
out in resonant choir of brass and is followed by
a soft rhapsody on the several strains that hark back
to the beginning. From the halting pace the lyric
episode rises in flight of continuous song to enchanting
lilt. Now in the big heroic fantasy sing the
first slow phrases as to the manner born and as naturally
break into a pæan of the full motive, mingled with
strains of the original legend of the symphony, that
flows on to broad hymnal cadence.
In mystic musing we reach a solemn
stillness where the prologue phrase is slowly drawn
out into a profoundly moving hymn. Here we must
feel is Meister Bruckner’s true poetic abode
rather than in the passion and ecstasy of romance
into which he was vainly lured.