“Half Simpleton, Half God”

Extraordinary art can arise from seemingly ordinary people. Anton Bruckner is a fine example of this. His life was filled with contradictions between his conventional character and his unconventional art.

Anton Bruckner was an insecure, devoutly religious 19th century Austrian composer who worshiped Beethoven and Wagner. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bruckner was not considered a child prodigy, and as an adult almost no-one regarded him as true genius. Indeed, much of his work was harshly reviewed in his lifetime, to the point where he would often revise and change his compositions based on the misguided opinions of his friends and peers. The classic image of the composer as a mad, temperamental visionary, born solely to unleash his music upon the world, doesn’t apply to Bruckner: he was, by all accounts, a good but unremarkable student as a boy, and a humble musician as a man. He was an accomplished organist who wrote no major works for the organ. He found fame late in life, past the age of 60, having spent almost two-thirds of his life teaching (and not always music). And although he was terrified of sin, he apparently developed an obsession with proposing marriage to teenage girls.

In contrast with his life and personality, his music is wild, dynamic, and hugely ambitious. Inspired by his hero Wagner, he filled his symphonies with insane dynamic shifts and endless repetition and re-interpretations of theme. His music is bold; the man himself was meek and painfully insecure. Even his physical appearance was bland. He looked like a melancholy potato.

Gustav Mahler, who was a huge Bruckner fan, described him as “half simpleton, half God”.

This coming Saturday, I’ll be attending the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, conducted by the legendary Zubin Mehta. I’ve seen classical music in small ensembles before, but this will be the first time I’ve ever seen a full orchestra. Starting with one of most famous orchestras in the world is comparable to seeing Led Zeppelin as your very first rock show, so I’m extremely excited.

Conductor Zubin Mehta shares a couple of awesome anecdotes about Bruckner on the Philharmonic website:

1) As I mentioned, Bruckner was an extremely committed Catholic. His favourite method of measuring the pauses in his symphonies was to note on the score how many “Hail Marys” he would recite in-between movements.

2) There’s a legend about the Eighth Symphony: Bruckner was riding a train, carrying the working manuscript for what would become the Eighth. He noticed an extremely beautiful woman (no doubt a teenager), and became so captivated by her that he followed her off the train at some random stop, leaving the original score for the Eighth on the train. The woman rejected him, as did all of his young love interests, and Bruckner realized he had left his score behind. It was later retrieved, but he came very close to losing the work that came to be regarded as his masterpiece.

Bruckner died in 1896. The study of his work has been muddied by his own habit of revising his compositions, and a lack of understanding of how a seemingly unremarkable man produced such remarkable music. And, in a stroke of extreme historical bad luck, one of the earliest catalogue studies of his music came from a Nazi. So, for these and many other reasons, Anton Bruckner remains a bit of an enigma. But his work speaks for itself.

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