From Heavenly Harmony
A Mysterious Sense of Rightness
by Ken Myers
Few composers have prompted as intense and diverse a chorus of responses as Anton Bruckner (1824–1896). His contemporary Johannes Brahms dismissed Bruckner's massive symphonies as "a swindle that will be forgotten in a few years." On the other hand, more than a few years later, Ludwig Wittgenstein would remark: "I don't believe a note of Gustav Mahler. I believe every note of Anton Bruckner." While some listeners are attracted to his music at first hearing—an attraction that deepens with time—others adamantly deny that there's anything there worth loving. In 2012, Jessica Ducken, a music journalist for The Independent, wrote a cranky column entitled "-Anton Bruckner makes me lose the will to live," complaining that she had tried to learn to like Bruckner's music for 30 years and never succeeded. (Doth she protest too much? And why, one wonders.)
Most of the fuss about Bruckner usually concerns his symphonies, which are demanding even for the most sympathetic listener. His nine symphonies have been likened to "cathedrals in sound" because of their monumental scale and their sense of huge, mysterious, and dark spaces punctuated by shafts of light. They also convey the apparently paradoxical moods sometimes experienced when one walks through (or prays in) a cathedral: "rigor and opulence, simplicity and ecstasy, anxiousness and solemnity follow each other in quick succession," writes musicologist Constantin Floros. "Add to that a fairly singular synthesis of the archaic and the modern." Echoes of the confident security of plainchant and Palestrina are juxtaposed with nervous harmonic meanderings that disturb and disorient.
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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