My friend Zach has gotten a lot of play recently from this article in which he and one of his critic colleagues discuss Danny B’s recent Bruckner cycle at Carnegie Hall.
And since this kind of thing is catnip for me, I weighed in on twitter:
I acknowledge the power of Bruckner's music but its total lack of wit keeps me away plus it encourages every brass player's worst tendencies https://t.co/A0og9RxRlg
— Will White (@willcwhite) January 30, 2017
and of course that awakened the sleeping giant, the Bruckner People themselves:
There is not a single atom of wit in, say, Tristan und Isolde, or Beethoven's Op. 111 – according to this guy, that makes them unworthy. https://t.co/7bNQu8azOQ
— Gabriel P. Blessing (@GabeBlessing) January 31, 2017
(In case it isn’t clear, “this guy” is me.)
The first thing to note is that this Bruckner Person (who turned out to be a convivial fellow after all) tacitly agrees with my assertion – he’s not offering a counterclaim that Bruckner’s music in fact has wit. Rather he’s making a tangential argument: that a lack of wit in a composer’s music doesn’t make that that music unworthy. (And before we go on, let the record show that I never said anything about Bruckner’s music being ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ or anything in between, and frankly, I don’t know what that would even mean. You do you, Bruckner People!!)
To buttress his claim, the BP cited works which, according to him, are just as bereft of wit as are Bruckner’s, and I’m so glad he did, because in fact, I agree with him – I don’t think either of these pieces are witty either! Yet they are both works in which I absolutely delight, meaning that they are the perfect counterexamples to further investigate my thoughts and feelings about Bruckner’s music.
Here’s where we arrive at an important point, which is that I don’t hate Bruckner’s music, not by a long shot. Every one of his symphonies contains music that stirs my soul or pumps me up, and yet I find listening to them from start to finish a punishing experience.
I’ve written about this before, and the conclusion I came to back then was that, among the many modes of Bruckner’s music, the holiness, the loveliness, the drive, and the intensity, the element that’s totally lacking is wit (or, one might say, charm.)
But now we’re back where we started, which means its time to look at these counterexamples, letting it be stipulated that we are in agreement that, like the symphonies of Bruckner, there’s not a whit of wit to be found in either Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 111 or in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. So what qualities do they have that Bruckner’s music lacks?
Hold the phone though! We’re saying that Beethoven’s Op. 111 – the very boogie woogie sonata itself – isn’t witty?? This is literally one of those pieces that purveyors of classical music use to convince little kids that what they’re listening to is in fact ‘fun’:
And yeah OK, this is fun. It’s danceable and light and maybe even a little goofy. But I don’t think it’s really witty. (And, boy, I probably should have gotten to this a long time ago, but if you’re wondering what I mean by ‘wit’ in music, just go listen to everything Haydn ever wrote.)
The boogie woogie music serves as a leavening agent in a mostly serious piece, but this sonata contains multitudes: world-weary melancholy, bodily joy, smiling through sadness, philosophical introspection. And now we’re getting somewhere, because these are all items that I would add to the list of Elements Lacking in the Music of Anton Bruckner.
Elements Lacking in the Music of Anton Bruckner
- World-weary melancholy
- Bodily joy
- Smiling through sadness
- Philosophical introspection
Now we turn to Wagner, whose idiom shares many more surface similarities with Bruckner’s than Beethoven’s does – the brass-heavy orchestration, the tertial harmonies, the rhythmic drive, the sonic intensity. Both their musics play out over celestial timelines, and they’re both aiming to express the nature of gods and godliness.
But here’s the crucial distinction: whereas Bruckner’s art is the manifestation of his deep religious devotion to God, Wagner’s is an expression of both the divinity and the devilry of Man. Wagner’s characters, his gods, his heroes, and his magicians, are all intensely human, imbued through his music with lust, love, envy, and fury. They are pure id machines, motivated above all by an unmitigated sexual drive. Bruckner’s is the Music of the Spheres; Wagner’s is The Music of the Genitals.
OK then, it’s time for a new thesis: it’s not just wit that Bruckner’s music lacks, it’s Earthliness. If you really look at it, wit is an earthly characteristic – it’s is how clever people entertain themselves when they’re confronted with the messy realities of life on our planet.
What Bruckner’s music contains is Heavenliness, and that’s not a bad quality in and of itself. A sense of the divine is something we all need, and music is perhaps its most genuine expression. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and for me, sitting in a concert hall listening to one of Anton Bruckner’s gargantuan symphonies, I find the music is always hovering oppressively above me, too far out of reach for a real connection. Bruckner’s target audience seems to be God himself. And to bring it back to Zach’s point, maybe that’s why so many fascists enjoy it – it flatters their sense of divinity.