Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is on the bill for performances April 20 and 22; SSO music director Ludovic Morlot says the composer is “trying to find answers to the big questions about life.”
In the preface to his 1942 book “Anton Bruckner: Rustic Genius,” conductor and musicologist Werner Wolff recalls how, as the son of Hermann Wolff, a founder of the Berlin Philharmonic, his childhood home was regularly visited by the likes of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Anton Rubinstein.
Such eminent guests impressed the young Wolff with their grand, “cosmopolitan manner.” Then there was Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, who said little, wore “voluminous baggy trousers [that] reminded me of countrymen…in the Alps,” frightened Wolff’s little sister to tears, and ate the fish on his plate with his fingers.
The oddness of that experience was washed away when Wolff’s father later played Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 from a score for piano. “What happened to me happens to everyone,” Wolff writes of first hearing that music. “Once you love Bruckner, you love him forever.”
Seattle Symphony: Bruckner’s Fifth
7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday, (April 20 and 22), at Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $22 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
It’s possible people unfamiliar with Bruckner’s Fifth but attending one of Seattle Symphony’s performances of the 80-minute work will come away loving him, too. It’s hard to put into words the welling up of deep feeling the Fifth — especially its fourth movement, which reflects its own hard-earned struggle for spiritual liberation and transcendence — inspires in a listener.
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“His music has an inner life to it,” says Seattle Symphony Orchestra music director Ludovic Morlot, who will conduct his first Bruckner symphony with this SSO program. “There is more than just gorgeous sound. I think Bruckner’s sound-world feels like an experiment, the trying of things, as much as a finished product. It’s very humble and humbling music, not unlike the music of Beethoven. You always feel he’s experimenting with an idea and trying to find answers to the big questions about life.”
Bruckner completed the Symphony No. 5 in 1876, making minor changes in following years. Its world premiere was much later — 1894 — in Graz, in a heavily altered version. Bruckner was ill and missed that performance; in fact, he never heard the Fifth played by an orchestra in his lifetime.
Such bad luck was typical of obstacles that Bruckner, born in 1824, endured all his life, beginning with childhood poverty and the death of his father, a schoolteacher, when Anton was 13. Bruckner was sent to one town after another to complete an education, his early aptitude for playing organ and composing only sporadically supported until he was given the post of church organist and teacher in Sankt Florian, Upper Austria.
Bruckner began serious studies in composing, becoming a modernist devoted to the music of Richard Wagner. He wrote nine symphonies, some deemed wild for their innovations, and did not receive broad appreciation until late in his life.
“Even from the first fourteen bars or so of the Fifth, you feel like you’re entering a universe that is not unlike the beginning of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold,’” says Morlot, who also believes Bruckner’s compositions reflect his reputation as a dazzling improviser on church organ.
“There’s a little of that sense of improvising in this music. It could go anywhere harmonically and rhythmically, so the landscape can suddenly change, just like playing the organ.”
Biographers of Bruckner typically note a gap between his bumpkin exterior and interior genius. By all accounts, he was a retiring figure with awkward manners and speech. He was friends with Mahler and Liszt but had no social life, proposed to many women but never married, and lived for his work and Catholic faith.
“There is nothing in his prosaic life to justify its influence on the development of his genius,” writes Wolff. “An immense reserve of psychic forces, originating in a realm not subject to the outside, must have been stored in the man, gifted so great a creative power.”
Morlot’s preparation for conducting the Fifth has included recent discussions with Bruckner specialists
“The big challenge is to build the architecture of the piece. I think I have enough patience to let that music be what it is without trying to do much with it,” he says, mentioning the temptation to rush through harmonically static passages.
“Not every orchestra can play Bruckner well. It does take control and discipline. The Seattle Symphony is in a place where we can make this music powerful, and not just by being overpowering. The orchestra can play this music and make it sing.”