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Anton Bruckner:  Guiding spirit of repose

In recent weeks, the evergreen Bernard Haitink has been conducting the LSO at the Barbican in Bruckner’s and Mahler’s ninth symphonies. You couldn’t hope for finer performances, nor for a better springboard from which to revisit the relationship between these composers, and specifically their ninths.

Both symphonies are set in D minor. (In Mahler’s case this requires some qualification: he employs a progressive tonality whereby the last movement falls back into D flat major). The choice is no accident: D minor is the key of Beethoven’s ninth itself. Its celebrated opening had so impressed Wagner that he paid an explicit if transformed homage to it in the prelude to Rheingold, which launches the Ring cycle. Although Bruckner is supposed to have possessed a character of simple piety, he approached his ninth symphony in no spirit of false modesty: it begins with a deliberate evocation of Beethoven’s sound-world, and there are other reminders in the first movement of the older looking over the younger composer’s shoulder. (Hans von Bülow apocryphally remarked that Bruckner intended the symphony to culminate with an Ode to Schadenfreude.) Mahler opens his ninth symphony with a falling cadence which, as will become apparent over the course of what follows, also looks back to Beethoven — to the farewell motto of the piano sonata Les Adieux — but the sonorities of this opening owe nothing to the earlier composer.

The very beginnings of both symphonies thus point up similarities and divergences between two composers who are often paired together. Mahler himself as a young man called Bruckner his forerunner, saying that his own creations followed the trail blazed by the older master. They were not contemporaries (their births were separated by 36 years), and in many ways they were utterly different — certainly temperamentally, to a great extent musically. Nevertheless it is easy to see why they are spoken of in the same breath. Together they close the Austro-German symphonic tradition begun by Haydn just a century and a half previously; they have a clear common ancestor in Schubert; and they both tend to express themselves on a colossal scale and at corresponding length. As Bruno Walter observes with heavy irony,  “the laconic idiom of restraint, the art of mere suggestion, involving economy of means and form, is not theirs”.

Walter knew Mahler well, and wrote an important essay in 1940 comparing the two composers. He was perhaps the first of many to identify what has since become a truism: that whereas the guiding spirit of Bruckner is repose, in Mahler it is unrest; that Mahler spent his life searching for God, whereas the fundamentally religious Bruckner had to endure no such struggle. Certainly, death in its various aspects is a main character in almost all of Mahler’s symphonies; one would not say the same of Bruckner’s canon. (Bruckner was nonetheless obsessed with death: he insisted on being present at the exhumations of Beethoven and Schubert in order to touch and kiss their skulls; Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was another whose corpse fascinated him. You feel the peculiarity of all this in the crypt of the abbey church of Saint Florian, near Linz, where Bruckner’s coffin lies before an eight foot high wall of skulls and amid other paraphernalia of mortality.)

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