While working on this week's Bruckner column, I consulted John Williamson's Cambridge Companion to Bruckner, Julian Horton's Bruckner's Symphonies, and Benjamin Korstvedt's excellent short book on the Eighth Symphony, as well as classic older work by Robert Simpson and Deryck Cooke (some of whose conclusions no longer hold up). Korstvedt lucidly summarized the drift of modern Bruckner scholarship in a recent article for the New York Times. Dermot Gault's The New Bruckner, published last year by Ashgate, arrived as my article went to press, and I've been looking through it this week. Like Korstvedt, Gault questions the image of Bruckner as a naïve soul who let himself be bossed around by musical colleagues. The composer's unending work of revision, far from being a display of insecurity, was in fact integral to his development of new ideas of symphonic form. Gault also has a good section on the Finale of the Ninth Symphony, which he calls a "damaged fresco" — an excellent metaphor for the music that remains.
In an analysis of the Bruckner cult during the Third Reich, Gault defends the composer from the suspicion that he was any sort of extreme nationalist or fascist-in-the-making. Yet I wonder if Gault is a little too quick to separate Bruckner from anti-Semitic feeling. It's true that the most severe remark Bruckner made on the subject of the Jews seems to have been a question he posed to a Jewish student: "Tell me, do you really think that the Messiah has not come?" Not exactly Georg von Schönerer. Yet Margaret Notley, in a 2006 essay for 19th Century Music, points out that in 1891 Bruckner wrote a letter to the music critic Hans Puchstein thanking him for his "brilliant, splendid article” on the Third Symphony. As it happens, Puchstein's piece appeared on the front page of the notorious anti-Semitic paper Deutsches Volksblatt, in the company of a rant against the Rothschilds. Immediately below the review was a slogan in boldface: “Kauft nur bei Christen!” ("Buy only from Christians!"). So Bruckner could hardly have been unaware of the political leanings of some of his most vociferous fans.
There is certainly a nationalist strain in Bruckner's choral-orchestral setting Helgoland, his final completed piece. But the Ninth is something else again: a work resistant to affirmation, tilting toward tortured interior regions. Ludwig Wittgenstein was a Bruckner fan, and in the writings collected in Culture and Value he makes the fascinating, surprising observation that Bruckner's Ninth seems "a sort of protest against Beethoven's," comparing it to Lenau's Faust versus Goethe's. (The remark, from 1938, uncannily anticipates Thomas Mann's famous phrase about "taking back" the Ninth, in Doctor Faustus.) Two years before his death, Bruckner wrote in his diary, “Is that which Faith calls the immortal soul of man only an organic reaction of the brain?” What we know of the Ninth's Finale suggests that Bruckner was planning no simple, triumphal answers to such questions. Faith would have won out in the end, but not without an enormous struggle, bordering on madness. At the end of his life, Bruckner was seen reciting the Lord's Prayer at the top of his voice, repeating each line for emphasis. He is also said to have suggested that if he did not live to finish the Ninth then God would have only Himself to blame.