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Bruckner Symphony No. 8 in C minor, WAB 108, (c) Eugen Jochum

By June 16, 2022March 19th, 2023No Comments

I am selecting Bruckner’s 8th Symphony because it is tremendous music, possibly because people don’t listen to Bruckner very often, and more than likely because of the conductor, Eugen Jochum. There is some written commentary below about both Bruckner and Jochum. Bruckner was not fully appreciated during his lifetime. Jochum, on the other hand, was a famous conductor who had some trouble with denazification after the war. Commenting on German, Austrian, and Swiss artists’ activities during WWII is something that must be done very delicately and with more specialization than I have. Jochum was denazified by the Americans and the British. He is by far and away the greatest conductor of Bruckner whom I have ever heard.

Eugen Jochum

(November 1,1902 -March 26,1987) was an eminent German conductor. Jochum was born to a Roman Catholic family in Babenhausen, near Augsburg, Germany; his father was an organist and conductor. Jochum studied the piano and organ in Augsburg, enrolling in its Academy of Music from 1914 to 1922. He then studied at the Munich Conservatory, with his composition teacher being Hermann von Waltershausen; it was there that he changed his focus to conducting, his teacher being Siegmund von Hausegger, who conducted the first performance of the original version of the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner and made the first recording of it.

By his early thirties, Jochum had already attained a very high level of achievement. In 1934 Jochum succeeded Karl Böhm as musical director of the Hamburg State Opera and the Hamburg Philharmonic. Throughout the Nazi era, Hamburg remained, as Jochum put it, “reasonably liberal”, and Jochum was even able to keep his post despite not joining the party. He performed music by composers such as Hindemith and Bartók, elsewhere banned by the Nazis. In 1944, Joseph Goebbels included Jochum in the Gottbegnadeten list.

In the postwar denazification initiatives, however, British and American authorities had a “high-level disagreement” over Jochum that was “an exception” to the usual pattern of British authorities following the American lead: after “initially clearing” Jochum and selecting him to conduct the Munich Philharmonic in May 1945, the American authorities temporarily blacklisted him on grounds that he “had done exceptionally well” during the war and that his brothers had been “fanatical” Nazis; but British authorities “found no fault” with Jochum, arguing that he had never been a member of the Nazi party, SS or Sturmabteilung, had remained a “convinced Roman Catholic,” and had “not compromised his artistic integrity.” By 1948, the American authorities had determined that they could find no evidence of his joining any Nazi organizations.

A little about Bruckner

Compositional fame came late to Anton Bruckner, and it was not until his sixties that he was truly appreciated as a composer. Throughout his lifetime, he had often been considered a social joke: a boor who spoke with a countrified accent, presented a consistently disheveled in appearance with baggy pants and sagging jackets, had a terrible time with women (there were nine marriage proposals, none accepted), drank heavily (Pilsner beer) and lived in an apartment which cleaning women often refused to clean up. For years, his loving sister “Nani” did most of the cleaning. August Stradal recalled visiting one of Bruckner’s’ apartments and he reported; “in the middle of the first room there was a very old Bösendorfer grand piano, and its white keys could scarcely be distinguished from its black keys as a consequence of dust and snuff. “ He had only two books: the Bible and a biography of Napoleon which he reread constantly. Manuscripts of his symphonies and masses lay mixed with newspaper articles and correspondence. The composer was a devout Catholic, mired in fanatical Catholicism, encapsulated in psychological isolation and his fascination with death. His only constant companions were his music, his organ, and his religion.

To some, the composer was also a professional joke, writing strange, meandering, indulgent music which was incomprehensible. The nine symphonies lay at the heart of his instrumental compositions. He revised numbers 1–6 endlessly and compulsively, “always hoping that his own conceptions would be favored by posterity” not the many versions with cuts and changes added by well meaning friends.

Extensive promotion by Mahler and Furtwängler was critical in securing his symphonies’ eventual credit and acclaim. During Bruckner’s lifetime, the prominent Viennese critic Arthur Hanslick was a constant burr under the saddle, with vitriolic pen handy, at all times ready to humiliate and criticize anything Bruckner wrote. Some of Hanslick’s favorite adjectives for Bruckner’s music were “decayed, naïve, insane, inflated, and unnatural.” Music that resembled Wagner always set Hanslick into a frenzy. Bruckner was an easy mark. However: Buckner was not about to change. “They want me to write differently. Certainly I could do, but I must not. God has given me, of all people, this talent. It is to Him that I must give account” (quoted in A. Giollerich,. Anton Bruckner) In his sixties, he worked on his Seventh Symphony between 1881–1883, and was not so susceptible to the opinions of others—he finally had confidence. Number Seven was only revised once, in 1885.

For Bruckner, Wagner was a second deity. His expansive thinking, vision, and colorful, gigantic musical structures were deeply influential, if not controlling models. David Ewen explained that Bruckner sought to “carry over into his symphonic writing some of the grandeur, sublimity, symbolism epical designs of the Wagnerian music drama.” When Bruckner finally met his idol in 1873 in Bayreuth (an event celebrating Bruckner’s Third Symphony), Wagner was amused at this adulation and coaxed the simple but talented musikant into a wildly drunken state.

Bruckner 8th Symphony
Composed: 1884-1887, rev. 1887-1890

Critical and popular approval arrived for Anton Bruckner in 1884, his 60th year, with the enthusiastic reception accorded his Seventh Symphony when it was introduced at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert conducted by Arthur Nikisch. The composer, after years of opposition from the musical establishment – particularly from the partisans of Brahms in their battles with the adherents of Wagner – was ready to be regarded as his own man rather than an anti-Brahmsian or a Wagnerian.

A change in Bruckner’s concept of sonority enters with the Seventh, and is maintained in the two succeeding, and final, symphonies. While the characteristic Bruckner “organ sonorities” remain (Bruckner and his contemporary César Franck were the first important composers since J.S. Bach whose primary instrument was the organ), there is now a heightened emphasis on the dark, rich sonorities of low brass, including in all three works a quartet of so-called Wagner tubas, a cross between the tuba and French horn.

The success of the Seventh did wonders for Bruckner’s fragile self-esteem, so much so that he embarked with unprecedented determination on what would be his largest symphonic creation, the Eighth Symphony.

The Eighth occupied Bruckner for three years, whereupon the score was sent to the conductor Hermann Levi, who had been entrusted by Wagner with the Bayreuth Parsifal premiere in 1882 at which, incidentally, Bruckner was in the audience. Bruckner had found in Levi what he thought would be his ultimate champion. Levi had, after all, also led his Te Deum in Munich and had helped raise funds for the publication of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. Levi was, however, completely bewildered by the Eighth Symphony and rejected it.

It was the great tragedy of Bruckner’s life that he valued too many opinions too highly, and would act on them to his own detriment. In this instance, Levi’s rejection plunged the composer into profound depression. The final consequence, however, was not artistic paralysis, but a manic need to re-write, not only the Eighth, but his first five numbered symphonies, which were substantially revised between 1887 and 1891.

Whether the changes in the Eighth reflect Levi’s views – it seems that he did not so much suggest revising the symphony as scrapping it – we don’t know. What is clear is that Bruckner did away with the first movement’s loud coda in favor of the present soft one, ending the movement as it had begun, in mystery, and he wrote an entirely new trio for the scherzo. Finally, at the behest of the conductor Franz Schalk, the composer overhauled both the slow movement and the finale.

All of this resulted in three different versions of the Symphony, bringing us to the thorny subject of Bruckner “editions.” To touch on the matter as lightly as possible, the scholarly edition conducted by Lorin Maazel is by Leopold Nowak, published in 1955 and based on Bruckner’s 1890 version. For further clarification, the reader is referred to the late Deryck Cooke’s essay on the composer in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Vienna, where Bruckner had lived, embattled, often scorned, was the scene of the Eighth Symphony’s premiere the week before Christmas, 1892. The conductor was yet another eminent Wagnerian, Hans Richter; the orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, playing in the Musikverein, its home to this day. The Eighth, like its predecessor, was a success. Portions of the music even won a kind of grudging approval from the waspish critic Eduard Hanslick. “A stormy ovation,” Hanslick wrote, “waving of handkerchiefs from the standees, innumerable recalls, laurel wreaths. For Bruckner, the concert was certainly a triumph. Whether Richter performed a similar favor for his audience is doubtful. The program seems to have been presented only for the sake of a noisy minority.” The composer Hugo Wolf, on the other hand, wearing his critic’s hat and writing in the fashionable Wiener Salonblatt, called it “the creation of a giant, surpassing in spiritual dimension and magnitude all the other symphonies of the master.”

If the Eighth is, like the others, Wagnerian in its sonority, its architecture is derived from Beethoven, most notably his Ninth Symphony. Bruckner’s Symphony, like Beethoven’s, begins with a murmurous, misty “background,” out of which emerges a vast construct, with three major thematic subjects. The principal theme is based on two rhythmic motifs, the first dotted (a sort of motto, heard throughout the Symphony), the second among the composer’s most frequently employed figures, two quarter notes followed by a triplet. There’s a gorgeously arching second theme, in G, then a third, in E-flat minor, whose billowing crescendos take the exposition to its climax. The development is, considering the richness of its content and the size of the entire Symphony, remarkably compact.

Wolf regarded this opening movement as “simply shattering, destroying every attempt at criticism.” One should nonetheless point out, among many memorable moments, the grand climax of the recapitulation, with trumpets and horns thundering out the dotted rhythm of the main theme ten times, an episode Bruckner referred to as “the announcement of death,” followed by a tense silence and three pianissimo timpani rolls.

The scherzo, a ferocious, menacing dance, is placed second, a practice initiated by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. It is predicated on a repeated five-note figure (C, E-flat, F, G, G) that pounds itself into the brain, as Bruckner scholar Robert Simpson noted in his The Essence of Bruckner, like “the constant thud of a colossal celestial engine beyond even Milton’s imagining.”

The vast Adagio is to many observers Bruckner’s crowning achievement (he thought so himself) – whose design, rather than its harmonies or thematic content, resembles, again, the comparable movement in Beethoven’s Ninth. The opening material, which couldn’t have been written without the precedent of the “Liebesnacht” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is contrasted by an even more heart-rending theme, announced by the cellos.

The fourth movement is music of intense cumulative energy which, to quote Simpson again, “is the greatest specimen of Bruckner’s new kind of finale… The best way to appreciate its grandeur… is to imagine some great architect wandering in and about his own cathedral, sometimes stirred and exhilarated, sometimes stock-still in rapt thought.” The coda, in blazing C major, reviews the opening themes of all four movements, while summoning up visions of the Rheingold finale: the gods crossing the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla.

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