June 16, 2024

Anton Bruckner: When Politics Alter a Musical Reputation

Author: Dr. Bjorn Mercer
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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

Anton Bruckner was a Western classical music composer who was born near Linz in 1824, in what is now present-day Austria. Bruckner was a small-town boy who became one of the greatest organists in Europe, who focused on religious music for his first few decades and did not try his hand at writing symphonies until he moved to Vienna well into his 40s.

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Bruckner adored Richard Wagner to a fault, was a very devout Catholic when many of his peers were not that religious, was an odd duck, and was more of a country bumpkin than a cosmopolitan musician such as Franz Liszt, Wagner, or Gustav Mahler. As Swiss-American scholar and composer Leon Botstein once stated, “During his lifetime, Bruckner was cast, with his blessing, as the antipode of cosmopolitanism: a beacon of genuine Austro-German sensibility marked by love of the Austrian countryside and devotion to Catholicism.”

Bruckner’s years in Vienna were successful yet difficult. While teaching at the University of Vienna, he wrote his nine symphonies that were constantly criticized by the people who followed Johannes Brahms, such as the music critic Eduard Hanslick.

Bruckner made just enough money to live on and taught various students, including composer Gustav Mahler. However, he struggled with his orchestral compositions and was constantly revising his symphonies to meet the tastes of the Vienna public, critics, and conductors.

Bruckner did achieve a certain amount of fame with his fellow musicians and the public. He was decorated with the Order of Franz Joseph in 1886 and was well known as a great composer by the time he died in 1896.

Bruckner’s Legacy Becomes Tainted by a Nazi Association

Adolf Hitler liked Bruckner and identified with him. During his youth, Hitler lived in Linz, the same city where Bruckner spent his first few decades. Hitler was also a frustrated artist in Vienna, also like Bruckner, but Bruckner developed his immense talent and found success.

Once the Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933, they started censoring and controlling everything, including music. In Clark Now, author Mary Jane Rein explains how the Third Reich co-opted music in her review of a talk given by Clark University music professor Benjamin Korstvedt:  “Authoritarian regimes, Korstvedt explained, take music more seriously than democratic governments, both to harness its emotional resonance and to control its potentially unsettling political meanings.”

In fact, the Nazis put much pressure on composers of the time, including many Jewish composers. As a result, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Berthold Goldschmidt, Alexander Zemlinsky and Ernst Toch left Germany for either England or the U.S.

It is well known that Hitler loved the operas of Richard Wagner and Wagner’s anti-Semitism. To balance opera music with symphony music, Hitler found fellow Austrian Bruckner to glorify.

Bruckner was one in a long line of Germanic symphonists, including Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. The Nazis could not use the music of Bruckner’s student Gustav Mahler or Ernst Toch because of their Jewish backgrounds.

There was another benefit of using Bruckner as a musical ideal. In The Guardian, writer Tom Service states that “the Nazis had an opportunity to remake Bruckner in their own image. His biography is short on detail…was a blank canvas on which the Third Reich could paint their vision of a völkisch [ethnic] Wagnerian symphonist.”

Co-Opting Bruckner as a German National Hero

As author Alex Ross said in a New Yorker article, “Hitler embraced Bruckner as a German national hero and used bits of his music as sonic décor at the Nuremberg rallies.” In addition, Bruckner’s music was “routinely played on radio broadcasts, was performed in government-sponsored festivals, and was the subject of frequent articles in the popular press and in scholarly publications.”

To top off their adulation of Bruckner, the Nazis dedicated a bust of Bruckner at Walhalla, the German Hall of Fame, in 1937 (you can see a picture of Hitler looking fondly at his bust). The Adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was played during the announcement of Hitler’s death.

In all reality, it is hard not to couple Bruckner with the Nazis.

The View of Bruckner after World War II

After World War II and after so much human suffering, Germany and the world began to reflect. Music scholars changed how they interpreted Bruckner and focused on his music, rather than made-up cultural elements of this composer and his life.

However, scholars and musicians did not address the Nazi appropriation of Bruckner head-on. Korstvedt noted in The Musical Quarterly that “some of the more conceptually slippery dimensions of the traditions of reception fostered by National Socialism still haunt our engagements with Bruckner and his music.”

In an interesting article in High Fidelity in 1963, musicians in countries surrounding Germany could not stand to listen to this composer. To them, Bruckner’s music “represented everything about Germany we hate, the marching boots, the concentration camps.”

As the author Robbins Landon stated, “nobody is half-hearted about Bruckner: you either worship his music or hate it.” Even in the U.S., which was not directly impacted by German aggression on the ground, the National Socialists and their spin of Bruckner exerted an influence. As Brian Gilliam stated in a 1996 New York Times article, “Still, public opinion remains heavily influenced by an image of Bruckner fostered by the Nazis.”

Bruckner’s Guilt by Association

The story of the true Anton Bruckner is confusing. He was an immensely talented musician and composer who lived a quiet life.

Besides being one of the greatest organists of his time, he wrote immensely meditative and spiritual religious music such as the Te Deum and his Masses. Bruckner is considered by some music experts as the greatest symphonist since Beethoven with his nine symphonies (along with Gustav Mahler).

But because the Nazis co-opted Bruckner four decades after he died and because his music was so closely associated with them — especially when Hitler died — it is difficult not to associate him with the Nazis.

Bruckner’s complicated legacy warns us that people can take artistic works and use them for their own purposes. Bruckner as an artist had no say in how his music was used, performed and perceived after his death.

Bruckner also had no family to help shape his musical legacy like Mozart and Wagner. Because this happened to Bruckner, he has been forever linked to the Nazis and their legacy of death and destruction. His story will always be a cautionary tale of the political appropriation of art.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

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