The abundance of opportunities to hear the music of Gustav Mahler in Davies Symphony Hall here in San Francisco seems to be matched only by the paucity of opportunities to hear anything by Anton Bruckner. As a young, arrogant, and therefore foolish student, I had little tolerance for Bruckner’s music and held to the distorted precept that Mahler figured out how to succeed where Bruckner had failed. It was only after my first contact with Henry-Louis de La Grange’s biography of Mahler, as originally published in English by Doubleday, that I began to appreciate the relationship between these two composers.
One sentence from de La Grange captures the beginning of that relationship:
When Mahler entered the university of Vienna on October 1, 1877, he immediately joined Bruckner’s harmony class.
More relevant, however, may be one of the preceding paragraphs:
Whatever one may think of Bruckner’s music—which, despite its real greatness and its undeniable beauty, demands of the listener a spiritual repose rare west of the Rhine—one must admire the warmhearted man, the teacher, the generous older musician constantly discovering and helping talented younger men, and exercising a beneficial influence on the destinies of Mahler, Hugo Wolf, [Hans] Rott, and many others.
I find this interesting in the context of one particular individual among those who “may think” of Bruckner and of those he influenced. That individual is the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. The audio documentary that is included in Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Great EMI Recordings makes it clear that Furtwängler did not think very much of Mahler. Nevertheless, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau discusses the experience of recording the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with Furtwängler; and I find it interesting that the EMI producers decided that this was the recording they would include in their Complete Works collection, which they released for Mahler’s 150th birthday. I find it equally interesting that Fischer-Dieskau mentioned only one Mahler symphony that Furtwängler conducted, the third, which, by just about any criterion, has to go down as one of the most unwieldy.
Compare what we thus know about Furtwängler’s opinion of Mahler with that 107-CD collection, Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy, which includes six CDs, one for each of Bruckner’s fourth, fifth, sixth (but only in excerpts), seventh, eighth, and ninth symphonies. I remember the ninth, because it was in the Deutsche Grammophon vinyl collection through which I first came to appreciate Furtwängler; but I had no idea that he had recorded so much of the man, particular in comparison with how little he had recorded of Mahler. Now, as I approach these recordings, I find myself thinking about how little Bruckner I have heard in performance. The fact is that I have only heard Bruckner performed by the San Francisco Symphony (which Michael Tilson Thomas has fashioned into a world-class champion of Mahler) and only on two occasions in Davies Symphony Hall. One was in February of 2010 during one of Herbert Blomstedt’s annual returns as Conductor Laureate, when he performed the sixth symphony in A major. The other was about a year earlier, when Kurt Masur was making one of his periodic return visits to the San Francisco Symphony and chose to couple Sofia Gubaidulina’s “The Light of the End” with Bruckner’s fourth.
Does Bruckner deserve a better shake? He certainly gets one from Furtwängler, and Masur and Blomstedt seem to have had no trouble passing on that torch. I also find de La Grange’s grounds to criticism to be a bit amusing, at least in the context of my own listening habits and the opportunities to cultivate those habits. The fact is that, when I think about spirituality among composers, my first thoughts turn almost immediately to the intense Catholic faith of Olivier Messiaen. In the context of de La Grange’s remark, I immediately recognize that France is as much west of the Rhine as we are, even if it is a bit closer! Admittedly, Messiaen may also run a bit short of champions; but there seems to be more of a tendency to embrace his spirituality, probably because of the ways in which it is coupled to his modernism, while Bruckner is better remembered for that supportive personality that de La Grange cites. This is probably an unfair perspective, but public preferences are rarely grounded in factors that can be traced back to listening experiences.