There is always something to be learned by visiting the place where an artist grew up. But it wasn’t until I actually set foot in the Upper Austrian village of Ansfelden, birthplace of Anton Bruckner, that I began to realise how much the location made sense in terms of Bruckner’s development as a composer. Ansfelden is a picturesque little town, an incarnation in timber, bricks and mortar of Gemütlichkeit – cosiness, snugness, amiability. It’s the kind of mood Bruckner often evokes to perfection in the trio sections of his mighty symphonic scherzos: simple rustic dances or guilelessly charming serenades – the Third and Fourth Symphonies offer classic examples.
Above all, Ansfelden feels safe. In his early years as a schoolteacher Bruckner often added to his miserable salary by playing piano or violin in village dances. (He was also an excellent dancer until well into his sixties – worth bearing in mind the next time you hear a conductor take the dance-inspired sections in his symphonies at ponderous, reverential tempos.) But home life would have been far from unalloyed Gemütlichkeit. Granted, his parents were both loving and musical. His father, the village schoolmaster and church organist, even trusted young Anton to carry out some of his musical duties when his own health began to fail. Living with a father slowly dying of tuberculosis was bad enough, but Bruckner’s mother must have been in an almost constant state of pregnancy or post-natal stress. According to church baptismal records, she gave birth to 11 children after Anton, seven of these dying in infancy.
Living in a house with so much death in the air left its mark on the composer. Bruckner described the final climax of the Eighth Symphony’s first movement as ‘The Annunciation of Death’ and compared the slow fading drumbeat at the end to the ticking of a clock in the room of a dying man. The next time you are struck by the extraordinary power of that passage, it might be worth remembering that this was a composer who at the age of 12 had sat by his father’s bedside and watched him die.
So moving soon after to the Augustinian monastery of St Florian, where he sang as a chorister and was encouraged to compose, may not have been too much of a wrench. Lacking a father at this crucial stage in his development, Bruckner would probably have found himself spoilt for choice when it came to finding paternal substitutes among the Augustinian Brothers. But then there was, of course, another father figure present in almost every aspect of life at St Florian, a personage who was to be Bruckner’s refuge to the end of his life – God.
The intensity of Bruckner’s religious faith is legendary. His Ninth and last symphony, tragically left unfinished at his death in 1896, was – as he proudly announced on several occasions – to be dedicated ‘to the dear Lord’. And there were times when Bruckner’s need of his faith was great, as in the years of neglect following the catastrophic premiere of the Third Symphony in 1877. Accounts of that event make dismal reading: the hall gradually emptied, leaving around two dozen supporters; the orchestra then simply packed up and left. The critics were mostly savage.
Today St Florian still reveals plenty about Bruckner. There is the chapel, where he frequently played and composed at one of the three organs. Those sudden cut-offs, sometimes followed by several bars of silence, often encountered in the symphonies and large-scale choral works, need an acoustic like this: one that will enable those massive fortissimos to reverberate for more than a split second without muddying the textures. The chapel’s opulent decoration reminds us of the rich instrumental tracery that often surrounds his melodies and chromatic harmonies – enriched by experience of Wagner and Mozart.
But there is one feature of St Florian above all which has a direct bearing on Bruckner’s music, and particularly on the symphonies – the sense of order. Like religious architects in every age, the men who planned and built the monastery of St Florian sought to reflect in its proportions the divine order of creation. Similarly, the composer’s finished scores and his various sketches reveal his fascination, an obsession even, with musical proportion: every bar is numbered, in units of 1 to 4, 1 to 8, 1 to 12, and so on, at times in tandem with detailed harmonic analyses.
Some commentators have dismissed Bruckner’s workings as neurosis. He suffered from extreme mood swings, and at his most depressed or anxious would resort to obsessive counting rituals – there’s an alarming account by a friend of him being found in a field, just before his terrible 1866 mental breakdown, trying desperately to count the leaves on a tree! But look at two scores that survived from Bruckner’s library – Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem – and you’ll find the same numbering of bars and cataloguing of harmonies in Bruckner’s handwriting. Like a medieval architect pacing out the dimensions of his cathedral, he was trying to understand the proportions of these masterworks.
Yet Bruckner’s own symphonies are not just ‘cathedrals in sound’; they are also the passionately expressive creations of a late Romantic, a worshipper of Wagner. The peace and proportion of St Florian were a goal to be striven for, not an omnipresent environment. Sometimes Bruckner achieves that goal: at the end of the Eighth Symphony the contrapuntal fusion of the themes of the four movements is perhaps his greatest musical symbol of the reconciliation of dark and light. But in the following symphony, the Ninth, we hear the terrifying unresolved dissonance at the climax of the Adagio – a vision of chaos and apparent denial of the transcendent order of the Eighth. That both possibilities are alive in Bruckner’s music is what makes it human and more than mere monumental masonry.