Anton Bruckner has been viewed as a fawning acolyte of Richard Wagner’s, which he no doubt was. Yet it must be said that his hero-worship of Wagner amounted to much more than mere artistic reverence. Though Bruckner’s discovery of Wagner’s music aged 38 undoubtedly catalysed his transition from meek church musician to bombastic symphonist, the resulting body of work was far removed from its original inspiration.

Wagner and Bruckner © Pierre Petit / Otto Schmitt
Wagner and Bruckner
© Pierre Petit / Otto Schmitt

Much has been made of Bruckner’s well-documented idolising of Wagner, and this has often worked against the former’s reputation. Bruckner was introduced to the music of Wagner by his teacher Otto Kitzler in 1863. He had until that point been working as a church musician in a monastery, but this immersion in the older artists’ epic music dramas set him on the path toward becoming a composer of symphonies. The Wagner connection would come to haunt Bruckner, both posthumously and in his own lifetime. As Bruckner’s name grew, he caught the attention of the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, who invited him to come and work in Vienna. Ironically, Hanslick’s motive had been to promote the work of a classically-oriented composer who would counteract what he saw as the pernicious modernist influence of Wagner. Once the critic learned of Bruckner’s Wagnerian sympathies, however, the Viennese press rounded swiftly on the composer from Linz.

Eduard Hanslick © Wikimedia Commons
Eduard Hanslick
© Wikimedia Commons

The Wagner connection proved even more unfortunate for Bruckner during the next century, long after his death. Wagner’s political radicalism and evocation of Germanic myths saw him famously appropriated by the Nazis, and in seeking to carve out a suitably Germanic cultural legacy the regime predictably extended its admiration to Wagner’s number one fan, Bruckner. In 1937 a bust of the composer – stood on a pedestal depicting the Nazi swastika and eagle – was erected in the Regensburg Walhalla, the unveiling ceremony being attended by none other than the Führer himself. In a speech during the ceremony, Goebbels was sure to highlight the Wagnerian elements of Bruckner. With such associations, it’s no doubt that Bruckner’s indebtedness to Wagner has coloured popular perception and performance practices of his work.

Indeed, Wagnerian influences are undeniably present in Bruckner’s work. Before being introduced to Wagner’s music in 1863, and attending the first performance of Tristan und Isolde in Munich two years later – another epiphanic moment – Bruckner had been fascinated by the formalism of Italian and German polyphony. After Wagner, all of these conceptions of order were exploded for Bruckner. He absorbed Wagner’s ideas about expanding the orchestra, particularly in his use of reinforced brass sections (he also employed Wagner tubas in his final three symphonies). Similarly, he introduced Wagner’s harmonic innovations into his own symphonic work. Bruckner attended the Bayreuth performance of the Ring cycle in 1876 (see music from the cycle performed here by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic) and his Third Symphony, sometimes known as his “Wagner Symphony”, quotes heavily from his hero’s work, particularly the strings from Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture. When Bruckner met Wagner shortly before the publication of his third attempt at a symphony, he showed both his Second and Third to the older composer, asking which one he’d like to be dedicated to him. In beer-addled high spirits, Bruckner reportedly forgot which one Wagner had specified and had to write to him, asking him to jog his memory. The resulting dedication for the Third Symphony made no bones about who it had been inspired by, reading: “To the eminent Excellency Richard Wagner the Unattainable, World-Famous, and Exalted Master of Poetry and Music, in Deepest Reverence Dedicated by Anton Bruckner”. One gets the feeling that Eduard Hanslick’s damning appraisal of the symphony as “a vision of Beethoven's Ninth becoming friendly with Wagner's Valkyries and finishing up being trampled under their hooves” may well have seemed like a compliment to Bruckner.

Wagner in 1871 © Franz Hanfstaengl | Public domain
Wagner in 1871
© Franz Hanfstaengl | Public domain

Yet there are ways in which Bruckner stepped out of the shadows of his guiding artistic light. Perhaps most important is that fact that the two composers were fighting decidedly different battles. Wagner, the radical, saw Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as an end-of-history monument that signalled the death of the symphonic form, provoking him to develop his own ideas about art and music into the concept of the music drama. Bruckner, meanwhile, doggedly pursued the symphonic form in an attempt to further Beethoven’s legacy.

Bruckner continued to hone his craft after the disastrously-received Third Symphony, which received a deluge of heckles and jeers from the Viennese public at its première. In 1881 he completed his Sixth Symphony, a piece which he considered to be his “boldest”. The four-movement composition, however, is not considered to be amongst his finest work, and some conductors have even gone so far as to disregard Bruckner’s tempo markings altogether. More recently, however, appraisals of the work have come to appreciate the fluidity and dynamism of Bruckner’s musical expressions. Far from the stodgy and monolithic brush that Bruckner is often tarred with, this is a work which covers a wide range of moods. See it performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Moreover, when Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony premiered in 1884, the critical consensus finally began to tip in the composer’s favour, with the respected conductor Arthur Nikisch enthusing: “Since Beethoven there had been nothing that could even approach it”. Audiences were enraptured by the work’s strong themes – one of which was said to have come to Bruckner in a dream – and the ominous dynamics of the first movement. Yet as ever, the spectre of Wagner was never far from the composer’s mind: reportedly, Bruckner was aware of his idol’s imminent death when writing the piece and included mournful music in the Adagio to honour his hero. Now one of his best-loved symphonies, see the Seventh performed here by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

Hermann von Kaulbach's painting of Bruckner, 1885 © Rudolf Lehr | Public domain
Hermann von Kaulbach's painting of Bruckner, 1885
© Rudolf Lehr | Public domain

By the time of his Eighth Symphony – the last one he would finish – Bruckner was firmly established as an ambitious symphonist who had breathed new life into the form. It took him over five years to complete the work to his satisfaction, and one can see the painstaking efforts Bruckner made in the ambitious instrumental writing. The wind parts are in triplicate, and three harps are also required. Dynamics fluctuate in wave-like patterns, accumulating in a climactic finale in which themes from all four of the movements are restated simultaneously. It is considerd to be the composer’s most complex work, and one that still delights in its tempestuous range of emotions. Bruckner himself was well aware of the portentous aura of the work, writing that the theme from the first movement is a “death announcement which from time to time appears, louder each time, and at the end is very loud: the surrender”. Watch the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Alan Gilbert perform the arresting work here.

So, while Bruckner’s affirmed reverence for Wagner was undoubtedly an impediment to a close understanding of his work for generations, one only need look at his mature symphonies to see the ways in which he independently forged his own artistic legacy. Whether viewed as a naive genius or a sycophantic bore, the fact remains that Bruckner affected a significant and idiosyncratic influence on the tradition of symphonic composition.