Cancel culture: Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no. 0

March 24, 2023 0 Comments
Anton Bruckner, c1860

Great artists, we like to think, pursue their vision and practise their craft sustained by an inner self-belief.  Beethoven, Picasso or George Eliot may feel moments of blockage or uncertainty, but their confidence carries them through to completion, and they’ll seldom allow themselves to be bullied by critics into revising or tearing up work they’ve already presented to the public.

But what happens when artists, however talented, lack the internal toughness to withstand attacks by others?   What will they do with their wounded creations?  And how will they bring themselves to create new work that might attract more harsh criticism?  Some artists find themselves with no choice but to bend and change direction in the face of assault.  Dmitri Shostakovich, when Stalin attacked his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, withdrew his Fourth symphony and wrote another, his Fifth, in a less challenging style and with a label attached, ‘a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism’. To do otherwise could have led to imprisonment, exile or death.  Shostakovich chose survival, and, from this point on, resorted to irony and ambiguity in the music he published.

For another great musician, Anton Bruckner, the choice might have appeared more open.  But as a composer Bruckner suffered from a chronic lack of self-confidence.  He lived in constant fear of negative reactions to his symphonies, and his reaction to attacks when they occurred was extreme.

It’s interesting that in other parts of his musical life Bruckner seems to have found it much easier to manage his disability.  He started out not as a composer but as a church organist.  He was, everyone agreed, an exceptional performer, who could improvise with ease and power.  Composing vocal music, too, didn’t raise the same difficulties: again, everyone could agree that his motets and masses were worthy of praise.  And of course Bruckner was completely unshakeable in his belief in God, which sustained him throughout his life and music.

But the symphonies were different, in part because in them Bruckner was trying to achieve things that many of his contemporaries found impossible to understand – and easy to mock as the product of incompetence or naivety.  After trying his hand with an earlier ‘study symphony’, he started writing his First Symphony in 1866, and continued work on it for over a year.  It was premiered in Linz, with Bruckner conducting, in 1868.  Reception was mixed, and Bruckner kept on revising the score, finally publishing a new version in 1893.

But the real problems started with the next major work, the one intended to be Symphony no 2.  Bruckner began writing it in January 1869 and had completed it by September.  He sent the score to Otto Dessoff, the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, presumably in the hope that the orchestra would give the symphony a premiere.  But Dessof, having read the score, wrote a message back to Bruckner about the first movement, in which he said, simply, ‘Where’s the main theme?’

Score of Bruckner’s Sympnony no. 0

This single, off-hand criticism sent poor Bruckner into a maelstrom of misery.  He abandoned the work and filed it in a drawer.  (His next symphony, completed in December 1873, was in reality No. 3, but he relabelled it as No. 2.)  Much later, in 1895, when he was reviewing all his symphonies for republication, he wrote that the symphony ‘does not count’, and scrawled ‘annulirt’ (nullified) on the front page.    The surviving score has a series of self-lacerating comments by Bruckner, like ‘invalid’, ‘completely void’ and ‘annulled’, and on three occasions he uses the simple ‘null’ symbol, ‘Ø’.  This led to the work being identified in German as ‘Die Nullte Symphonie’ and in English as ‘Symphony No. 0’.  It then became invisible, as if it had never existed, and didn’t receive a performance until 1924.  Even today it’s not played often, though it contains some fine music, as Robert Simpson said in his book on Bruckner: ‘the symphony as a whole does not deserve its neglect; all of it is enjoyable, and the first movement is a masterpiece.’

Bruckner’s cancellation of the Symphony No. 0 was the first symptom of a malaise that plagued nearly all his later symphonies.  His response to criticism – his chief persecutor was the Vienna music critic Eduard Hanslick, who detested any composer like Bruckner who followed Wagner rather than his revered Brahms – was not to stand his ground, but to go back to the score and try to revise it.  He did this so often that later performers were, and still are, in doubt about which versions of his symphonies they should be playing.  This is what’s known as the ‘Bruckner problem’.  Only the Ninth Symphony, left unfinished at Bruckner’s death in 1896, escaped the difficulty.

Bruckner statue in Vienna

Over the years Bruckner’s extreme lack of self-belief has often been added to other misgivings about his symphonies.  On the whole, people prefer the clean-cut works of artists who display obvious drive and determination.  But isn’t there something very human and endearing (and modern) about a composer who could never quite believe that what he had written was really any good?  Isn’t that a common feeling among artists who are ‘less-than-great’, and plenty, like Bruckner, who are?  Do we only want to goggle at perfectly conceived masterpieces?

In any case, the Bruckner doubters tend to forget that, despite the attacks of critics and his own self-doubts, he never gave up composing symphonies.  He’d come to the form quite late in life – he was forty-eight by the time the First Symphony was performed – and was still experimenting with it when he died, aged seventy-two.  In the very last movement he completed, the adagio of the Ninth Symphony, Bruckner uses passages of such daring that, in the flow of the music, we seem to lose the gravitational pull of the earth altogether, and to begin travelling among the stars.

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