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Why Bruckner Matters: A Listener's Guide With Daniel Barenboim

For nearly five decades, Daniel Barenboim has been making a case for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. Tonight at Carnegie Hall, the conductor begins a complete cycle of Bruckner's nine numbered symphonies, leading the storied Staatskapelle Berlin. Remarkably, it's the first such cycle ever presented in the U.S, according to the Bruckner Society of America, which presents Barenboim with its Medal of Honor on Jan. 21. Barenboim has recorded the symphonies three times, his most recent, with the Staatskapelle Berlin was released earlier this month.

Bruckner was a pious, plain-spoken composer and organist from an upper Austrian village who specialized in writing massive symphonies. Both the man and his music were misunderstood and maligned, both in his day and beyond his death in 1896. He was mocked for his backwoods dialect and simple clothing. His music was brazenly reworked by students and star conductors like Gustav Mahler, and he never heard performances of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.

To this day, indifference toward Bruckner, even among classical music enthusiasts and symphony musicians, isn't hard to find.

None of this has deterred Barenboim. He says that while Bruckner's musical language is of the late 19th century, the form is Classical, almost Baroque. He also feels the spirit of medievalism in the music. "Therefore, at the end of a performance," Barenboim says, "I feel like I have lived through an experience that has taken me over four or five centuries: the Middle Ages, the Classical and the so-called Romantic musical idiom."

Read more excerpts from our conversation about Bruckner below and hear a listener's guide to the Bruckner symphonies, guided by Barenboim, at the listening link above.

Tom Huizenga: Do you remember your earliest encounter with Bruckner's music?

Daniel Barenboim: Yes, I remember it very well because it was in Australia, of all places. I was on tour there and I was 15 years old. I played with [conductor] Rafael Kubelik. whom I greatly admired. And when we finished rehearsing he says, "What are you doing now?" I said, "Nothing special." He said, "Why don't you stay? I'm rehearsing the Bruckner Nine."

What was about the sound of it that that drew you in?

Well, I was 15 years old, and I was not well versed in analyzing my thoughts, let alone emotions. But I remember being fascinated by the way the orchestra sounded, especially the scherzo. And then of course the unfinished third movement. I felt very attracted by the harmonies in the piece.

So was there something about Bruckner that made you want to become a conductor?

My conducting ambitions, if you would, at that time at age 15, were limited to wanting to play and conduct Mozart concertos on the piano. I never dreamt about becoming a conductor, conducting symphony orchestras. All that came much later. And when I got my first chances to conduct regularly, I was in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra, at that time conducted by the legendary Sir John Barbirolli. And he said to me, "Why don't you come and conduct the orchestra?" And I conducted, in my first week there, my first Bruckner Ninth symphony and my first Beethoven's Ninth. I did not suffer from an excess of modesty, shall we say.

So what keeps you interested in and Bruckner's music today? You've recorded three cycles of his symphonies, and now you're about to conduct them all live at Carnegie Hall.

People think: How do musicians manage always to play the same pieces again and again for years and years and years? You know, some of the pieces I've been playing on the piano, including one of the Mozart concertos that I'm playing in this cycle in New York, I played in 1950.

Somebody who feels he has to strain himself in order not to be bored by doing the same piece again might as well look for another profession, because it means he doesn't understand the first thing about it. Nothing in music is twice the same way. In the same way that nothing in life is twice the same way. The most fascinating thing about being a musician is that every time you play or you conduct a piece, you learn something more. That means if I conduct the Bruckner Ninth today, when I finish the concert, I know something more about the piece than I knew before the concert. And when I come to conduct it again tomorrow, I come with a little more knowledge.

But the sound, the performance, is finished. I have to create all that from zero. And to create something from zero with more knowledge about it is one of the most wonderful experiences a human being can have.

I know a lot of classical music lovers, and even a few orchestra musicians, who actually don't like Bruckner that much.

Bruckner is a very, how shall I say, special, specific world in the world of music. The musical idiom, the musical language, is post- Wagner, late 19th-century. The form however, is Classical, almost Baroque. And that already gives you the feeling that you are dealing with two or three centuries of music at the same time.

Why is he still so misunderstood today? Even among people who play his music in big orchestras?

Well, the string players usually don't like it because there's so much tremolo. And it's a lot of hard work, you know, for one hour. It's not a very enjoyable proposition. The brass usually likes to play it because it does force them to think about intonation, about balance, about sound quality, et cetera. But you know, there are certain things that are a matter of taste, and one has to accept that.

Some people, critics, for instance, refer to Bruckner in terms of giant cathedrals in sound.

People who think like this and who talk about music like this means either that they don't know how to read music, or when they hear music they need something purely outwardly to relate to. Yes, look there are chorales in the Bruckner symphonies that could give you the impression of a cathedral, but this is so subjective, and it's totally unimportant. This is just stuff you write in newspapers or magazines.

I think the more I conduct Bruckner, I think this is not architecture — this is an archaeological expedition. I feel every section, especially in the late symphonies, is like going deeper and deeper underneath the earth. And then you are at the bottom and you are left with some incredible result of archaeological excavation.

What advice do you have for young conductors considering Bruckner. Is there is there one key thing to success in conducting his music?

There's not one key thing in order to conduct successfully any music. The first thing young conductors should remember is that in music, there are no shortcuts. And it's when you're really trying to learn the music you cannot think about career. You cannot think, "If I will do this music, this will be good for my career."

You have to understand that to be a musician requires understanding of oneself, of one's qualities and faults that are very important. When you are studying the music, you cannot have enough modesty in front of the scores. These are not just black spots on white paper. These are signs through which you come into contact with a very great and important human statement. And you cannot have enough modesty in front of that.

But then when you go on the stage to conduct, you cannot pretend to be modest. After all, you allowed your name to be printed and you allowed people to present the concert. It means you think you are good enough for people to come and hear you. And therefore these two extremes are extremely important. And you can only do it properly, I think, if you have the combination of those two extremes — if you are really modest enough when studying, and then confident enough when you are performing.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.