Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Developed and Undeveloped Taste

Thanks to Alex Ross' blog, I read a fascinating article the other day on Anton Bruckner. Bruckner is the other composer of enormous late-19th century symphonies along with Gustav Mahler. Here is the Wikipedia article on Bruckner.

I have had little contact with Bruckner's music--I used to own a CD of one of the symphonies, perhaps the 7th. But I haven't studied his music or read about him to any extent. So the article in Stereophile was fascinating. It discusses the whole history of attempts to complete the last movement of Bruckner's last symphony and surveys the recordings of those completions. Again, fascinating stuff. I realize that there is a whole world out there of Bruckner lovers and scholars. Bruckner: he's not just for wacky Austrians!

I still don't know if I am going to like Bruckner. But I am sure I should investigate further. My taste regarding Bruckner needs to be developed. Here is the beginning of the 7th Symphony:

Bruckner's symphonies are so long that virtually every movement has to be split up into two or even three YouTube clips. So you should really listen to the music on CD. I remember a science fiction story I read a long time ago where the pilot puts on a Bruckner symphony as he launches out from Earth orbit. Traveling at a great speed, by the time he reaches the orbit of Saturn, Bruckner has only gotten to his second thematic group.

The point here is that there is such a thing as musical taste, of course, but there are different grades or levels. My taste regarding, say, J. S. Bach is well-developed. I have listened to and played the music of Bach for four decades. I have read a lot of books on Bach from Spitta's three volume study to the recent one by Christoph Wolff. I have analyzed many pieces by Bach and read studies of performance practice. So when I talk about Bach, I do know what I am talking about. But you shouldn't listen to my opinions about Bruckner because my taste regarding him is undeveloped. I haven't done the research.

Not all music needs to be looked into. There are some kinds, like grindcore for example, that seem to me not worth investigating, or too painful to investigate. Some kinds of music reveal themselves right away, as either possessing quality or not. With Bruckner, I am curious. I did have a Mahler phase, about thirty years ago and I listened to a lot of his music and did some reading. I don't think I studied any scores closely. At some point I started to find him cloying, like listening to someone plagued by neuroses. Now I tend to find Mahler unlistenable--his musical gestures seem like poses, not credible. I wonder how that happened? And if it is a reasonable reaction? As I've been writing this I have been listening to that Bruckner 7th. While lengthy, it sounds quite interesting. And not neurotic. Let's have a little listen to Mahler:

No, while that is really pretty at the beginning, I still find it neurotic and stopped the clip around 3:40 when the horns started bellowing. Isn't that odd? Is my taste regarding Mahler just askew?


Shantanu said...

This is still an interesting post and I keep coming back to it, especially because I have been listening to some Bruckner and Mahler these days. And I agree with you to a large extent.

Bruckner seems to take a lot of time developing his themes, and a big feature of his music is grandeur and space. The events in the music are taken at a pace which suggest that something large-scale is taking place. But it would never sound good if the themes themselves were not good.

Mahler on the other hand does sound like he is cloying. The music attempts to change direction too often, display a lot of character, almost like it is getting out of jail. Mahler's music does impress me sometimes, but mostly it sounds like he builds up a good portion only to spoil it with his enthusiasm for overkill. He loses balance, so to speak.

I wonder why such music is so popular these days - it hardly ever seems like the kind of music which does the listener any good in any way.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think it is great when someone goes back and comments on a post that I put up a couple of years ago! I'm glad you got something out of it. There is undeniably a kind of magic to Mahler's music, but yes, I do find it hard to listen to. Most people would disagree, I suspect. So it is nice to hear that someone shares my point about Mahler and Bruckner.

My own approach to composition tends to be, as some have said, "pithy", that is to say, I prefer brevity and understatement to excessive emoting and length.