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«The Life of Anton Bruckner», Gabriel Engel

from CHORD AND DISCORD

A JOURNAL OF MODERN MUSICAL PROGRESS

Published by the Bruckner Society of America, Inc.

in January, 1940 – (Vol. 2, No.1)

Like Franz Schubert, Anton Bruckner springs from a line of Austrian schoolmasters. In the pleasantly situated village of Ansfelden, not far from the town of Linz, Bruckner's grandfather Joseph and his father Anton had both devoted their lives to the drab duties of rustic pedagogy, at that time still considered a hereditary occupation among provincials. Hence the arrival on earth of Anton himself on September 4, 1824, meant in the normal course of things merely a fresh candidate for the abundant miseries of schoolmastership.

As early as his fourth year the tiny "Tonerl," like Haydn a century before him, showed his undeniable musical bent, for even then he could bring forth intelligible music from a little fiddle and (to quote an old Ansfelder's naive characterization of these first signs of composer's fancy) "could often be heard humming or whistling unknown tunes."

With the dawn of schooling the child showed a hearty dislike for all classroom activities, except the "Singstunde," an hour which seemed for him filled with irresistible enchantment. Of course, he received many a whipping for his backwardness in all extra-musical studies.

As tradition demanded of the village school-teacher, Father Bruckner had also to play the organ in church, and it is doubtless owing to his efforts that Anton at ten knew enough about the organ to attract the attention of a good musician in a nearby village. Under this man Weiss, a cousin of the family, the boy then earnestly studied musical theory and organ-playing for two years. Remarkably enough, the organ preludes he composed during that period exhibit a freedom of expression which deserted him all through his subsequent decades of theoretical study not to return again unimpaired until his years of maturity as a symphonist.

The death of his father in 1837, leaving eleven children (Anton being the eldest) rendered it imperative for his mother to accept the refuge offered the gifted boy as Saengerknabe in the sacred music school of St. Florian. The four impressionable years he spent there learning how to play the organ, piano, and violin, and mastering the elements of musical theory doubtless stamped his entire character, musical and otherwise, with a fervent piety which no later influence ever dimmed. Even when the conflict of suffering and passion rages highest in his monumental symphonic first and last movements, a sudden naive appeal direct to heaven through austere trombone chorales points back to the influence of those early years of unquestioning devotion and zeal at St. Florian.

Yet at this time the idea of music as a life-work seems hardly to have entered the boy's mind. His lather had been a schoolmaster; he too must become one. To further this aim he added to his arduous music courses private studies in academic subjects, finally gaining admission to the teachers' preparatory school at Linz.

Though even a brief ten months spent in learning what a pious child must not be taught proved trying to so human a soul as young Bruckner, he passed his examination for a position at seventeen and set out for the first scene of his teaching career, the world-forsaken mountain-village of Windhaag. Here, as assistant village teacher and organist, he was to receive the munificent monthly wage of two gulden (less than eighty cents). Additional attractive features of his work were that he must help in the field during "spare" time and breakfast with the maid servant.

In spite of these crushing handicaps the youth seems not to have been altogether unhappy, for he found the village-folk friendly. An especial joy was the folk-life and dancing, with its opportunity for a new, fascinating kind of music making. In this pleasant life the youth gladly joined, playing the fiddle at dances and absorbing those rustic, rhythmic strains which the Midas-touch of his genius later turned into incomparably vital and humorous symphonic scherzos.

The ancient calm of the village church services was frequently interrupted by the new organist whose marked leaning towards dramatic harmonies was irrepressible. His experience with the startled villagers in this respect was much like that of the great Bach himself, who was once officially reproved for his fantastic modulatory interpolations during the ritual music.

Yet Bruckner's innate musicianship must have dawned even upon the ignorant villagers, for this word has come down about it direct from the lips of an old Ansfelder, "Yes, that fellow Bruckner was a devilish fine musician!" Then, as an afterthought, in the light of a teacher's unhappy lot, "I wouldn't let any son of mine become a teacher. No, sir! Much better be a cobbler!"

One day Bruckner, who was absent-minded, forgot to attend to some menial chore in the field and for punishment he was transferred to the still smaller village of Kronsdorf.

The teacher's demotion proved the musician's promotion, however, for the little "nest" lay only an hour distant from two historic towns, Enns and Steyr. The latter was noted for its fine organ and soon became the object of the youth's frequent pilgrimages. In Enns, moreover, lived the celebrated organist von Zanetti, a fine musician, who now became Bruckner's new master of theory. All his compositions during this period bear the modest character of occasional church music.

Completely humbled in the face of superior knowledge the zealous student was content to obey implicitly the so-called laws of music. Infinite thoroughness, the sole path to perfection, became an obsession with him. Trustingly he allowed the incredibly long veil of years of academic self-suppression to fall over his genius.

Meanwhile he had been preparing himself for the final examination for a regular schoolmaster's license. At length, in May 1845, he passed the test, and experienced the good fortune of an immediate appointment to St. Florian, the happy haven of his earlier youth.


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