A review by Eduard Hanslick of the first performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 (1892). Extracts from the translation by Henry Pleasants. I have omitted Pleasants’ footnotes.
The Philharmonic Orchestra devoted its entire concert to a new symphony by Bruckner. It is the eighth in the series and similar to its predecessors in form and mood. I found this newest one, as I have found the other Bruckner symphonies, interesting in detail but strange as a whole and even repugnant. The nature of the work consists – to put it briefly – in applying Wagner’s dramatic style to the symphony.
Not only does Bruckner fall continually into Wagnerian devices, effects, and reminiscences; he seems even to have accepted certain Wagnerian pieces as models for symphonic construction, as, for example, the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. Bruckner begins with a short chromatic motive, repeats it over and over again, higher and higher in the scale and on into infinity, augments it, diminishes it, offers it in contrary motion and so on, until the listener is simply crushed under the sheer weight and monotony of this interminable lamentation. Alongside these upward surging lamentations we have the subsiding lamentation (after the model of the Tannhäuser Overture). Wagnerian orchestral effects are met on every hand, such as the tremolos of the violins divisi in the highest position, harp arpeggios over muffled chords in the trombones, and, added to all that, the newest achievements of the Siegfried tubas.
Also characteristic of Bruckner’s newest symphony is the immediate juxtaposition of dry schoolroom counterpoint with unbounded exaltation. Thus, tossed about between intoxication and desolation, we arrive at no definite impression and enjoy no artistic pleasure. Everything flows, without clarity and without order, willy-nilly into dismal long-windedness. In each of the four movements, and most frequently in the first and third, there are interesting passages and flashes of genius – if only all the rest were not there! It is not out of the question that the future belongs to this muddled hangover style – which is no reason to regard the future with envy. For the time being, however, one would prefer that symphonic and chamber music remain undefiled by a style only relatively justified as an illustrative device for certain dramatic situations.
Even before the performance we had heard such provocative reports of the extraordinary profundity of the new symphony that I took care to prepare myself through study of the score and attendance at the dress rehearsal. I must confess, however, that the mysteries of this all-embracing composition were disclosed to me only through the helpful offices of an explanatory programme handed to me prior to the concert………….
In the Adagio we behold nothing less than “the all-loving Father of mankind in all his infinite mercy!” Since this Adagio lasts exactly twenty-eight minutes or about as long as an entire Beethoven symphony, we cannot complain of being denied ample time for the contemplation of the rare vision. At long last, the Finale – which, with its baroque themes, its confused structure and inhuman din, strikes us only as a model of tastelessness – represents, according to the programme, “Heroism in the Service of the Divine!” The blaring trumpet figures are “heralds of the gospel truth and the conception of God”. The childish, hymnal character of this programme characterizes our Bruckner community, which consists of Wagnerites and some added starters for whom Wagner is already too simple and intelligible. One sees how Wagnerism educates, not only musically but also in literature………
Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99 Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 288-290.
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