Gerhard Markson, principal conductor of the NSO, talks to Michael Dervan about launching his players into the daunting challenge of Bruckner's symphonies, which he is presenting in some unlikely company
The story of Anton Bruckner is one of the strangest in music. His fame rests on his cycle of nine symphonies but, unusually for a composer who achieved greatness, he didn't even begin the first of those symphonies until he was over 40. He was born an Austrian peasant, and an Austrian peasant he remained all his life, in manner, speech and outlook.
He was obsessed with the idea of certificates and examinations, and studied music theory long into adulthood, accumulating with pride the documentation to prove his diligence. He was, by all accounts, the greatest organ improviser of his day, and this infiltrated his orchestral music in a unique way - his orchestration is often blocked out as if he were pulling stops on some gigantic organ.
He had a penchant for falling in love and proposing to teenage girls, and his naïvety in this and other regards is widely attested to - he once offered a tip to the distinguished conductor Hans Richter after a particularly fine performance of one of his works. For most of his life, his music was treated in a hostile manner by the most powerful critics in his native Austria, Eduard Hanslick prominent among them.
The unfortunate composer was a sort of innocent victim caught in the crossfire of competing camps, whose fight was over the relative merits of Brahms and Wagner. Bruckner was in the Wagner camp, in spite of the fact that Wagner's idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, held no meaning or value for him. He studied Tristan und Isolde from a piano score that had no text, and is reported to have asked after a performance of Die Walküre: "Why did they burn the woman at the end?"
In his own time, Bruckner was to many people an eccentric character, even a figure of fun. As a young student in Vienna, writer and critic Max Graf was encouraged by a friend to go to some of Bruckner's lectures on counterpoint, to see what one biographer has called "the Bruckner of the anecdotes, a friendly, embarrassing, half-witted simpleton". During the lecture, the Angelus bells rang, and Bruckner immediately knelt down to pray. " I have never seen anyone pray as Bruckner did," recalled Graf. "He seemed to be transfigured, illuminated from within. His old peasant face, with the countless wrinkles covering it like furrows in a field, became the face of a priest. Like many peasants in the Alpine provinces of Austria . . . Bruckner had a Roman profile, and when he prayed, or when he played fragments of a new symphony at the piano (that was a prayer, too), his face took on a magnificence that was reminiscent of the busts of old Roman emperors. But his expression may best be compared with that of the Apostles in the paintings of Giotto. "
Gerhard Markson, principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, puts his choice of a Bruckner cycle this year down to many factors. It offers a contrast with last year's season, which concentrated on Mozart and Strauss. It extendsthe players' work on a particular area, and will help to develop the orchestra's style and a sound. There's also the fact that it's been a long time since the last Bruckner cycle (under Bryden Thomson in 1986). And, in terms of repertoire, as Markson puts it, "Bruckner is more in the middle for us than Beethoven would be right now".
Then he changes tack, to explain that there are aspects of the choice that have to do with him personally. "I refused to deal with Bruckner's music for a long time in my life because it was too close to me. I come from a Catholic family, I was an organist myself, and it smelled too much of where I come from. I didn't care to deal with it. The older I get now" - Markson is 54 - "the more I feel it's part of me."
And, he seems to suggest, he experiences a special confidence in dealing with the music and its special characteristics. "I know exactly what this music is," he says. "Because, since my childhood, I have lived through this - not Bruckner symphonies, but what's behind Bruckner symphonies."
What's in each programme before the Bruckner symphonies is one of the most intriguing aspects of Markson's cycle. Composers featured include Debussy, Varèse, Messiaen, Boulez and Prokofiev, with one-off appearances by Stanford, Mozart, Brahms, Delius and Michael Alcorn. "I think we have to see two different issues here: firstly, the Bruckner cycle, and Bruckner in that sense is only combined with composers from 20th-century France," Markson says. "In every Bruckner concert, we play either Debussy or Varèse or Messiaen or Boulez. The idea really is the French of the 20th century and Bruckner. Now the other question is legitimate: 'Why do you play Stanford, the Brahms violin concerto and Mozart?' This is a mere practical thing. The ideal would be to have 10 concerts, zero to nine [Markson's cycle will include a Symphony in D minor which Bruckner excluded from his numbered cycle\], just the French of the 20th century and Bruckner. Unfortunately, in terms of organisation and what the audience expects, that would not work. So we have to compromise."
Why, then, these particular French composers? "Because Bruckner, in my understanding, is the last symphonic composer, someone who rounded up a symphonic tradition of 200 years," Markson says. "What I mean is that his is the last cycle of symphonies in the sense of Beethoven's nine symphonies, of Schubert, and so on. Mahler's symphonic cycle is one big question-mark, a different story entirely. In the development of music through the centuries, Bruckner is a final point, like Bach is the last composer who really dealt with the fugue at a time when the fugue was dying as a form - he brought it to a last blossoming.
"So why combine Bruckner with the French? Because it was the French who defined the 20th century in music. This is, I think, a fact. Not only because Pierre Boulez called Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune the first piece of modern music, which it is. It's a miracle, especially when you think how close Bruckner and Brahms are to it." Both composers were still alive in 1894, when Debussy completed the piece.
Markson sees a lot of connections between Debussy and Boulez, and between Boulez and Varèse. And, of course, Messiaen shares with Bruckner his Catholicism and the connection with the organ though, unlike Messiaen, Bruckner left no body of work for the instrument. That is, of course, if you exclude the organ-like aspects of his symphonic writing.
For Markson, one of the hallmarks of Bruckner is that "he transposes the instrument and the building around it into a score. It's not just organ music in an orchestra, somehow. But it's organ music in a church, somehow. It's the first time in music history when you could say anything like that. Listen to any Bruckner symphony, and the church is always there. But not in a sense of quotation, like Strauss's Alpine Symphony, where you hear the cow-bells. It's much more sophisticated, much more subtle than that.
'There's this absolutely unexplainable contradiction in Bruckner. He's looking backwards - the first symphonies are all from Beethoven, from Schubert - but even in that First Symphony, in the scherzo, it says presto, which is much faster than what you normally hear in performance. And at a speed of presto, it sounds like Rossini. This man is a living contradiction. We still all perceive Bruckner today as a person who was a confined guy. It's wrong; it's right, but it's wrong. He became hated by Hanslick for his modern harmonies."
In Bruckner, he says, there's a phenomenon that's like refraction, like the re-angling of light through a window with a flawed finish. "It's the refraction in Bruckner that I'm interested in. It's not straight. It's not clear. It's not just church music in an orchestra."
Bruckner's music was slow to travel, not least, says Markson, because it's not actually all that easy to listen to. The composer's technique of building to grand climaxes and following them by extended pauses was long found puzzling. Markson finds anticipations of Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet in the scherzo of Bruckner's Ninth. And, he suggests, there's a strictness in Bruckner that almost amounts to a form of constructivism. This is something which became much easier for audiences to deal with after the major musical upheavals of the early 20th century.
Bruckner's symphonies, then, are not just the rounding off of a long symphonic tradition; they are also works that, especially in the unfinished Ninth, reach into the future.
In making its way in the world, Bruckner's music suffered from the best intentions of his friends. Some staunch early advocates re- orchestrated the symphonies in Wagnerian style and made cuts in the hope of rendering the works palatable to a wider audience. And even since the availability of unbowdlerised versions, the movement to produce more scholarly editions has been plagued with conflicting claims - different "original" editions have appeared under the stewardship of two editors, Robert Haas and Leopold Nowak.
Haas still has his adherents, but some of his work engages in the conflation of versions that Bruckner saw as distinct, and his endeavours have now largely been superseded by Nowak's. Bruckner was a perpetual reviser, and Nowak has defined the editor's task as the delivery of a scholarly text of each distinct version that the composer approved at one time or another. Within this jungle of competing interests, Markson has chosen editions by Nowak for his cycle, opting to perform the last versions that Bruckner left. "Whatever you decide," he remarks wryly, "there would always be very good arguments against it."
The peaks that Markson is especially looking forward to are the Fifth Symphony, with its colossal concluding fugue, and the Ninth, which Bruckner didn't live to complete, finishing only three movements.
"He died - it sounds terrible, but I don't mean it nastily - he died at the right moment," says Markson. "Because after this movement you don't want to hear anything else any more. Death interrupted his life at a breathtaking moment. He had just invented an E major chord, with four horns and four tubas, and the rest of the orchestra in one, endless E major chord that breathes of eternity. He defined eternity for all times. It's E major."
Gerhard Markson's Bruckner cycle with the National Symphony Orchestra opens tonight, with Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Bruckner's so-called "Symphony No 0"; and Finghin Collins is the soloist in Stanford's Piano Concerto No 2