Bruckner and Mahler


© Bruno Walter


Throughout its ten years of existence the Bruckner Society of America has striven manfully and efficiently in behalf of Bruckner and Mahler. Therefore, in connection with its decennial retrospect, I gladly respond to its plea for an expression concerning these masters. To combine propaganda for Bruckner and Mahler into a single plan is to express the conviction that the success of the one helps the other's cause, that they belong side by side because of their artistic kinship.

I should not have agreed to write about Bruckner and Mahler did I not regard that little word "and" highly pertinent. Its appropriateness is borne out by Mahler's own words. I often heard him call Bruckner his forerunner, asserting that his own creations followed the trail blazed by his senior master. Of course that was over forty years ago, in the days of Mahler's Second, the symphony which, more vividly than all his other works, reveals his affinity with Bruckner. Yet from the Third Symphony on, his development was marked by an ever increasing deviation from Bruckner's course. I cannot recall Mahler making the same remark during later years. Nevertheless, down to his latest works, we meet with occasional features which might be called Brucknerian. Thus it is worth while attaining a clear idea of the nature and degree of their relationship.

Much has been written concerning Bruckner. To the literature on Mahler I myself have contributed a book. Yet (as far as I know) a comparative study of Bruckner and Mahler is still to be made. Therefore I shall attempt in these comments to measure their relationship, to thrash out the features which unite and separate them. We shall find them alike in many important respects, but different, even opposite, in others of not less consequence. We shall find them so related, that understanding the one includes a certain degree of access to the other; yet so different, that affection for the one may seem consistent with total inaccessibility to the other. Certainly, to understand and love both requires a very complex musical disposition and an unusually broad spiritual span. My comparison cannot limit itself to details of actual musical creation. The spiritual sources of their works, the personalities of both masters, are vital to the theme of our survey, not merely because they are more amenable to words than music itself, but because the light they shed upon the music is indispensable in an essay striving for knowledge. To demonstrate really and clearly the relationships between these composers' works, there is only one way: through performances. Renouncing for once this (to me) most agreeable method, resorting to words, though aware that no bridge leads straight from them to music, I must also seek to approach my subject indirectly. The mystic connection between the inner life of a composer and his music makes it possible to discover his soul in his work. Understanding his heart lays bare an inner path to his music. Hence I hope a discussion of the individualities of both masters will enable me to fill in some of the gaps inevitable to an essay on their works alone.

What joins them

Nine symphonies composed by Bruckner, as well as Mahler, in the course of about thirty years, constitute the chief product of their creative power. The nature of the themes, developments, combinations, is (in keeping with their creator's nature) truly symphonic. Remarkable coincidences in the periodic progress of their work are the decisive step from the Third to the Fourth and the change of style between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies. The Fourth of each opens a new field of expression scarcely glimpsed in his previous works. A warm, romantic light rises over Bruckner's hitherto heroic tone-world; a tender fairy-tale-like idyll soothes Mahler's tempestuous heart. For both the Fifth, with its intensification of the polyphonic style, inaugurates the period of mature mastery. The laconic idiom of restraint, the art of mere suggestion, involving economy of means and form, is not theirs. Only in a number of his songs do we find Mahler's contradictory nature master of this style too. Otherwise both share in common the urge to yield their entire beings symphonically through unrestrained expression in huge dimensions. Their symphonies resemble each other also in the special significance of the finale in the total-architecture. Broadly spun, essentially diatonic themes and a counterpoint directly joined to the classical tradition characterize both. To be sure, Mahler's later polyphony trod more complex, daring, and highly individual paths. To both (and to them alone) the church chorale comes as naturally as the Austrian Ländler. The utmost solemnity and folk-like joviality constitute the opposite poles in both their natures. They are linked with the classicists, the way leads through Schubert. Their association is strengthened, among other things, by the fundamentals of their harmony, their style of cadence and (all their deviations notwithstanding) their fondness for symmetry and regular periodic structure. Even the later Mahler, no matter to what regions his formal and harmonic boldness led him, maintained clear periodic structure and a firm tonal foundation. Both revel in broadly built climaxes, in long sustained tensions, whose release requires overwhelming sonorous dynamics.

In their gay or lyric moments we often meet with a typically Austrian charm recalling Schubert, though in Mahler's case it is frequently mixed with a Bohemian-Moravian flavor. Above all, however, Mahler and Bruckner are (though in different ways) religious beings. An essential part of their musical inspiration wells from this devotional depth. It is a main source of their thematic wealth, swaying an all-important field of expression in their works; it produces the high-water mark of their musical surf. The tonal idiom of both is devoid of eroticism. Often inclined to pathos, powerful tragedy, and emotional extremes of utterance, they attain climaxes of high ecstasy. Clear sunshine and blue sky seldom appear in the wholly un-Mediterranean atmosphere of their music. "Romantic" was the name Bruckner gave his Fourth. In a related sense we find Mahler's earlier work romantic, aside from his un-Brucknerian diabolism. Yet in the later works of both the romantic note is rarely sounded. Highly characteristic seems to me one negative manifestation of their relationship. Moved by their tremendous experience of Richard Wagner to an undying faith in his art, they show (aside from a slight influence over Bruckner's instrumentation) no Wagnerian traces in their work, or at most, so few, that the impression of their complete independence is in no wise affected thereby. Their individuality was of so sturdy a nature (astonishing in that epoch of musical history) that despite the open ear, open heart, and unreserved sympathy they lent the Wagnerian siren-song, they did not succumb to it. Of course, being essentially symphonists, they were equal to the threat of the dramatist against their self-determination, for the inspirational sources of their creation, as well as their native urge toward formal construction, differed fundamentally from his. Neither of them felt drawn to the stage, a phenomenon particularly remarkable in the case of Mahler, whose reproductive genius for the opera, expressed through incomparable interpretations, opened new paths in that field, actually instituting a tradition. Two abortive attempts of his early youth are his sole original contributions to the theater. Otherwise he never wrote for the stage, unless we include his arrangement of Weber's "Three Pintos."

Like Bruckner he took root in absolute music, save when he drew his inspiration from poetry, as in his songs. Yet was his work really rooted in absolute music? Is his First Symphony (originally named "Titan" after Jean Paul's novel) with its "Funeral March in the manner of Callot," are the Second and Fourth with their vocal movements, the Third with its (later) suppressed subtitles, genuine symphonic music in the Bruckner sense? Indubitably Mahler's music differs from Bruckner's in the degree of absoluteness intended. It was induced and influenced by more specific imagery, fantasy, and thought than Bruckner's music, which rose from less tangible, darker spiritual depths. But does this really involve an essential difference? Is not Beethoven's Pastorale, despite the "Scene at the Brook", "Rustic Festival," and "Storm," absolute symphonic music, its lesser absolute intention notwithstanding? Let us conjure up the basic process of musical creation. The composer suddenly has a musical idea. Where there existed apparently nothing before, save perhaps a mood, an image, there is, all at once, music. A theme is present, a motive. Now the shaping hand of the composer grasps it, unfolding and guiding its trend. Fresh ideas come streaming in. Whether or not more definite imagery plays a role in the creative process, the decisive factors governing the result remain the "grace" of basic musical creation and the power of symphonic construction. That "grace" and that power were granted Mahler, as well as Bruckner. Therefore, despite the thoughts and visions that influenced his creation, he also took root in absolute music.

After all, do we know whether Bruckner, or for that matter even Mozart was not visited by imagery and thoughts during the creative process, or, whether many of their ideas, looming up out of the subconscious, did not take turnings over some conscious path, thereby acquiring more vivid coloring and more subjective character? In Goethe's Elective Affinities the image of Ottilie fills Eduard's eyes during a conjugal meeting with his wife Charlotte, while the latter beholds the captain's image. Though the offspring of this union bore external traces of these wandering visions, it was nevertheless the child of Eduard and Charlotte, sprung from their natural union. Deep mystery surrounds the genesis and pure music may result, despite the influence of extra-musical ideas upon the act of generation. Yet if the composer's intention is really descriptive, i.e., if he makes the music the means of portraying an idea or image, then, of course, he has himself blocked the path to pure music. To Mahler as well as Bruckner music never was the means of expressing something, but rather the end itself. He never disregarded its inherent principles for the sake of expression. It was the element in which both masters lived, impelled by their nature toward symphonic construction. Mahler's enchanted creative night was filled with violently changing dream-forms; Bruckner's was dominated by a single lofty vision. Since Bruckner (so far as I know) had, until his death in 1896, acquired no acquaintance with Mahler's work, whereas the latter was well versed in Bruckner's art, it remains to be considered whether it was not this influence, acting only upon the younger composer, that aroused the impression of the kinship felt by Mahler himself. Without a certain relationship, however, no influence can be exerted. Moreover, Mahler's individual tonal language reveals no sign of dependence, whether similarity or reminiscence. Yet we find in one of his main works, the Second, indications of a deeper, essential kinship and meet with occasional "Bruckner" characteristics down to Mahler's very last creations. Nevertheless he was as little dependent upon Bruckner as Brahms upon Schumann, many of whose "characteristics" haunt the work of Brahms. To both Bruckner-Mahler may be applied the Faust-verdict concerning Byron-Euphorion: to each of them was granted "a song his very own," i.e., originality.

What divides them

Bruckner's nine symphonies are purely instrumental works. Mahler, on the other hand, enlists words and the human voice for his Second, Third, Fourth, and Eight. Besides the symphonies Bruckner composed three Masses, the Te Deum, the 150th Psalm, smaller devotional vocal works, and (to my knowledge) two male choruses. Of all entirely different stamp was Mahler's non-symphonic creation. He wrote Das Klagende Lied, set to his own narrative poem; the four-part song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the words also by himself; songs with piano accompaniment and with verses from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; during a later period, orchestral songs set to poems by Rückert, among them the Kindertotenlieder cycle; and finally his most personal confession, Das Lied von der Erde, with verses by the Chinese poet Li-Tai-Po. We see Bruckner, therefore, aside from his symphonies, concentrated almost entirely upon sacred texts, while Mahler is inspired by highly varied fields of poetic expression. In his symphonies, Das Urlicht from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Klopstock's "Resurrection Ode" furnished him with the solemn affirmative close of his Second,, Nietzsche's Midnight yielded the questing, foreboding fourth movement and verses from Des Knaben Wunderhorn the answering fifth movement of the Third. From the same collection Mahler chose a poem of childlike faith to give symbolical expression to his own hope of celestial life. In the Eight the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" and the closing scenes of Faust constitute his confessions of faith. Thus the record of his vocal creations is at the same time a clue to the story of his heart. It tells of his struggles toward God, through discovery and renewed quest, through ever higher intuitions and loftier yearnings. Yet over this dominant note, the "Ostinato" of his life, resound many other tones, defined by accompanying verses: Love and death, lansquenet life and a spectral world, the joy of life and its woe, humor and despair, savage defiance and final resignation, all these find individual and convincing expression in his musical eloquence. If I wished to present the difference between the two masters in the shortest imaginable formula, I would say (conscious of the exaggeration of such a summary): at bottom Bruckner's spirit was repose, Mahler's unrest. With Bruckner the most impassioned movement has a foundation of certainty; not even Mahler's inmost depths remain undisturbed. Bruckner's scope of expression is unlimited, though it has but few main subdivisions; with Mahler these are prodigal in number, embracing all lights and shades of a weird diabolism, a humorous buffoonery, even resorting to the eccentric and banal, besides countless expressive nuances ranging from childlike tenderness to chaotic eruption. His heartfelt, folk-like themes are as Mahlerian as his sardonic cacophonies, whose lightning apparitions render all the darker the night of his musical landscape. Mahler's noble peace and solemnity, his lofty transfiguration are the fruits of conquest; with Bruckner they are innate gifts. Bruckner's musical message stems from the sphere of the saints; in Mahler speaks the impassioned prophet. He is ever renewing the battle, ending in mild resignation, while Bruckner's tone-world radiates unshakable, consoling affirmation. We find, as already stated, the inexhaustible wealth of the Bruckner music spread over a correspondingly boundless, though in itself not highly varied realm of expression, for which the two verbal directions, "feierlich" (solemnly) and "innig' (heartfelt), most often employed by him, almost sufficed, were it not for the richly differentiated scherzi that remind us of the wealth of the humoristic external ornaments of impressive Gothic cathedrals. Even Bruckner's orchestra undergoes scarcely any change. With the Seventh he adds the Wagnerian tubas, in the Eight the harp, but he does not alter his instrumental methods as such. Beginning with the Fifth the character of his harmony and polyphony no longer varies, though (to be sure) it is sufficiently rich and inspired to require no change.

Mahler renewed himself "from head to toe" with each symphony: the First, his "Werther," as I once named it; the Second , a kind of "Requiem''; the Third, which one might be tempted to call a pantheistic hymn; the Fourth, a fairy-tale idyll. From the Fifth to the Seventh imagery and ideas yield to absolute musical intentions. Even though each of these three symphonies has its own individual atmosphere, they stand considerably closer to each other in style and general content than the widely separated first four. They share in common a musically more complex, polyphonically more profound idiom, richer in combinations, imparting a new, stronger impression of Mahler's varied emotional life. The human voice is the main instrument in the Eight. A magnificent, specifically choral polyphony determines the style of the hymn-like first movement, while in the Faust-scenes the composer adapts his musical idiom to the Goethe-word and the demands of lyric singableness, through a sort of simplification. In Das Lied von der Erde we meet with still another Mahler, inaugurating a third creative period, with a new manner of composition and orchestration. On this highest plane is born the Ninth, the mighty symphonic presentation of the spiritual sphere of Das Lied von der Erde. The sketches toward a Tenth bring to a sudden end this sharply defined course of creative evolution, the outstanding feature of which was its rich differentiation. This applies also (as already stated) to his instrumentation. An inborn, extremely delicate sense of sound, an ear open to orchestral possibilities lead, at the beck of expression and clarity, to unique mastery over the orchestra. From wealth of color and charm of sound to an objective exposition of his increasingly complex polyphony, this is the path Mahler's orchestral technique, changed and intensified by the increasing demands of each work, had to travel. Each orchestral song, from the very earliest, reveals an individual instrumental combination, mainly of an amazing economy. The symphonies, with the exception of the Fourth, are inhabited by orchestral masses over which an unbounded tonal fantasy holds sway. In contrast to Bruckner he was compelled to struggle ceaselessly for the solution of orchestral problems, increasing with each new work. In this respect he always felt himself, as he complained to me, "a beginner". The great stress in Bruckner's music rests upon the idea, in Mahler's upon the symphonic elaboration of the idea involving processes of forming and transforming which in the course of years scaled the highest peaks of constructive power. It is characteristic of the difference between the two composers that their opponents attack the form in Bruckner's, the substance in Mahler's work. I can understand these objections to some extent without, however, acquiescing in them. From Schenker comes this charming thought: that "even a little bouquet of flowers requires some order (guiding lines) to make it possible for the eye to encompass it at a glance," i.e., to see it as a bouquet. "Form" is such order, premeditated, organic association, complete, strict unity. Our classic literature contains matchless examples of organic unity. Yet we have art works of undoubtedly highest value (I mention Goethe's Faust as the most significant instance) the genesis of which resisted this strict organic unity of form, gaining more in richness thereby than they lost in lucidity. I confess that for many years, despite my love for Bruckner's tonal language and his wonderful melodies, despite my happiness in his inspirations, I felt somewhat confused by his apparent formlessness, his unrestrained, luxurious prodigality. This confusion disappeared as soon as I began performing him. Without difficulty I achieved that identification with his work which is the foundation of every authentic and apparently authentic interpretation. Now, since I have long felt deeply at home in his realm, since his form no longer seems strange to me, I believe that access to him is open to everyone who approaches him with the awe due a true creator. His super-dimensions, his surrender to every fresh inspiration and new, interesting turning, sometimes not drawn with compelling musical logic from what has gone before, nor united to what follows, his abrupt pauses and resumptions: all this may just as well indicate a defect in constructive power as an individual concept of symphony. Even though he may not follow a strictly planned path to his goal, he takes us over ways strewn with abundant riches, affording us views of constantly varying delight. Mahler's striving for form succeeded in bringing transparent unity to the huge dimensions of his symphonies. His was a conscious effort towards order. All his singularities of mood, his excesses of passions, his outpourings of the heart are seized and united according to a plan dictated by his sovereign sense of form. He once told me that, because of the pressure of time (his duties as director left him only the summer months for composing) he may perhaps not have been, at times, sufficiently critical of the quality of an idea, but that he had never permitted himself the slightest leniency in the matter of form. Yet the objection to his thematic art finds no corroboration in this confession, for that objection refers, as far as I know, only to so-called "banalities," i.e., intentional ironic turns, meant to be humorous and dependent for acceptance or rejection upon the listener's capacity for humor. It is not in these that Mahler perceived a deficient quality. He referred to a few transitional lyrisms in later works, which struck him as perhaps not select enough, though they would scarcely disturb anyone's enjoyment of the gigantic whole.

The relative beauty of themes and the value of musical ideas cannot be a subject for discussion. I limit myself to the declaration that, after life-long occupation with his works, Mahler's musical substance seems to me essentially music, powerful and individual throughout, beautiful when he strives for beauty, graceful when he strives for charm, melancholy when for sorrow, etc. In short it was truly the material suited to the rearing of such mighty structures, and worthy of the sublime feelings it served to express. Mahler was, like Bruckner, the bearer of a transcendental mission, a spiritual sage and guide, master of an inspired tonal language enriched and enhanced by himself. The tongues of both had, like that of Isaiah, been touched and consecrated by the fiery coal of the altar of the Lord and the threefold "Sanctus" of the seraphim was the inmost meaning of their message.

The personalities

The favor of personal acquaintance with Bruckner was not granted me, but that Vienna, into the musical life of which I entered as a young conductor, was still full of the most lively memories of him. I came in touch with "Bruckner circles," which abundantly supplemented Mahler's narratives of his own Bruckner-experiences. I gathered from reports of pupils and friends of the master, from numerous anecdotes, so vivid a picture of his personality, his atmosphere, his mode of life, his conversation, his habits and eccentricities, that I feel as if I had known him thoroughly. One drastic difference between Bruckner and Mahler struck me even then: no feature in Bruckner's personal make-up reflected the greatness and sublimity of his music, while Mahler's person was in full harmony with his work. What a contrast in the very appearance of the two masters! Gustav Mahler's lean figure, his narrow, longish face, the unusually high, sloping forehead beneath jet-black hair, eyes which betrayed the inner flame, the ascetic mouth, his strange, irregular gait -- these impressed one as the incarnation of the  diabolical conductor Johann Kreisler, the famed musical self. reflecting creation of the poet E. T. A. Hoffmann. Anton Bruckner's short, corpulent, comfortable figure, his quiet, easy manner contrast as strongly as possible with such romantic appearance. But upon the drab body is set the head of a Roman Caesar, which might be described as majestic, were it not for the touch of meekness and shyness about the eyes and mouth, giving the lie to tide commanding brow and nose. As might be expected from their contrasting exteriors the two men themselves differed. Bruckner was a retiring, awkward, childishly naive being, whose almost primitive ingenuousness and simplicity was mixed with a generous portion of rustic cunning. He spoke the unrefined Upper-Austrian dialect of the provincial and remained the countryman in appearance, clothing, speech, and carriage till the end, even though he lived in Vienna, a world-metropolis, for decades. His conversation never betrayed reading, whether literature or poetry, nor any interest in scientific matters. The broad domains of the intellectual did not attract him. Unless music was the topic he turned his conversation to the narrow vicissitudes and happenings of everyday existence. Nevertheless his personality must have been attractive, for almost all reports agree upon the peculiar fascination exerted by his naivete, piety, homely simplicity, and modesty, bordering at times on servility, as borne out by many of his letters. I explain this attractive power of his strange personality to myself as due to the radiance of his lofty, godly soul, the splendor of his musical genius glimmering through his unpretending homeliness. If his presence could hardly be felt as "interesting", it was heartwarming, yes, uplifting.

It was entirely otherwise with Mahler, who was as impressive in life as in his works. Wherever he appeared his exciting personality swayed everything. In his presence the most secure became insecure. His fascinating conversation was alive with an amazingly wide culture reflecting a world of intellectual interests and an uncommon capacity for swift, keen thinking and expression. Nothing of importance ever thought, accomplished, or created by man was foreign to him. His philosophically trained mind, his fiery soul grasped and assimilated the rich, nourishing intellectual diet without which so Faustian a being could not exist, yet which could as little satiate or appease him as it had Faust. A firm consciousness of God that knew no wavering filled Bruckner's heart. His deep piety, his faithful Catholicism dominated his life, even though it is rather his work that reveals the true greatness of his faith and his relationship to God. Not only his Masses, his Te Deum, his devotional choral works, but his symphonies also (and these before all) sprang from this fundamental religious feeling that swayed Bruckner's entire spirit. He did not have to struggle toward God; he believed. Mahler sought God. He searched in himself, in Nature, in the messages of poets and thinkers. He strove for steadfastness while he swung between assurance and doubt. Midst the thousand-fold, often chaotic impressions of world and life he tried to find the ruling prime thought, the transcendental meaning. From his Faustian urge for knowledge, from his commotion by the misery of life, from his presentiment of ultimate harmony stemmed the spiritual agitation which poured from him in the shape of music. Change characterized Mahler's life; constancy Bruckner's. In a certain sense this is also true of their work. Bruckner sang of his God and for his God, Who ever and unalterably occupied his soul. Mahler struggled toward Him. Not constancy, but change ruled his inner life, hence also his music.

Thus their work and their nature were in many respects akin, in many at variance. Yet both belong to that wide, august circle of friends who never abandon us to languish in grief or solitude, but offer us solace in all pain. Theirs is a precious legacy that for all time belongs to us. Those friends are always present. Their spirits dwell in our book-chests, music-cabinets, in our memory, at our beck and call day and night. Our two masters have long since been received into this circle because they continue the work which the great musicians of the past have left. Great was the difference between the two, as I have shown; but conjure up one and the other is not very distant. Along with Bruckner's music (aside from the described more concrete connections) there vibrates a secret Mahlerian undertone, just as in Mahler's work some intangible element is reminiscent of Bruckner. From this intuition of their transcendental kinship it is clearly permissible to speak of "Bruckner and Mahler"; therefore it is possible that, despite the differences in their natures, despite the very incompatibility of important features of their work, my unqualified and unlimited love can belong to them both.