Earlier this year, Carnegie Hall in New York City presented a series of performances of the Nine Symphonies of Anton Bruckner by the Staatskapelle Berlin led by Daniel Barenboim. This was the first time the complete cycle of symphonies had been performed in in the United States of America.
Each evening, the audience was reminded of Bruckner’s profound faith by an anecdote related in the program notes: “So devout a Catholic was Bruckner that students recalled his interrupting classes to kneel in prayer at the sound of the Angelus bell from nearby St. Stephen’s Cathedral.” In some cases, the programs offered programmatic exegesis that associated the orchestral movements with Bruckner’s vision of the afterlife. In Janet E. Bedell’s program notes provided for the Eighth Symphony, performed on January 28, the joyful scherzo was likened to “the peal of God’s laughter,” the adagio was a “vision of Heaven,” and the finale concluded with a joyous affirmation of Heaven now in sight. For Bedell, each of Bruckner’s symphonies is an “epic spiritual journey, for this devoutly Catholic composer conceived his works as mighty hymns to God.”
While it is gratifying to encounter edifying testimonies to Bruckner’s faith in a secular space like Carnegie Hall, I was more struck by Bruckner’s example of the virtue of hope. Although the initial performances of his early symphonies ranged from modest premieres to unmitigated disasters, Bruckner continued to write symphony after symphony in the face of human incomprehension. The First was politely received in 1868 and not heard again for more than 20 years. The Second was initially rejected by the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic as being “nonsensical and impossible to perform,” though it eventually met with success after a well-endowed rehearsal budget allowed the musicians to come to terms with the music in time for its successful premiere in 1873. The Third’s premiere in 1877 was a fiasco, and the Fourth was not performed for years after its initial composition until Bruckner had significantly revised it following his earlier difficulties.
Bruckner never even heard a performance of his Fifth Symphony, with its first performance coming after his death. The Sixth, likewise, was only performed in its entirety after his death. While the Seventh was a public triumph, the Eighth was rejected by the conductor to whom Bruckner first confided it. Bruckner was still at work on the final movement of the Ninth Symphony on the morning of October 11, 1896. “Dear God, let me get well soon; you see I need my health to finish the Ninth,” he prayed—but God must have determined that three movements were enough. After all, Bruckner had proposed that his Te Deum might suffice as a finale to the Ninth.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, hope can be understood in two senses: on a natural level as a human passion and on a supernatural level as a theological virtue. The passion of hope has to do with a good not yet possessed that is difficult but possible to obtain. The virtue of hope, infused by God’s grace, allows us to trust in God’s assistance to obtain what seems impossible by our own means. This form of hope is ultimately aimed at eternal happiness, the life of heaven perhaps described by Bruckner’s symphonies.
Bruckner possessed both forms of hope in an exemplary way. On a human level, he continued to persevere in the arduous work of composition, hoping that one day his work might get the appreciation he knew it deserved. Recognizing toward the end of his life that his students were making some problematic changes to his music in the process of printing his works, Bruckner entrusted his original manuscripts to the imperial library so that they might be preserved “for the future.” Early in his career, Bruckner had a certain lack of self-confidence; when he transitioned from an early position as a school teacher to a full time musician, for instance, he ensured that his previous job should be kept available in case he failed in his new position, a tactic he repeated when he eventually moved to Vienna.
Later, Bruckner began to develop the passion of hope in a more profound way. After completing an array of early compositions, Bruckner abstained from composing for six years while mastering the traditional art of counterpoint. Having ascertained his potential to be a great composer, Bruckner applied himself to the technical preparation that would undergird his life’s work. The masterful counterpoint of the Finale of the Eighth Symphony, in which the themes of each movement are woven together in a tightly knit synthesis, drew on these years of quiet labor. Through his intense study and self-preparation, Bruckner acquired the facility with composition which would allow his hope to be focused on a possible but arduous good. Bruckner longed to compose something great; as the musicologist Timothy L. Jackson writes, “subtle links forged between the symphonies suggest that he may have considered each symphony to be a component of a single ‘meta-symphony’ encompassing all nine symphonies, each symphonic statement building directly upon its predecessor.”
Despite his unrequited prayer for time to finish the Ninth, Bruckner’s life witnesses to the virtue of hope, in addition to the passion. The Ninth Symphony, after all, was dedicated to “Almighty God”—a development, one might say, from the Third, which was merely dedicated to Wagner. Bruckner’s diaries carefully record his regimen of prayers, and his focus on “secular” compositions alternated with work on settings of the Mass, the Te Deum, and various other sacred texts. Through the virtue of hope, Bruckner aspired not only to flourish as a composer, but to flourish in everlasting life. For St. Thomas, the virtue of hope aims at the enjoyment of God himself: “for we should hope from Him for nothing less than Himself.” By living out his vocation as a composer and as a Christian, Bruckner was able to spend his life hoping not only that his symphonies might be heard, but that he might hear the everlasting symphony of heaven.
Bruckner’s hope, in both the passionate and theological senses, allowed him to bestow on us an inspiring musical world which enables us to contemplate the world to come. During his lifetime, Bruckner experienced a range of successes and failures, both on a musical and a personal level. While his music often failed to conform to contemporary expectations, it would be championed by later generations whose ears would have time to adjust to his musical landscape. His arduous perseverance, rooted in human and divine hope, reminds us of the necessity of carefully cultivating our own abilities and talents in order to make a lasting contribution to the world around us. To one who hopes for something great, all lesser things seem small.