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Anton Bruckner – Das verkannte Genie / Anton Bruckner – A Giant in the Making

Nineteenth Century Austrian composer Bruckner was, according to the title, an unrecognized genius. We also learn in passing that he died a Millionaire, a result of profits from his music and a frugal lifestyle, so I guess these terms are somewhat relative. This film rallies various composers, musicians and Bruckner’s biographer to sing his praises.

The film starts with extracts from interviews with 3 celebrated conductors. The interviews are in non-subtitled English, although the rest of the film is in German, the first of many signs that a certain level of education is expected from the audience. Two of the conductors will return to expand on their opening remarks. For some reason, Simon Rattle does not.

No time to worry about that, as we’re hopping on a bus to take us round important places of Bruckner’s youth. Organisers are a Bruckner society from the States, again speaking without subtitles. With them, we visit a few Austrian villages where Bruckner lived as a kid, but then the bus zooms off and we don’t see them again.

Two things to say about this film, which are connected. Firstly, the film includes a highly intelligent discussion of Bruckner’s work – his debt to Schubert and Wagner, and the way in which certain parts of his symphonies represent deep feelings and changes of moods. The second thing to say is that as a Bruckner ignoramus, I’m probably not the best person to address these points.

There are still a couple of things that I can say, though. From more or less the very beginning, a lot is made of Bruckner’s religious upbringing and the importance of his Catholicism to how he viewed the world. One of the later symphonies will be described as “transcendent” and as his message to God.

This is an interesting point, and yet it makes it hard for us to carry on the discussion. Transcendent ideas do not open themselves to the rules of logic, and we are in no position to judge the effectiveness with which a piece has reached a Divine audience. We can say “yeah, that’s good, that is”, but I for one lack the vocabulary to go much further.

Now I realise that my relative ignorance and inarticulacy is my problem and mine alone, and no film should dumb itself down for the likes of me. I must also confess, that my general experience of classical music in film comes from a run of Ken Russell biographies that the Bradford Playhouse played when I was in my teens. And whatever else this film is, no-one’s going to leave the cinema believing they’ve just seen Un Film de Ken Russell.

Take for instance, Bruckner’s love life. We learn that the first love of his life was 15 – when he was much older. He moved on to propose to someone else, and when she turned him down, he moved onto her daughter. His Ave Maria was written for another woman, who his biographer describes as “one of the few recipients of a serious proposal from Bruckner”. Unless I lost concentration for a minute, no mention is made of any women with whom Bruckner had an actual relationship.

Now it may be just me, but doesn’t this sound a little interesting? You don’t need a full Ken Russell spectacular, but might there be just some connection with Bruckner’s unconventional lifestyle and the music that he ended up creating? Here I believe that the film’s tendency to describe his music only in relationship to other musicians gets in the way of explaining what we are hearing.

Yet there is an even bigger reveal which we briefly glimpse before it is put once more under cover. While the film is discussing what Bruckner learnt from Wagner, we hear a song “Das Lied vom deutschen Vaterland” (the song of the German fatherland). Nothing more is said, but the title did stick in my head.

Then, shortly before the end, the song comes up again, this time accompanying a picture of Hitler next to a bust of Bruckner. We are told that like Hitler, Bruckner was an Oberösterreicher but we are reassured that unlike Hitler (and Wagner) of course he wasn’t antisemitic. We then move on to the next interview.

Again, is it just me that finds this ever so slightly interesting? I am not claiming that Bruckner was an antisemite, but wouldn’t it have been worth more than a couple of sentences to investigate why the Nazis thought they could appropriate him? And yet this seems to mitigate against the film’s apparent belief that music can be abstracted apart from any social realities.

In summary, it is no fault of the film that it uses a language and discursive style that I find difficult to follow. That is its right. But to believe that music can be discussed in a vacuum seems to be to miss the point of what makes great Art great. It does show extracts from some interesting concerts, but if that was the point, most of the narrative was extrinsic to what’s worth seeing and hearing in the film.

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