Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Bruckner Scholar Benjamin Korstvedt in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On February 22, I will be conducting Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. Below is an exchange that I had with the leading Bruckner scholar Professor Benjamin Korstvedt. For part 2 of this interview (with Prof. Korstvedt interviewing Christian Baldini, reversing roles) click here.

Christian Baldini: Professor Korstvedt, first of all, thank you very much for your time and willingness to share your insight about the music of Anton Bruckner with me and our followers in the Sacramento region. You have written some wonderful program notes for us, and I'll take advantage of this opportunity to ask you a few questions about this man and his music. In your opinion, what is it that makes Bruckner's music so distinctive, and so different from any other composer?

Benjamin Korstvedt:  It is always a pleasure to be able to talk about Bruckner.  His music is so wonderful and truly multifaceted, but not as well-known as it should be.  In a sense, I almost envy folks who will be encountering his music for the first time in concert.  A Bruckner performance is a true experience.  There is so much to discover and enjoy!
To me, perhaps the single most distinctive quality of his symphonies is, simply, how splendid they sound.  Bruckner uses a large orchestra to be sure, but even more important is how he uses it.  He obviously was much attuned to the sonorous qualities of music, a sensibility which must have been informed by his lifelong activity as an organist.  The tonal palette of his music is wide and varied, nowhere more so than in the Seventh.  Listeners will be struck by the range of colors he creates in characterizing and building different sections.  Some passages are massive, to be sure, with full brass supported by the entire orchestra, but others are really subtle with one or two players in the foreground, often in very imaginative settings.
Also, the time-scale of his symphonies is highly distinctive.  They are not short, but despite what the clock seems to say, they do not feel long in the usual sense.  Bruckner has a special sense of time.  In the Adagio in particular, time becomes different, almost meditative, some listeners feel it is cosmic in some way.  It invites you to enter into its pace, which can become a most intense experience, if you accept that invitation.

CB: Please tell us about the dynamics in the music world in this particular time in history. The relationship between Bruckner and Wagner, and those contrasting or opposite figures such as Brahms or Hanslick.

BK:  That’s an important topic.  Music held great importance in Vienna at that time.  The city was very proud of its image as “Musikstadt Wien”—Vienna, the City of Music.  And people really did care about music.  The Viennese music world was quite polarized, though.  There were those who valued a more traditional, classical style; Brahms was the greatest figure on this side.  Others were more committed to the ideals of musical innovation, exploring new styles, forms and realm of expression.  In many ways, Richard Wagner was the figurehead of this.  Bruckner did not fit into this bipolar scheme very easily; he admired Wagner and was certainly innovative in style but was also deeply rooted in Austrian musical traditions as well.  He became identified as symphonic composer of the Wagnerian school, a view he encouraged in certain ways. 
His music was embraced by segments of the Viennese musical world, particularly among younger listeners, but he also had some committed antagonists.  Hanslick, the most influential critic in Vienna, if not Europe, was often harsh in his criticism.  He and Bruckner were also colleagues on the faculty of the University of Vienna and some professional tensions spilled over.   Brahms, who was a friend and ally of Hanslick, was notorious for his disdain for Bruckner.  In private he called him a “poor, deluded fellow” whose “symphonic boa constrictors” were “a swindle” and would be forgotten in a few years.  Clearly, he felt a little bit of resentment, and I suspect jealousy towards him.  Bruckner was more gracious.  He said once, “He is Brahms, and my hat is off to him.  But I like my things better!”

CB: If you had to describe in a few short sentences what makes Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 such a special piece, what would you say? And what would you say to people who claim they don't like Bruckner's music?

BK:  As I mentioned, the Seventh has a very distinctive sound world, as your listeners will immediately hear.  It is also a very lyrical symphony in many passages.  It opens with a wonderfully wide soaring melody sung by the cello section.  There are several stretches of really soulful lyricism from the cellos later too—one of the most remarkable occurs in the middle of the first movement (at the beginning of the development section).  The Adagio is also filled with very beautiful contrasts.  The way that the grave lament of its opening section fades away and suddenly dissolves to reveal a totally different music of lilting beauty in the full string section never fails to move me.
            For those who think they don’t like Bruckner my simple advice is to listen with an open mind (and open ears and open heart, too).   Enjoy the sounds and allow yourself to enter into the symphony’s time zone and soundscapes, even try to breathe with the music as you listen.  Be open to its expressive world.  This music will speak to you if you give it a chance.

CB: With most if not all of Bruckner's works there are multiple editions and versions. You have in fact published the first modern edition of the 1888 version of his Fourth Symphony for the Bruckner Collected Works edition of 2004. Can you explain to people the reasons why his works have been exposed to so many revisions and different versions? Furthermore, could you tell us what your research has shown and what your conclusion is about the use of the percussion, in particular the famous cymbal clash in the 2nd movement (that some editions, including the Haas omit)?

BK: The roots of this situation lie in numerous circumstances.  The starting point was Bruckner’s approach to composition and revision, which involved a good deal of revision before he produced the best possible final version.  In some cases, he actually produced several distinct versions of most of his symphonies.  He left autograph scores of his nine symphonies to the Court Library in Vienna in his will and this bequeathal greatly facilitated access to earlier, unpublished versions of several of his symphonies.  After Bruckner’s death, scholars and editors became fascinated with these unpublished scores and tried to produce new versions that were somehow more authentic than what had been published in Bruckner’s time. These efforts did produce some valuable results and new discoveries but also sowed confusion, especially when some editors became overzealous in their efforts to rediscover the “true Bruckner.”  Haas’s edition of the Seventh is classic example of this.  In a spirit of overidentification with his self-appointed task, Haas became convinced on little evidence that Bruckner did not truly want to include the tympani, cymbal and triangle that sound so dramatically at the climax of the Adagio.  Haas claimed, despite that fact that these parts are written into the score in Bruckner’s hand, that they had been foisted upon him by his students and Arthur Nikisch, the conductor of the first performance.  Numerous complex decisions and judgment are inevitably involved in editing Bruckner, but nowadays very few serious scholars indeed would agree with Haas’s interpretation.  
In many ways the extraordinary attention given to topic of Bruckner versions has not helped Bruckner’s cause.  For many fans it stirs up an air of intrigue that carries its own appeal, often, alas, quite distant from historical facts and even actual musical issues.  And along the way, it can generate feelings of both righteousness and indignation about the “right” and “wrong” versions.  All of this carries the danger of distracting from the actual musical experience of a Bruckner symphony, which should of course be paramount.

Click here to read the second part of this interview, where the musicologist is asking the conductor some questions about Bruckner.

Benjamin Korstvedt graduated summa cum laude from Clark University in 1987 with a B.A. in Music and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1995. He joined the Clark faculty in 2002, where he is now Professor of Music.  He has served as Chair of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts and as Program Director for Music. He is also affiliated with the program in Media, Culture and the Arts and German Studies.  Before coming to Clark, Professor Korstvedt taught at the University of St. Thomas, Ball State University, and the University of Iowa.  He has held fellowships with the American Musicological Society, the NEH, the Mannes Institute for Advanced Studies in Music, and the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (International Research Center in Cultural Studies) in Vienna

Professor Korstvedt is the author of a critical study of the musical aesthetics of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) entitled Listening for Utopia in Ernst Bloch's Musical Philosophy.   The book, which is the first work in English to address this topic, explicates central themes of Bloch's philosophy of music and develops them through essays on works by Wagner, Mozart, Bruckner and Brahms.

Professor Korstvedt is also a leading scholar of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-96). His work has explored the complex text-critical issues surrounding Bruckner's works, the reception of his music by critics and scholars in the Third Reich, the place of Bruckner's music in the culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna, and the form and meaning of Bruckner's symphonies. He has published numerous articles on these topics and has presented papers at conferences and symposia in the United States, Canada, England, Germany, Hungary, and Austria.  In 2000, he published a monograph on Bruckner's Eighth Symphony that considers the history, musical design, aesthetic meaning, and performance of that great work.
He published the first modern edition of the 1888 version of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony for the Bruckner Collected Works edition in 2004.   This version of the symphony has been performed internationally in Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Austria, as well as in the U.S.  A video production of a performance by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst in the St. Florian Abbey, Austria has appeared on DVD (Euroarts).  The Minnesota Orchestra gave the score its American premiere and recorded it on CD under the direction of Osmo Vänskä, (BIS SACD 1746) in 2010.
In 2010 Professor Korstvedt was awarded the Julio Kilenyi Medal of Honor in recognition of his achievements in promoting the better understanding and appreciation of the music of Anton Bruckner.
In 2007 Professor Korstvedt was a Senior Fellow as the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (International Research Center in Cultural Studies) in Vienna.  His project there, "Rhetorical excess and the cultural unconscious in Viennese music criticism," explored music criticism as a public discourse in fin-de-siècle Vienna.  Professor Korstvedt is currently President of the Bruckner Society of America.  He also has a long interest in the music of Joseph Haydn and has served as Vice President of the Haydn Society of North America.  His current projects include essays on fraught aspects of bourgeois consciousness as expressed in Schubert's epic mode, in Brahms's revisions of the Trio, op. 8, and in the psycho-social drama of Wagner's Die Meistersinger.

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