One of the greatest German composers of the 19th century, Anton Bruckner exerted an enormous influence on the development of music in the modern age. Artists as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Paul Hindemith and Herbert von Karajan found inspiration in his grand and innovative symphonies. Yet his public integration into the Nazi world and Hitler’s frequently avowed identification with the long-dead musician strongly affected Bruckner’s post-war reception. Unlike that of Richard Wagner, the name Bruckner does not bear the taint of antisemitism, nor has the mythologisation of his life attained the same heights. Nonetheless, Bruckner’s music was intimately tied to the workings of the Third Reich, and for many years after the war he was rarely heard outside the German-speaking world. Not explicitly rejected for his association with the horrors of Hitler’s war, Bruckner was instead quietly downplayed. It is only in the past few decades that musicians and musicologists in the United States and Western Europe have begun to turn again to Bruckner, exploring both his music and his significance to the Nazi party.
Anton Bruckner was born on 4 September 1824 in the Austrian town of Ansfelden, to a poor and religious family. He initially followed in his father’s footsteps and became the village teacher. From an early age he was drawn to the organ, and helped to support his family by playing fiddle at town dances, before finally completing his studies to become a teacher. It was many years before he committed himself entirely to music. In fact, his talent for composition only really unfolded when he was already in his forties. Having moved to the capital city of Vienna, he eventually became a music teacher. His first symphony was successfully premiered in 1868; however, it was not to be his breakthrough. Bruckner remained relatively obscure for more than a decade after this performance. Finally, in the 1880s, he was acknowledged as one of the stars of the Viennese musical world. A hard-working composer and pedagogue, he was working on his final symphony right up until his death on 11 October 1896.
From this relatively unremarkable biography, the Nazi ideologues were to construct an elaborate and almost entirely fictionalised narrative of Germanic glory and Jewish oppression. Bruckner’s biography was recreated as the story of an Austrian peasant who found success, a lad whose connection to the German soil and German blood made him a worthy symbol of 'Aryan' supremacy. Certain aspects of his life were emphasized – as a teacher descended from a long line of teachers, Bruckner fitted into the Nazi obsession with education, and the raising of future generations of ‘authentic Germans’. Other aspects of his biography were modified: the devout Catholic became instead ‘a believer in God’, a man who had rejected formal religion in favour of the sort of nationalist spirituality preferred by Hitler.
Despite the fact that he composed many pieces explicitly for the Church, his music was said to represent the deep spirituality that was liberated from the clerical world. According to myth, his first exposure to Wagner inspired him to leave his job as a church organist to become a symphonist. Finally, much of his biography was simply invented by the Nazi press – this was particularly true when it came to the fact that Bruckner’s music received a relatively poor reception for most of his life.
In the eyes of the Nazi musicologists, Bruckner was the ultimate victim of the loathed Jewish bourgeoisie. His lukewarm reception by the Viennese music critics was, accordingly, attributed to simple racial discrimination: a brilliant composer and biologically ‘pure’ member of the Germanic race had, yet again, been oppressed, attacked, or simply ignored by the Jewish conspiracy that held the city of Vienna in its grip. As a native Austrian and an under-appreciated artist, Bruckner provided an ideal figure of identification for that other under-appreciated artist, Adolf Hitler. As Goebbels noted in his diary, in Hitler’s eyes the composer was 'a farm boy who conquered the world with his music' – a figure analogous to the Führer himself. There was also a functional aspect to the centrality of Bruckner to Nazi music history: as an Austrian, Bruckner served to embody the pan-German fantasies of the party. It is said that after listening to Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Hitler cried: 'How can anyone say that Austria is not German! Is there anything more German than our old pure Austrianness?'
The important role that Bruckner played in the musical life of the Third Reich is undeniable. His works were perceived as unproblematically and unapologetically German. The playing of his music preceded speeches at the Nuremberg rallies, and he was one of the most performed composers during the years of Nazi rule. The Nazi Party donated substantial amounts of money to the Bruckner Society, and developed many Bruckner prizes and Bruckner concert days. Ultimately they planned a major music festival, intended to compete with Bayreuth’s Wagner festival in size and glory. For the leader of the Reich, Bruckner’s music was instilled with the power to cleanse and rebuild the weakened Germanic race. After the loss of World War I and the degeneration of the Weimar Republic, there was
but one remedy: a return to the pure sources! What is purer than that born of the deep religiosity of Bach, Beethoven and Bruckner! Now especially Bruckner’s God-consecrated art found a fertile soil, at last it was rightly understood. For many thousands it was the guide to a beautiful, spiritual world.
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