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Paul Hawkshaw talks Bruckner ahead of performance by Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta

[…] Symphony No. 8, Bruckner’s last completed work in the form, is considered one of his greatest compositions. Conceived on a vast scale, with performances typically taking more than an hour and 20 minutes, the symphony has dark, organ-like sonorities, moments of shattering drama, a grave Adagio as long as an entire Mozart symphony and a blazing, thundering finale.

“He wrote it when he as absolutely at the height of his powers and at the height of his popularity,” said Paul Hawkshaw, professor of music at Yale University and author of the Bruckner section of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. “People talk about Bruckner as being this spiritual composer, that his spirituality as a person comes out in his music, and I think in the Eighth Symphony this happens more than anywhere else.

“In the first movement, we have a man who is spiritually conflicted, and there’s a lot of tension there. But in the Adagio, it’s like a 20-minute hymn, and sometimes people who are not used to Bruckner get impatient because it’s so long. But if you give it time, by the time you get to the end, I believe you actually are taken to a different place. It’s so spiritually moving.”

Bruckner’s status as a Nazi idol came through no fault of his own. As an unworldly man in late 19th-century Vienna, he got caught up in the musical and political controversies of the day, finding himself enlisted as a partisan of Wagner against the Brahms faction, never quite extricating himself, even after death. And Hitler, who was born just a mile or two from Bruckner’s birthplace, saw him as a fellow artist and victim of Jewish critics.

One of Joseph Goebbels’ best-known propaganda speeches came in the dedication of a bust of Bruckner at the Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg, an event that yielded a photo of Hitler contemplating the composer’s sculpted image. After Hitler committed suicide, the solemn music played on the radio was the Adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.

“Bruckner himself had no interest whatsoever in either the German agenda or the Nazi agenda, and in fact was a staunch Roman Catholic,” Hawkshaw said. “But he was extremely naive, and he got caught up in this when he was alive and it just continued ... until the end of the Second World War. He was very much a part of the propaganda. I remember into the 1970s some of the faculty members here at Yale who had fought in the American Army in the Second World War refused to listen to Bruckner. They just wouldn’t touch it.”

Few conductors know better than Mehta the difficulty of attempting to bring a Nazi favorite to Israel. Convinced that a composer as great as Wagner should not be excluded from a major orchestra’s repertoire, he announced plans in 1981 for the Israel Symphony to perform selections from Tristan und Isolde as an encore. As Wagner’s sensual harmonies floated through the hall, cries of “Hitler!” and “Nazi!” competed with shouts of approval, in a performance that ended with a standing ovation from most of the audience, according to an account by The Associated Press. He dropped subsequent plans to try again, after receiving word that tickets had been bought in blocks by people intending to disrupt the concerts.