Bruckner's Symphonies: Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics

By Korstvedt, Benjamin M. | Notes, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Bruckner's Symphonies: Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics


Korstvedt, Benjamin M., Notes


Bruckner's Symphonies: Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics. By Julian Horton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. [x, 280 p. ISBN 0-521-82354-4. $75.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

Julian Horton's Bruckner's Symphonies: Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics is the work of an energetic, musically astute scholarly mind pursuing an important and challenging task, namely "to establish grounds for understanding Bruckner that do justice to an unmediated sense of music-historical and analytic significance that I never quite managed to reconcile with prevailing debates" (p. viii). Horton begins by taking aim at the " 'Bruckner problem' in the broadest sense," which as he sees it, encompasses not only the notorious text-critical problems but myriad other issues of reception including the "Nazification" of Bruckner's music, persistent questioning of the music's artistic merit, and belittling approaches to the composer's biography (p. 1). In a novel twist that helps to enrich his critical perspective, Horton identifies as "the single factor uniting these trends" a consistent "revisionist motivation" that goes back to debates about Bruckner's music in the 188Os and "the desire to defend him against the ridicule of Hanslick and the Brahmsian faction" (p. 2). Horton is uneasy with the persistence of revisionism, however, for it tends to produce single-minded and often contradictory interpretations and because it has prevented the formation of a "critical overview" capable of properly comprehending apparently "intractable scholarly problems" raised by Bruckner's works. Thus, Horton's "central motivation" is the intention to "investigate 'the Bruckner problem' in the broadest sense in a comparative, rather than a disciplinarily speci6c, fashion" in the conviction that this will escape the "repeating cycle of reappraisal that in many ways constitutes the enduring common ground of Bruckner scholarship" (p. 3). Horton structures his book around a "series of case studies that prosecute this aim by exploring the consequences of allowing problematic issues to intersect, or to be refracted through a succession of diverse methodological debates and applications" (p. 3). This produces a series of fairly self-contained chapters on topics ranging from "Right-wing Cultural Politics and the Nazi Appropriation of Bruckner" to "Bruckner and the Construction of Musical Influence" and "Psychobiography and Analysis." Given this ambitious program, it is hardly surprising that the results of Horton's efforts are mixed. In general, the parts of his work that are rooted in musical analysis are most satisfying, while his efforts to extend into interdisciplinary and post-modern reaches are insightful and frustrating by turns.

Horton is a talented music analyst. The single best chapter is the compendious "Bruckner and Musical Analysis," which at seventy pages is nearly twice the length of the next-longest chapter and occupies more than a quarter of the book's total length (pp. 92-161). It begins with a critical appraisal of ways in which current theoretical and analytic paradigms, particularly those rooted in Schenkerian principles, struggle to comprehend Bruckner's formal and harmonic methods. Horton argues well that the prevalent tendency in Anglo-American music theory to define "common practice in Schenkerian terms" has fostered a tradition of misunderstanding by granting "normative status to an essentially Brahmsian concept." With the tables thus skewed against Bruckner, it has become an accepted truism that his symphonies are imperfect if not fundamentally problematic. But Horton avers that "the source of these problems is analytic theory, not Brucknerian practice" (pp. 94^95) and proceeds to explore how a more apt and nuanced analysis would work. He brings to bear some of the best recent work on sonata form, thematic and tonal design, and neoRiemannian notions of harmonic function in a series of substantial analytic vignettes addressing salient parts of the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eight Symphonies, supported by a series of fine music examples, reductions, and analytic sketches. …

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