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Bruckner’s Eighth: A Whale of a Symphony

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Nov. 11, 2009
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The symphonies of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) are often compared to things huge and noble, like mountains and forests and sunrises and sunsets. They are so expansive they seem to suggest vast glorious landscapes. Like whales, though big and weighty, they’re also supremely graceful.

A poet once wrote that Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony would make a good peace treaty between humans and whales. Bruckner lived in landlocked Austria and did not intend to evoke whales, the way for instance Alan Hovhaness did in his 1970 And God Created Great Whales by blending recordings of actual whale songs into his orchestral fabric.

What the poet meant was that this music goes so deep into the human heart that whales might well feel it deep in their own huge hearts as a bridge of sympathy between the two species. The opening movement expresses dark tragedy that not only humans have suffered, but that whales also have suffered via human harpoons.

The second movement, by contrast, expresses a tremendous exuberance akin to playful whales leaping above the waves for sheer joy. The third movement, one of the most monumental and beautiful expressions of human melancholy in all of music, might well also resonate in whales sad to die a natural death, let alone an explosive harpoon. This third quarter of the symphony transforms sorrow into something tender and sublime—spiritual in a sense beyond any creed.

The fourth movement, the finale, is an eruption of indomitable triumph over all the tragedies and sorrows the human heart, or whale heart, can feel. Alas, we know that joy doesn’t always triumph over sorrow, but we keep invoking—and putting our energy behind—the possibility of a more joyous, less tragic existence.

Like much of Mahler, the Bruckner Eighth’s opening movement seems to foresee the turmoil of the 20th century. The 80-minute four-movement symphony as a whole provides a powerful catharsis for all life’s sorrows, and ends in cascades of invincible affirmation.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) under guest conductor Lawrence Renes at the Marcus Center will perform Bruckner’s mighty Eighth Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 13-14. Renes came to international attention in 1995 when at age 25 he replaced an ailing Riccardo Chailly in leading the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in a formidable program of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Broadcast on Dutch TV, this highly successful performance became the basis for a documentary on Renes titled A Dream Debut.

Re-energized and sounding better than ever under its new music director, Edo de Waart, the MSO has wowed Milwaukee music lovers during its first four programs of the season. It will be interesting to see how it does under its second guest conductor this season.


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