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Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Visit from Anton Bruckner

A composer comes to New Jersey...sort of.
I don't make it much of a secret, but I usually sleep with "music in." 
The composer Anton Bruckner at his piano in 1894.
Really, he looked just like this.
As a sleep apnea patient, I use a BiPAP machine (it stands for Bi-directional Positive Air Pressure) which pushes and pulls air in and out of my nose and throat as I sleep. This keeps my airway open and makes sure I get a full night's sleep. I am thus able to stay awake at concerts and work in a normal fashion. 

Each night, I program my iPod and tuck it under my pillow. I block the noise of the "blower" with SkullCandy ear-buds, (yes, that's an endorsement) usually playing Bach or Mozart though I can sleep through Wagner, Bruckner, and even Mahler.

Getting proper sleep in the last four years has led to another new experience--the return of R. E. M. sleep and lucid dreaming. Today, taking a mid-morning nap "on the machine," I dreamt that I met Anton Bruckner.

In this dream, Herr Bruckner was a house-guest at the summer cottage in Sparta, New Jersey that my mother used to own. He was there as a friend of this couple (I'm not sure who they were but they were probably visiting academics) who were also staying at our house. My partner Emily was in the dream too. We were all sitting around the big dark walnut dining-room table where I used to play cards and chess with my parents. A recording of what I believed was Bruckner's Seventh Symphony was playing on the living room stereo, or maybe it was the Eighth.

The dream-Bruckner spoke surprisingly good English. He looked remarkably healthy considering he died in 1896, (35 years before the house was built) and proved an affable houseguest. We were drinking beer (I think I was introducing him to Yuengling Black-and-Tan) and telling jokes, although he looked at me askance when I dropped the "F-bomb" into the conversation. More importantly, the great man noticed how much I enjoyed his music. 

We engaged in a lengthy conversation about the nuance and structure of this particular symphony. The symphony that we were listening to (probably the DG Eugen Jochum recording as it was on vinyl) featured the "Dresden amen," an idea which he included as a homage to Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal (which uses the same theme.)

"Wait a minute!" I thought, (still asleep). "Bruckner didn't use the 'Dresden Amen' in the Seventh!'"

I had had my moment of cognition and realized it was a dream. Even more shocking: I wasn't listening to Bruckner at all. 
The Dresden Amen as it appears in Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony
My iPod had been serenading my subconscious with the first movement of Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony. (If you're interested, it was Claudio Abbado's 1985 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra.) That work is nicknamed the Reformation for its pro-Martin Luther programme and its incorporation of the "Dresden Amen."

On a biographical note, Mendelssohn never actually met Anton Bruckner. In fact, Felix Mendelssohn died in Leipzig in 1847 from a series of strokes. He was 38. At that point, Bruckner (who was born in 1824) was teaching at St. Florian's in Linz, Austria and working as its church organist.

The first connection between them is that both men wrote religious music. Mendelssohn was famous for his oratorios and reviving interest in Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Bruckner chose to express Catholic devotion through three Masses, the Te Deum and his cycle of eleven symphonies.

The connection may be  Bruckner's admiration of Wagner's music. Wagner  worked as a kapellmeister in Dresden, and inserted the "Dresden Amen" into his early opera Das Liebesverbot. He used it twice more in Act III of Tannhäuser and again in Parsifal. Its appearance in Wagner's operas may account for my subconscious confusion of the Reformation Symphony and Bruckner's epic works. 

Both composers make use of  the major-to-minor transitions, isolated passages for wind band and pounding rhythms. Also, like Bruckner, the first movement of Mendelssohn' Fifth speaks in big paragraphs, taking pauses in between as if for breath. By the way, the "Dresden Amen" eventually appeared on Bruckner's symphonic path: it shows up in the last completed movement of his Ninth.

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