Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: On the Spectrum

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) in 1896, wearing the Order of Franz Joseph, in a portrait by Josef Büche
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) in 1896, wearing the Order of Franz Joseph, in a portrait by Josef Büche

We mark the birth on September 4, 1824 – 199 years ago today – of the composer and organist Josef Anton Bruckner, in the Austrian village of Ansfelden, which today is a suburb of the city of Linz.  He died in the Austrian capital of Vienna on October 11, 1896, at the age of 72.

It was Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) who famously said that Bruckner was:

“Half simpleton, half God.”


I would be so bold as to suggest that there is such a thing as a “strangeness spectrum,” a scale of personality oddness that stretches from the merely quirky to the genuinely weird.  If we were to consider such a spectrum as a scale from one to ten, with one being “quirky” (or idiosyncratic); five being “eccentric” (or odd); and ten being really “weird” (or bizarre), then the personality of the composer and organist Anton Bruckner would lie at about an eleven: an off-the-charts “downright whacky” (and even, at times, unnervingly creepy).

I know, I know: many of you are probably thinking something on the lines of “so what? He was a professional composer.  Show me a major composer besides, perhaps, Joseph Haydn and Antonin Dvořák who wasn’t a bit crazy.” 

True, that.  But even by the standards of professional composers, Bruckner was in a class by himself, perhaps the strangest and most unlikely person to ever become a high-end professional composer.  Attempting to reconcile this genuinely bizarre country bumpkin with the complex, sprawling, often magnificent symphonic and religious music he composed remains a challenge.

Brief Biography

Bruckner’s birth house in Ansfelden, Austria
Bruckner’s birth house in Ansfelden, Austria

He was born in the Austrian town of Ansfelden, near Linz.  His father was the town schoolmaster and the church organist, and it was at the local Catholic Church that Bruckner heard his first music, sang as a choirboy, and learned to play the violin and organ.  

The Church was Bruckner’s refuge and solace for the entirety of his life; he was as devout a man as we will ever find outside a monastery or a foxhole.  He believed completely that everything he did should honor God.  Late in his life he told Gustav Mahler:

“Yes, my dear, now I have to work very hard so that at least [my] tenth Symphony will be finished.  Otherwise, I will not pass before God, before whom I shall soon stand.  He will say: ‘Why else have I given you talent, you son of a bitch, than you should sing My praise and glory? But you have accomplished much too little!’” 

One can only hope that God deemed Bruckner’s nine symphonies as being adequate, because he died before completing his Tenth.  

Bruckner’s statement to Mahler – made in all seriousness – reveals what was a pathological inferiority complex.  As a student teacher between the ages of 17 and 19, he was constantly and mercilessly humiliated by his boss, one Franz Fuchs, a teacher at the Windhagg School in the Austrian town of Windhaag.  But Bruckner never complained or rebelled.  Rather, characteristically, he submitted to any and all abuse without a whimper, so convinced was he of his own inferiority.  

Everyone who knew him said the same thing, that he was a classic country bumpkin: naïve, simple, overly trusting, and deferential.  According to his biographer Deryck Watson, Bruckner was:

“Humble, straightforward, uncomplicated, unpretentious, and unsophisticated.  He was warm-hearted and childlike, [though] his proverbial naivety should not be confused with a lack of intelligence. His rural background was evident throughout his life.  City life never suited him, and the little countryman, habitually dressed in a bulky black suit and wide-brimmed black hat, was in sharp contrast with the style and elegance of fashionable Vienna [where he lived from 1868 to his death in 1896].…

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