Anton Bruckner And National Socialism


Bruckner (by bioxid)

Bruckner (by bioxid)

‘In the early 1920’s, the national socialists had rarely concerned themselves with cultural propaganda. Cultural issues were only raised in so far as they related to such broad issues as the treaty of Versailles and the influence of the Jews’ (Levi, p.8).

During the course of this essay I shall investigate how this changed, and how the symphonies of Anton Bruckner became the target of political appropriation. In the first part of this essay I will describe how and why Bruckner’s symphonies were used by the Nazi party.

After covering this aspect in some detail I shall turn my attention to post-war reception, and some of the issues faced by Bruckner scholarship today. This will inevitably involve consideration of the various editions of his works and how these relate to performance practice and reception.

Goebbels’ Regensburg Address and the Appropriation of Bruckner

Joseph Goebbels’s Regensburg address may be seen as the pivotal point in the Nazi appropriation of Anton Bruckner. As the minister for propaganda, Goebbels gave his ceremonial speech ‘in order to honor one of the greatest masters of the German musical art’ (Trans. Cooper, p.605). This event may be seen as paving the way for the subsequent German annexation of Austria. Benjamin Korstvedt shows how Hitler’s reading of a Bruckner symphony takes on ideological significance,

‘After listening to a recording of the seventh symphony given to him by Goebbels, Hitler is reported to have said “How can anyone say that Austria is not German! Is there anything more German than our old pure Austrianness?!” (Korstvedt, p.137)

Hitler’s own interest in the composer was also an important factor. Bryan Gilliam (1994) says that ‘The Nazi propaganda campaign glorifying Bruckner would never have taken place were it not for Hitler’s personal interest in and identification with Bruckner as a man, a composer, and a fellow upper Austrian’ (Gilliam, p.587).

Goebbels began his Regensburg address by comparing Bruckner to Beethoven. Bruckner’s music is celebrated as the continuation of a Germanic symphonic tradition. In Goebbels words, he like Beethoven, ‘…left to us an artistic legacy of nine mighty symphonies’ (trans. Cooper, p.605). It is not long before Goebbels draws attention to Bruckner’s peasant roots. His mystical nature and simple character are also highlighted, as well as ‘the childlike purity of his delight in life which he rested upon a faith in god’ (trans. Cooper, p.606). This focus on Bruckner’s roots and mystical nature may be seen as Goebbels attempt to ally Bruckner with the volkische tradition, which plays such an important role in the Nazi ideology. The ‘childlike purity’ alluded to may also be seen as forming an opposition to bourgeois intellectualism and modernistic decadence, key elements that the Nazi party wished to purge from German society. Goebbels also emphasizes the hostile reception afforded to Bruckner by certain critics. This could be seen as bolstering support for the recent ban on art criticism, and opposing Viennese liberalism in general.

‘If the public practice of art commentary (Kuntsbetrachtung) has been restricted by law to official channels in the new Germany, then we believe we have also resolved a debt of gratitude to the master who struggled in solitude, tortured up to his moment of death by his tormenters’ (trans. Cooper, p.607).

Consideration of the points discussed above, may show why Bruckner became an important part of the cultural propaganda campaign. Bruckner’s life and works (particularly the symphonies), may have been regarded as the ideal vehicle for this cause. Through emphasizing or concealing certain factors of Bruckner’s biography, Goebbels could appropriate the composer to promote national socialist ideals. There was one area of Bruckner’s life though, that did not quite fit with the Nazi line of thought. Bruckner was a church musician (Kantor), and devout Roman catholic. These religious beliefs had to be re-interpreted to fit the Nazi conception of Gottlaubigkeit, or ‘god believing’. In order to free Bruckner from his catholic roots, Goebbels places emphasis on the influence of Richard Wagner. Bruckner would no doubt have been aware of Wagner as a composer, and may well have been influenced by his style. Goebbels account though, sees Bruckner’s first experience of Wagner’s music as having ‘an almost revolutionary effect on the sonority of his musical language’ and states that ‘from that moment onwards the church musician at once retreats almost entirely, and out of him emerges the distinct symphonist’ (trans. Cooper, p.607). Bryan Gilliam (1994), points out that this interpretation completely ignores Bruckner’s sacred works such as the ‘Te Deum’ and the ‘150thPsalm’ (Gilliam, p.593). This refusal to acknowledge Bruckner’s Catholicism may be seen as an attempt to ally the composer with the Nazi conception of Gottlaubigkeit. Gilliam supports this view by saying that ‘The 1937 Regensburg ceremony placed Bruckner as a god in the holy temple of Valhalla. His music would be the sacred language and Nazism the mystical religion’ (Gilliam, p.595).

The Viennese ‘Dunkelkonzerte’ may also be seen as an important factor in this portrayal of Bruckner. The Dunkelkonzerte was a candlelight concert which lent a religious tone to the music. According to Gilliam the ‘…weiner konzerthaus was transformed into a sacred space where listening to Bruckner became tantamount to attending church’ (Gilliam, p.596). Bruckner may not have been the only composer featured, but it was always a Bruckner symphony that formed the main focus of these events.

It can be seen from the above accounts that Goebbels Regensburg address focused on four important points.

  1. Providing a link between Germany and Austria which would help in securing the subsequent annexation or ‘Anschluss’.
  2. Promoting the blood and soil ethic exemplified by the Volkische ideal.
  3. Gaining support for the recent ban on art criticism, and
  4. Promoting Gottlaubigkeit as the new religion.

I have tried to show above how Bruckner’s symphonies have played a key role in supporting each of these goals. The Regensburg address drew attention to Bruckner’s life and works by unveiling a commemorative marble bust of the composer. The commemorative function of this event though, may be considered as of secondary importance. The main goal can be seen as promoting Nazi ideology through the appropriation and aryanisation of a cultural icon.

Post-War Reception

After the war Bruckner’s symphonies could not easily be freed from the Nazi appropriation. This was mainly because their performance was still tied to the scores published under the Nazi government. This is an area of Bruckner scholarship which remains contentious up to the present day. Benjamin Korstvedt (1996) says that, ‘Establishing “authentic” editions of the composers works is still largely governed by arguments and interpretations that originated in connection with the first critical edition of Bruckner’s works’ (Korstvedt, p.141). These editions, edited by Robert Haas were published between 1930 and 1944. Korstvedt shows that these ‘gesamtausgabe’ editions overcame initial criticism to become ‘established as the authoritative source of Bruckner’s works’ (Korstvedt, p.143). The gesamtausgabe project also received support and funding from the Nazi government. This may be seen as good reason to reject them outright. It may be hard to imagine why the Nazi party would fund such a venture, if it was not in their interest to do so. The Robert Haas editions though, did seek to present a credible version of Bruckner’s works. In Haas’ view the earlier publications had been corrupted. The new critical edition aimed to rectify this situation by referring only to the original autograph manuscripts. Korstvedt addresses some of the problems faced by this view and the rejection of the first editions. ‘Bruckner never attempted to suppress the editions published in his lifetime nor did he ever publicly renounce or even criticize their authenticity; moreover, substantial textual evidence exists that testifies to the authority of these editions’ (Korstvedt, p.142). These issues are obviously extremely important and may be felt to have a profound effect on the reception of Bruckner’s symphonies today. The various editions may highlight or hide certain aspects of the score, and it may be difficult to verify the validity of these changes. Korstvedt notes that ‘Haas’s scores are considerably sparser in their notation of nuances of tempo and dynamics than are the texts Bruckner published’ (Korstvedt, p.142). Haas also supplemented his editions with material he had composed himself. Although only small sections were added, some may question Haas’ approach in this matter. The gesamtausgabe editions have also been criticized because of the ideological motivations behind them. It may be considered more than a coincidence that the first edition, which was rejected as corrupt, employed editors of a Jewish origin. It is also stated by Korstvedt that ‘part of the covert mission of the gesamtausgabe seems to have been to remove Bruckner’s scores from the purview of the Viennese publishing house Universal Edition’ (Korstvedt, p.145). This may have been a reaction against Universal Edition’s identification with ‘such deleterious forces as modernism, atonality, Bolshevism, and Judaism’ (Korstvedt, p.145).

A later edition of Bruckner’s symphonies was published by Leopold Nowak. According to Korstvedt, ‘he revised all of Haas’s editions and rectified Haas’s most questionable leaps of faith, notably those found in Hass’s editions of the second and eighth symphonies’ (Korstvedt, p.149).  Even so, Nowak still used the original autograph manuscripts as his source. It seems that the rejection of the first editions is still a prominent factor today. This may be unjustifiable if we consider Bruckner’s willingness to have them published at the time. It may be seen from these accounts that the problems surrounding Bruckner scholarship are not easily overcome. The reception of Bruckner’s symphonies has inherited a dark cloud of ideology which is not easy to ignore. It may also be considered unwise to ignore such a problem. Bryan Gilliam (1994) suggests that maybe, ‘important postwar Bruckner interpretations (exemplified by slower tempi and luscious sonorities) have unwittingly carried over this phenomenon of Bruckner as Nazi religious icon to the contemporary symphony hall or recording studio?’ (Gilliam, p.600)

In an attempt to separate ideology and methodology, Julian Horton (2004), investigates two musical analyses. The first, by Hans Grunsky is of the ninth symphonies first movement. This analysis ‘clearly pre-empts Nazi cultural politics’ and also defends Bruckner against his critics. The second is Robert Haas’ analysis of the eighth symphony finale. This is also shown to be imbued with political ideology.

‘In Haas’s philological, hermeneutic and analytical inclinations the imprints of Nazi cultural politics are plain: an emphasis on the spiritual over the intellectual, and a concomitant notion of textual ‘purity’; a sense that this project was embattled by the forces of Jewish liberalism; a nationalist context seeing in Bruckner’s music the embodiment of an unadorned ‘German essence’’ (Horton, p.84).

Horton concludes that it is possible to separate the ideology from the methodology. Grunsky’s account is seen to rely heavily on metaphors. These are used to establish links between the politics and the music. Once these links are removed, it is posited that the details pertinent to the composition may still be judged on their own merits. A similar situation is found in Haas’ analysis, where ‘a fundamental shift of politics and philological strategy has little more than a peripheral impact on the structure and analytical interpretation of the music’ (Horton, p.87).

Analysis may be considered one of the most important areas regarding the reception of Bruckner’s symphonies. This is especially so, if the autograph manuscripts are the chosen source. The lack of essential markings in these scores may leave room for various interpretations of the music. All that may be left to decide is how an analysis of these scores should proceed. The performance of any given symphony may bring out certain features of the piece. It could emphasize Bruckner as the church organist or mystical genius. It may focus on the harmonic implications of the music and the influence of Wagner’s music dramas. Another choice may be to opt for the first edition where more detail is provided in the score. Botstein (1996), favours the first ‘Schalk’ edition of the fifth symphony saying that,

‘I believe the 1986 edition to be valid biographically (in terms of Bruckner’s relationship to it; it may bear his explicit approval), historically (this was the version that helped establish Bruckner’s fame and reputation and was in use for nearly half a century), and musically (I have performed it several times and plan to record it next season because of its persuasive structural balance and economy and its effective orchestration), (Botstein, p.2).

It may be the case that any performance of a Bruckner symphony contains a certain amount of subjectivity. Botstein compares this scenario with that of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, and suggests that modern performance practice does not entirely reflect the composer’s intention.

‘One suspects that the surface of sensuality, scale, sentiment, and mere pathos in Mahler has been highlighted by smug devotees who in their nearly hysterical attachment to a particular image of the music and the man satisfy a need to demonstrate to others their own presumably profound artistic sensibilities’ (Botstein, p.4).

It may be inferred from this statement that the ‘artistic sensibilities’ described differ somewhat from Botstein’s own. This only underlines the subjectivity that is involved in any musical performance. The most brilliant and passionate of musical performances may well be the product of Botstein’s ‘smug devotees’.


The symphonies of Anton Bruckner have had a more colourful reception history than most. The Nazi appropriation can still be felt to affect certain aspects of Bruckner scholarship today. Among the most important of these is the choice of performing editions. The underlying problem being how to distinguish which editions are authentic, and which are a product of national socialist ideology. The use of Bruckner’s symphonies as cultural propaganda is not something that can be swept under the carpet. In searching for a truly authentic performance of a Bruckner symphony, its reception history must be taken into account. This situation seems to be complicated further by the modern conception of the musical work, whereby an authentic performance is tied to a definitive version of the score. The music on the page may be one half of the story, the symphony only really coming to life once it is performed. If there is no general consensus as to which score should be used, then there is no reason why this should stand in the way of a good performance. The autograph manuscripts contain enough detail to enable a performance. A certain freedom of interpretation should be encouraged. It may be that a new performance alters people’s perception of that piece. There will always be good and bad performances and it is hopefully the good ones that will be remembered and influence further performances. In the same way that the history of Bruckner’s symphonies should not be forgotten, the present day will obviously make its own impression. As much as some would like to realize an authentic nineteenth century performance, this may be as impossible as Bruckner composing a twenty-first century film score. The thoughts and ideas that inspired Bruckner to compose these pieces may forever be a mystery. Even if we did know exactly what this motif, and that crescendo meant to Bruckner, a twenty-first century musician would still only provide an interpretation of these thoughts. Regarding the Nazi appropriation, these are aspects of the music which are almost impossible to translate into a modern-day performance. In this day and age where sympathy for the Nazi party is almost non-existent, it may be felt that the only possible translation of the music in this way would be as a bitter reminder of one of the greatest tragedies in human history.


Julian Horton: Bruckner’s Symphonies: Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Erik Levi: Music in the third Reich (Macmillan Press, 1994), Leon Botstein: ‘Music and ideology: Thoughts on Bruckner’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol.80 No.1 (1996), pp.1-11, John Michael Cooper: ‘Appendix: Joseph Goebbels’s Bruckner address in Regensburg (6 June, 1937)’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol.78 No.3 (1994), pp.605-609, Bryan Gilliam: ‘The annexation of Anton Bruckner: Nazi revisionism and the politics of appropriation’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol.78 No.3 (1994), pp.584-604, Bryan Gilliam: ‘Bruckner’s annexation revisited: A response to Manfred Wagner’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol.80 No.1 (1996), pp.124-131, Benjamin Korstvedt: ‘Anton Bruckner In the third Reich and after: An essay on ideology and Bruckner reception’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol.80 No.1 (1996), pp.132-160, Gyorgy Ligeti: ‘On music and politics’, Perspectives of new music, Vol.16 No.2 (1978), pp.19-24, Margaret Notley: ‘Bruckner problems in perpetuity’, 19th Century Music, Vol.30 No.1 (2006), pp.81-93, Martina Viljoen: ‘Questions of musical meaning: An ideology-critical approach’, International review of the aesthetics and sociology of music, Vol.35 No.1 (2004), pp.3-28, Manfred Wagner, Response to Bryan Gilliam regarding Bruckner and national socialism, The Musical Quarterly, Vol.80, No.1, pp.118-123


About Gary Skinner

Second year music student interested in composition
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