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“Every ending is a new beginning”

Anton Bruckner and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. This close connection, manifested during Bruckner’s lifetime, not least through his work as a professor at the Conservatory of the Society and the award of honorary membership, continues to resonate up to the year of his 200th birthday. Birthday and, of course, beyond. With a view to the Bruckner Year 2024, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde is placing symphonic, and chamber music works in an exciting context with music by Georg Friedrich Haas in four concerts. Daniel Ender met the Austrian composer living in the USA for an interview.

© Wolf-Dieter Grabner

What are your first impressions of Bruckner’s works?
My parents’ records (there may have been 30 to 40) gave me something like islands of purity and light during my fundamentally poisoned childhood. From Haydn to Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn: this was the “normal” music I listened to as a child, sometimes there were also excursions into older things (more often to Handel than to J. S. Bach) and into the “modern”, which ended with Bruckner. That sounds absurd today – but Bruckner had only been dead for about 60 years; Anton Webern is further away from us today. Notably, Richard Wagner’s music did not exist in this collection.

Their musical language is, of course, located in the present day and accordingly removed from the 19th century. What relationships can nevertheless be discerned between the music of Haas and Bruckner?
“The music of Georg Friedrich Haas sounds as if Bruckner had heard too much Ligeti.” – Unfortunately, I don’t remember who said that, but this description pleases me. Bruckner’s melody (almost) never comes to rest. Each endpoint is a new beginning; the music sings widely, and generously. In this excellent example of a similar way, I try to compose my melodies and my formal developments.

Without his unbreakable religiosity, Bruckner would hardly be conceivable. Does every composer need faith? And what about you?
Unlike Bruckner, I did not become a Catholic by birth but by my own free, conscious choice. And unlike Bruckner, I soon lost this faith forever. Art has come into the gap left by the lost religion, especially music. In the tradition of medieval “proofs of God,” I say: The beginning of Schubert’s unfinished B minor Symphony proves the existence of the divine. Without a god, this would not be possible. There is a basic human need for spirituality. And one for rationality. In the Middle Ages, these two basic needs were united: Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhardt were as intellectual as they were religious. Today there is a contradiction here. Both the historically grown religions and the various newly created sects are based on an emotionality that fundamentally contradicts our rational knowledge. I still remember my desperate effort to BELIEVE in fundamental beliefs, such as the virgin conception of Mary, the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of the flesh. Reason and spirituality were in insoluble contradiction.

 

How did this contradiction ultimately resolve itself for you?
When I compose, I feel a mystical connection to the universe. I gratefully accept the grace of how (comparable to Communion in Catholic Mass) “the Body of God” enters into me. Nevertheless, everything I write is crystal clear and rational in music. Spirituality and mysticism, on the one hand – rationality and clarity, on the other- are two aspects of the same composition. The works of Mark Rothko and Helmut Lachenmann, Ilse Aichinger and György Kurtág, Ingeborg Bachmann and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, … (here one could cite thousands of names of artists) it is the same. I think that’s why art is necessary today. Perhaps more necessary than ever.

This interview was conducted by Daniel Ender.