Poll: Who Wrote the Greatest Epic Symphonies?

Tune in to Symphony Hall on Friday to hear Bruckner's Symphony No. 8

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gustav Mahler vs. Anton Bruckner: Who's more epic? Mahler vs. Bruckner: Who's more epic?

July 7th marked the the 151st anniversary of Gustav Mahler's birth, marking the unofficial culmination of a year of Mahler mania, which started with celebrations of the 150th in 2010. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Orchestra is coming to town for four concerts spotlighting another master of the big orchestral sound, Anton Bruckner.

Bruckner was obsessive-compulsive, devoutly religious and socially inept. Mahler was a composer of deep neuroses and nostalgia whose dualities played out in epic music canvases. Both wrote nine symphonies and varying amounts of large scale vocal music. Both inhabit basically the same late Romantic stylistic idiom (atonal hints in late Mahler notwithstanding) and share many of the same aesthetic preoccupations.

Mahler was even influenced by Bruckner, attending occasional lectures by the composer. On December 16, 1877 he attended the disastrous premiere of Bruckner's Third Symphony, at which the composer was shouted down, and most of the audience walked out. Mahler and other sympathetic students later prepared a piano version of the symphony, which they presented to Bruckner. Mahler reportedly referred to the elder composer as "half simpleton, half God."

Despite mutual influences and a preference for the grand gesture, Bruckner and Mahler wrote very different music. Whose do you prefer? What draws you to one over the other?


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Comments [22]

Dan Williams from Concord, NH

Bruckner is a stodgy, ham-fisted, religious zealot who apparently felt that LONG AND BIG automatically meant moving and inspirational.

When I listen to Bruckner I start yawning after a couple minutes and find myself thinking, "this sounds like a rough sketch Mahler wrote for something before he decided to sit down and get serious about composing his next symphony.

Mahler has made me cry, laugh, has given me goosebumps and has made me flinch in fright. I've never been moved in any way listening to Bruckner. Except maybe a bowel movement.

Jul. 20 2015 08:07 PM
Matt Read from Utah

Bruckner's later symphonies 6,7,8 & 9 are my favorite. Namely for his breath-taking, spacious and atmospheric passages. I listened to something called, "The Best of Bruckner" It was basically just his 7th Symphony. I guess they consider his 7th, his best. Actually, they are probably right, come to think of it. But I love Mahler and he is probably the best. But Bruckner is my favorite now. I couldn't do without either.

Jan. 10 2015 09:15 PM
George Quinn from Connecticut

Bruckner, to me, is not epic; but, nonetheless is very compelling. Similar to Mahler in continually making radical mood changes. If I can invent a category, I would call him "Austrian Impressionist", orchestrally something of a Wagnerian tasting menu. After 70 years of listening to a steady romantic-classic diet of Schubert/Beethoven through Rachminanoff/Sibelius, I am lately almost exclusively immersed in Bruckner. For some reason, he is exactly what I crave right now, sometimes listening to his 5th Symphony 3 times in a row, or listening to 5 or 6 different ones in a row. I expect that the background music in heaven is the Haitink/Bavarian Radio Symphony recording of the 5th. On the lighter side, a friend who is a classical music announcer on a local radio station suggests that the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx is named after Anton Bruckner because, like Bruckner's symphonys, it is rather long.

Jul. 14 2014 02:58 PM
allan from belgium

Mahler 2 sound like The craziest symphony ever. bombastic
Mahler 1 beginning is like star trek the 4th movement like star wars
Mahler 3 Lords of the rings + harry potter

Bruckner 4,8,9 all bombastic mostly finales

both amazing

Feb. 14 2013 04:20 PM
David Tafr

Bruckner's symphonies seem a bit too "studied," like a music professor's attempt to create a masterpiece to match great 19th century predecessors, but never quite making it, in terms of originality and genuine heart-reaching power. Well meant, sometimes interesting and engaging, but ultimately, I am afraid, lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Mahler, on the other hand, never fails ultimately to reach the heart. He may at times wander about in somewhat overwritten moments, but when Mahler penetrates the heart, it is true, and everlasting, and sublime. The first time I heard the adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony, I literally wept (the guy in the car next to me must have thought I was having a breakdown or something). The point is that nothing I have heard of Bruckner has ever moved me in this way.

Jul. 15 2011 09:39 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

While I can still recall the Chicago Symphony's Mahler 5 @ Carnegie Hall back in high school in 1977 and the brass section giving me "goose pimples" as well as the NYP performance of Bruckner 4 under Leinsdorf circa 1980-81, my "epic" symphony is and always will be Beethoven 7 - with apologies to all my brass instructors over the years!

Jul. 13 2011 07:01 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Thank you, WQXR, for making that correction.

Jul. 13 2011 10:27 AM

Carol Luparella,

Thank you for the clarification. We've made the update.

Thanks for listening!

Jul. 13 2011 07:25 AM
Michael Meltzer

Mr. Feldman:
For someone to whom irony has no appeal, you certainly employ it expertly and thoroughly.
I'm sure you could have given irony lessons to Gustav Mahler.

Jul. 13 2011 12:58 AM
Frank Feldman

Mr. Meltzer, How burdensome it must be to have the truth, the one truth, the only truth, on hand at all times. How strong the compulsion must be to share it at such length, on blog after blog, with listeners so clearly less schooled and musical than yourself. I admire you for the heavy burden you have taken on your indubitably very broad shoulders. We lesser mortals shudder in reverent gratitude and awe at your every oracular pronouncement.

Jul. 12 2011 11:55 PM

Wow, where's the love for Bruckner?

Jul. 12 2011 11:37 PM
Bernie from UWS

I'd say neither - not because they're longwinded but because another composer did the long symphony even better: Jean Sibelius. His 2nd, 3rd, 5th and Seventh Symphonies are masterpieces. I'll take that over Mahler's whiplash of emotions and Bruckner's composer-by-numbers approach any day.

Jul. 12 2011 08:40 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

First, a correction: July 7 was the 151st anniversary of Mahler's birth; the 100th anniversary of his death was in May (I think the 18th). With apologies to Mahler, whose music I love, I chose Bruckner because I am so totally overwhelmed by his music that I cannot even find the words to say why. I have heard it said that Bruckner wrote the same symphony nine times, but I don't think that's true. I think that if you really make the effort to listen, you will find that it is more like one immense, magnificent symphony made up of nine wonderful parts, with each subsequent part better than the one before, until you reach the near perfection of the unfinished Ninth Symphony. This is most certainly not background music - it is music for eternity. I hope this comment isn't too long, but it is nearly impossible to put into words how great this music is. Thank you for scheduling Bruckner's Eighth Symphony for Symphony Hall this Friday - you can be sure that I will be listening!

Jul. 12 2011 08:37 PM

Bruckner is sooooo boring.

Jul. 12 2011 08:05 PM
Raquel from Argentina

Como mi ingles es pésimo.,les escribo en mi hermoso español,,,,
Adoro a Bruckner (en especial su novena sinfonia)
Pero...Mi corazón está más cerca de Mahler.


Jul. 12 2011 07:22 PM
Renate Perls from New York City

I am absolutely fascinated by the compositions of both Mahler and Bruckner. Why is it that WQXR seems of late only to play Mahler's First Symphony, as does the NY Philharmonic. I realize that the later symphonies of both composers are rather complicated, but must one hear Vaughn-Williams "Lark Ascending" every week instead?

Jul. 12 2011 03:11 PM
Ronald Cohen

Mahler and Bruckner require selection. Mahler's 1st, 4th, 9th and Das Lied von der Erde make the grade. Bruckner's 7th and 9th make the grade. Others are either bombastic or bathetic.

Jul. 12 2011 02:55 PM
jprfrog from Jersey City

Unfortunately I know most of them from playing them, and as a string player, experienced Bruckner as as much physical torture as grand music. Mahler can be long, too, but something is usually going on to hold interest.

Not always appropriate however. An indelible memory is of an afternoon in Boston with the Mahler 2 and Claudio Abbado. The doors were opened for the offstage band and in one of the most quiet moments the backstage intercom came on announcing that the "dumpster is in the alley". The security guard who pushed the button was fired before the performance was over, but Abbado never came back to guest conduct us again. Too bad...after Bernstein, his Mahler was the best.

Tennstedt had the requisite insanity to do good Bruckner.

Jul. 12 2011 02:22 PM
Frank Feldman

Irony, self-pity, and circus music do not appeal to me. I vote for Bruckner.

Jul. 12 2011 12:31 PM
Michael Meltzer

When your pollster posts the choice, "Neither, they're both too long-winded!," isn't that like saying that Bach is too complex, Mozart is too transparent, Beethoven is too developmental and Schubert is too melodic? The composers are what they are, like it or not, and the pollster could as well have put up the words, "Neither, I don't have the attention span."
Also, the exclamation point ending the choice appears a bit editorial.

Jul. 12 2011 11:56 AM

I agree with Mr. Meltzer's comments provided above. Please make time for both. Besides, you could also include Shostakovich in that group even if he came much later.

Jul. 12 2011 11:41 AM
Michael Meltzer

Totally subjectively, I don't find "Epic" exactly the right word for Bruckner, who gives me a feeling of great architecture, like monuments and cathedrals, rising high above but staying put.
Mahler on the other hand, to me creates journeys and adventures and is loaded with forward motion, "Epic" works better with his symphonies than Bruckner's,
I'm not voting: we have here enormous apples and gigantic oranges.
Please make time for both.

Jul. 12 2011 02:34 AM

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