Bruckner versus Mahler: Whose Symphonies are Better?
In regard to James Lileks' unexpected and fantastic question to Dennis Prager, I'm truly suprised no one has started this conversation. It is noteable that these two are always compared. Probably the most legitimate reason for comparing these two has something to do with their respective positions in the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition. Much has been written in praise of the symphony as an art form and it is true that no form of music, or perhaps any sort of art, so well displays a dynamic multi-themed working out of an artist's musical talents and ideas on such an impressive and moving scale. By saying a symphony is dynamic, I mean that it carries the listener on a journey from point A to point B, as opposed to virtually all musical forms today, which only convey one static attitude, pose, or emotion.
Bruckner and Mahler are the last symphonists of the Austo-Germanic tradition. Whatever one thinks of the New Vienna School, it is accurate to say that a Grand Arc, extending from Haydn, through Beethoven, Schumann, etc., etc., ended with Bruckner and Mahler. It seems that both pushed to the limits the sonic capacites of concert halls (I have heard a Bruckner 8th performed in which there was distortion in the concert hall) and the time limits of audience patience (New York audiences still routinely walk out of Brucner symphonies during the slow movement, to their eternal shame). Indeed, symphonies in this tradition after Mahler seem ridiculous, bloated caricatures of Bruckner and Mahler. Listening to Shoenberg's Gurrelieder, one walks away impressed, but with the a feeling of overindulgence and a desire to not listen to any music until tomorrow. Attend it if your local orchestra ever performs it. It's just an assault on the ears and it's too much.
All of that is to say that Bruckner and Mahler symphonies are clearly the pinnacle- the crowning jewel, of a musical form and tradition that is perhaps the West's greatest contribution to human art.
So, to put it crudely, who was better? Or rather, whom do you prefer? Mahler is moving, inspiring, and his symphonic corpus so large and impressive that the years it takes to get to know him are a joy. However, one has to choose Bruckner. Here's why:
1) Mahler's symphonies are ultimately self-referencial. Bruckner's are universal. Mahler, like any good neurotic narcissist, universalizes the particular in his life. He is the hero in his first symphony who overcomes all. He is the wounded artist in the 6th symphony who suffers the axe-blows from critics and fate. His is the faltering heartbeat to open the 9th and his is the actual heart-attack later in the piece. There are times when we identify with his particular experience. The joy and buoyancy of the 5th's finale are infectious and thrilling, but it is because we revel in this shared human emotion, not in the biographical detail.
In contrast, Bruckner's symphonies are essentially Platonic. They are like a musical Allegory of the Cave. Hearing them for the first time is so unnerving in the same way that Plato's cave-dwellers are unnerved when dragged from the shadows into the bright sunlight of the Forms. Bruckner's symphonies are a journey from interesting particular themes to a slow, but inevitable, coalescence of all things in a unified, transcendant peroration. In the end, the Form, the Universal is revealed. We stand in awe. We are hearing, for the first time, something like the Music of the Spheres. His ability to convey this is uncanny and hair-raising; both beautiful and disorienting. As he pits massive, terraced orchestral blocs against each other, juxtaposing repeating polyrhythms, we can see planets, systems, galaxies, and all Creation in its ineffable dance. Bruckner's music is so God-besotted in this regard that the cliche is true: it will always be far more accessible to the believer.
I have written far too much, so congratulations to all three of you who are still reading! Whom do you prefer?