Bruckner and the "Thunderbolt" Phenomenon

Bruckner and the "Thunderbolt" Phenomenon
Perhaps it is just a theory of mine but it seems that many people who are attracted to Bruckner's music were struck by it the very first time they heard it. It certainly was the case for me (see below).

Of course, many people come to appreciate Bruckner's music gradually, but my theory is that the unique quality of Bruckner's music can often have an immediate effect and profound effect on a person.

Below is my experience and those of other people that I have gathered.

If you are the victim of "Bruckner's thunderbolt," let me know. I will be happy to share your experience.

John Berky: When I was a freshman at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, I found that it was too noisy and distracting to study in my dormitory, so I studied in the college library. At the time, I was very interested in classical music (my first musical attraction was movie soundtracks) so I decided to study in the library's music room where I could listen to their collection of LPs via headphones while I studied. Gradually, I worked through their collection. In many cases, I would put on a record, start to read and before long, my reading was interrupted by the record coming to an end. That was the normal situation. Some music did occasionally pull my attention away from my reading and I began to develop my individual musical inclinations. Then one day, I pulled out the new Jochum/DGG boxed set that the library recently acquired. Bruckner was entirely new to me. While I already had a good sized LP collection, I was steered more by what Columbia and RCA were offering on their label at the time and Bruckner was not prominently marketed. By the time I got to the Fourth Symphony, I was totally hooked. I just couldn't stop listening and my studying took a temporary dangerous turn. I was taking a music course at the time and I began to badger my music professor about Bruckner. I read everything he gave me and more and by the time we came to Bruckner in our music appreciation class, the professor handed the class over to me.

Skillman Library

Skillman Library at Lafayette College (picture taken during a recent visit)

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: At the age of seven Skrowaczewski was walking with a friend when he heard some music coming from a first floor window. He stood transfixed. "It was the same shock that someone who believes would have from seeing God in front of him." Skrowaczewski's friend was frightened by the reaction and took young Skrowaczwski home where he stayed bedridden for a few days raving and talking nonsense. A physician was called but he could not diagnose the condition. Once Skrowaczewski's condition improved, he went to the house and learned that the music that he heard was the Adagio from Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. (paraphrased from Frederick Harris' biography of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski entitled "Seeking the Infinite."

David Hempel: I came a bit more gradually to Bruckner: not much exposure in my student days here at UIowa. But after graduation (and a 4-year hiatus away from Iowa City) I came back and started working at Charles Eble's music store and we began attending various Bruckner concerts in Chicago and Minneapolis, and then I "came around" in a pretty big way. I remember the first LIVE B8 I ever heard (Minnesota Orch) -- and it knocked me out!...Charlie and I talked excitedly about nothing else on the 4-hour car trip back to Iowa City late that night.

John Botz: "Thunderbolt" is an apt description. I still remember the first time I heard Bruckner (the Inbal 7th, which had just been released) in April of 1986. My gramdmother took me to a Tower Records to buy me a couple of CD's for my 23rd birthday. The 7th was just starting on the classical room CD player, and I was immediately smitten. Next payday I bought the Giulini 8th, then the Haitink (most recent) 9th, and my spiritual odyssey was well underway. The 9th has remained not only my favorite Bruckner, but my favorite piece of music, since the first time I heard it. I connected with Bruckner the first time I heard it, almost as though I'd heard it before, like some kind of "collective unconscious" thing. At that time, I was also discovering the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and Bruckner also became sort of my soundtrack for that, as well.
Discovering Bruckner at that time had its challenges, too: in the mid-80's, vinyl was giving way to CD, so many Bruckner recordings were out of print, and had not been reissued on CD, yet. In fact, during that period of "vacuum," symphonies 1,2, 5, & 6 were virtually unavailable, unless you could find them in a used record store. Your mention of listening to Bruckner in a college library brought back fond memories of hearing the 1st, 2nd, and 6th (Jochum's DG recordings) for the first time, on scratchy old vinyl records, during free periods in the San Fran SU library. I will never forget that feeling of discovering hidden treasure! I have been an unabated "Brucknerd" ever since those days, even giving my oldest boy, Shawn, the middle name, Anton.

Neil Schore: The 8th was my Bruckner "thunderbolt." It was the broadcast of the Leinsdorf in 1969. I'd just started grad school at Columbia. I tuned my receiver to WQXR, set up my reel-to-reel recorder, and left my apartment to meet up with friends for dinner. When I came back later that night, I'd captured the symphony in its entirety with about 5 seconds of tape to spare at the end of the reel. (The fates--and Leinsdorf's tempos--were very kind.) The only Bruckner I'd previously heard were the Mehta VPO 9th and the Haitink CO 4th. They were nice enough for me, fitting in with my crazy need to listen to every 19th-century symphony ever recorded, but the 8th--in that uncharacteristically wild and impulsive Leinsdorf performance--knocked me for a loop from which I have never recovered.

Alan Anbari: I bought Karajan's final DG recording the day it came out when I was in college. That was my first Bruckner experience, and I found it absolutely shattering. I immediately set about collecting the rest of his previous DG recordings and remember being especially moved by the 4th and 5th. Then, both Jochum sets (DG and EMI) fell into my hands, and I started obsessively collecting Bruckner recordings. I can never get enough! So I'd have to credit Karajan's final 8th in Vienna (DG), 4th and 5th in Berlin (DG), and the two Jochum sets (DG and EMI) as the recordings that really converted me!

Eduardo Chibas: My first recording of Bruckner was the 9th conducted by Bruno Walter. This was
around 1964. It was love at first sight, and I proceeded to get his recordings of the 7th and 4th. Two other recordings I heard in the following two years blew me away, predictably both by Furtwaengler. First was the 9th in the "In Memoriam" 5 record set on DG and later the 8th in a German EMI set of the 7th and 8th. The experience with this 8th was unusual. Never have I had such a profound experience the first time I heard a work. The climax of the Adagio devastated me to a point that I had to stop listening for a while.

Paul Gibson: I was a freshman in high school, I was already hooked on Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky,Brahms for about two years. I had heard of Bruckner before I heard his music, thanks to Milton cross and his guide to the classics. I remember thinking what a interesting character! Well I was getting into Wagner and thought he might be interesting but never heard him on our classical radio station. One day at our local record store I found Bruckner's 4th, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia orchestra. I was blown away by the sound of those french horns, the drama of the finale, it became my favorite recording.

Kevin Lee: I started listening to classical music when I was in high school. I had a school friend who was also getting interested in classical music, so we started exploring composers together. We began mostly with piano music, but since we also played instruments in the school orchestra, we started listening to more symphonic works. Also, my friend's parents had a reasonably good classical music collection, and we explored that too. Then, there was the public broadcaster which had a radio station entirely to classical music. I would listen to many concert broadcasts and recordings. One night on the classical music radio station, there was a concert performance of Bruckner's 4th symphony, by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra with Kurt Masur. This was the "thunderbolt" moment. I remember those romantic horn calls, the pervasive "Bruckner rhythm", and perhaps most of all the resplendent majestic brass. Here was a composer whose timespan/internal clock/patience, call it what you will, seemed in tune with my own. It felt like a composer just for me. For days afterwards, I was humming the Bruckner rhythm. I will always remember the magnificence of the first tutti of the first movement to be the thunderbolt moment, when I first heard the 4th symphony. There were many lightning strikes in quick succession, and Bruckner is my favourite composer to this day. Most likely, my desert island disc would be the Karajan Bruckner 8th.

Richard Leonard: In those days there was no classical FM station serving our central Illinois city, but late at night one could sometimes pick up a distant AM station. One late evening I was lying on the couch listening to a broadcast from Dallas, Texas, and they played Bruckner's Third from the London recording of Knappertsbusch with the Vienna Philharmonic. The haunting strains from afar hooked me on Bruckner, and I ordered the disc from the local music store.

Tom Conlon: I first heard Bruckner during my first year of college at the University of Michigan. I heard someone playing Bruckner's 4th in their dorm, and I had no idea what the music was, but I was enthralled with it, so I simply knocked on the door of a stranger to ask what that music was. I was familiar with Mahler and he had been my favorite composer until the moment that I heard Bruckner.

Norm Cooper: I am a "thunderbolt victim"! My first listen to Bruckner was the 4th on a mono Vox LP of Klemperer conducting the Vienna Symphony. I was "drawn in" to the music, but didn't understand the "stop-and-go" structural pattern of it. Repeatedly listenings increased my appreciation of this work exponentially! As it turns out, this is the FASTEST 4th I have ever heard! Down the road, hearing the FIRST VERSION of 1874 was really a revelation! I prefer the FIRST VERSIONS of ALL the symphonies; ie. Bruckner's first thoughts before well-intentioned friends and conductors convinced him to "change that" and "remove that"! My favorite Bruckner symphony is the 2nd, in the first version of 1872. The first time I heard the Symphony [the mono Urania George Jochum recording], I literally experienced muscle spasms with electrical "tingly" sensations up and down my spine. To this day, it is still my favorite piece of classical music. I am with you all in spirit at every Brucknerathon!

Armin Ysebaert: When I´d just began exploring classical music some three years ago, I came across a copy of Georg Tintner's Bruckner Symphony No. 2 at a thrift shop. I knew virtually nothing about the composer and started listening without great expectations, but I felt qualified to declare the Second an absolute masterpiece well before the end of the first movement. Having listened to heavy metal extensively from age 12, I was struck by the heroic spirit and the sheer heaviness of the piece; I perceived this symphony as a grand celebration of life and death, seemingly composed from the viewpoint of eternity. I couldn't have hoped for a treasure like this, but it was only the beginning... I got hold of the Abbado/VPO recording of the Ninth Symphony not much later. Some music would instill the most intense of emotions in me, but the Ninth made for nothing short of a spiritual experience; it left me with tears of joy and a profound sense of amor fati. Since then I consider Anton Bruckner´s music among the best things in life.

Warren Malach: I was sitting in my bedroom listening to the brief evening classical programming on a local FM station one evening when I was in junior high school in the mid-Sixties in Anchorage, AK. The station played a newly-released recording of Bruckner's 6th Symphony with Klemperer conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra on the Angel label (in this country.) From the first "telegraphed" notes, I was entranced. I had grown up on Beethoven and Brahms orchestral music, and knew for sure that I was on the Brahms side of the Brahms/Wagner controversy. I had heard of Bruckner in reading music history, but knew him only as a follower of the detested Wagner. But all that changed that night. There were no books on Bruckner in the local library, but the next summer while my mother took classes towards her Master's Degree as a teacher at the University of Washington in Seattle, I used her library privileges to check out the only Bruckner biographies then available: Wolf, Doernberg, Redlich (with Mahler.) I became a Haas edition partisan by way of Doernberg. I joined the Bruckner Society of America and got the 1969 issue and the Engel biography, and waited years for anything else.

Harold Corwin: I first heard Bruckner while I was in college (early 60s), via Walter's recordings of the 4th and 7th symphonies, followed shortly by Ormandy's 5th and Te Deum, then Karajan's 9th. I was hooked. (In the late 70s, back in college in Scotland studying for my PhD, I was privileged to hear Guilini's 8th with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival -- perhaps the greatest concert experience of my life. Though I also heard Sanderling do Mahler's 10th and Shostakovich's 15th there, too ... and Gibson do a Nielsen symphony cycle with the SNO ... and ... and ... Well, it's been a long, rich life.) In my case, it is the Te Deum that drew me in, but in a very curious way -- a dream! I actually dreamed I was conducting a performance of a marvelous choral piece. I awoke from the experience wondering just what that gorgeous music was. A few months later, Columbia Record Club offered the Ormandy 5th with the Te Deum as a fourth-side filler -- and there it was! My dream piece! While I had no recollection of ever hearing it before my dream, I obviously had, probably on the radio, or in the background in my college dorm (a few of the other fellows in the dorm played classical music, too). But that was my key to Bruckner. I guess it is actually closer to "normal" than "thunderstruck", but there is indeed an element of "Wow!" in my discovery of his music.

Michael Corgan: At home I never had listened to classical music, just doo wop on the NYC stations. Off to the Naval Academy where we couldn't have radios or record players in our first year. After this hiatus, sophomore year I started listening to rock again but found it was unsatisfying. I went to our store and saw some Klemperer records of his Beethoven cycle, bought a few and liked them. There were after all some of the familiar passages that one heard in various ads and clips in those days.Then Otto's Bruckner 4th appeared. Never heard of the composer but I figured if Klemperer recorded it it must be OK. I bought the LP and the 'thunderbolt' came on hearing the first notes. It was like nothing else I had heard before, a different world. Immediately the opening measures took me back to the mountains of Bavaria and Austria where I had traveled while living in Germany right after the war. That capture, or rapture perhaps, came even before I knew where Bruckner was from. From then on I bought all the Bruckner I could get my hands on (not too much at USNA's Midshipmen's Store) and was never disappointed by anything I heard.

Going to sea after graduation on small destroyers, there was no place to play my few Bruckner tapes (no LPs on a rolling ship) aloud so I listened to symphonies newly discovered on my tape player with headphones. I often fell asleep while doing so and discovered that's not a bad way to learn a long piece if one has had no musical training. Finally, after 4 years at sea, I had a chance to go to concerts and have been doing so, happily, ever since. And now up to over 300 CDs.

For what it's worth, I have had a 'thunderbolt' experience one other time. In 1981 I went to a new duty station in Iceland and when i got off the plane in Keflavik I looked around. Quite without reason, I decided that I had lived there before, perhaps in another life. To me the beauties of Bruckner and that of Iceland are of a piece; timeless, vast, majestic and and evocative of something far beyond our quotidian world.

Christopher Baker: I was introduced to AB one night when I was about 15. I was in bed, hiding under the covers with my radio. I was supposed to be going to sleep, and the radio was forbidden...outside a terrible storm raged, and the AM broadcast crackled and hissed....I could only just hear the announcement that the symphony to be played was by Anton "Brookner"...his symphony number 5 in Bb major. All I could really detect was a series of great rising horn was scarce and I did not encounter the work again until the day I wandered into an obscure music shop where, upon entering, those same horn calls greeted me...the Knappertsbusch recording was there on the table and Anton "Brookner" became Anton Bruckner. I have marveled at, and loved his music ever since...

Trevor Cooper: The first thunder rolled at the beginning of my scientific career when listening to the Adagio of Bruckner's 7th symphony on BBC Radio 3: what could this heavenly music be? And if this was number 7, what did the others sound like? So I joined a record club (LPs in those days) to catch up; even now I can see clearly that Saturday morning in Bristol when our white-haired postman came up the drive delivering the 7th. I was similarly taken by the 5th and 8th, but always rather disappointed by the 9th... Fast-forward to my retirement in Hong Kong, when the second bolt of lightning illuminated (on this website) the review of the various attempts to complete the final movement of Bruckner's 9th: what I'd been missing! The thunderclap followed when I heard it - and it still does, whichever version I listen to. The agony and the ecstasy, what glorious music!

Thomas Ulicky: It was that ff off-kilter blast of brass out of nowhere that begins the 3rd thematic complex of the 3rd Symphony's finale that hit me from the radio in 1973. It has been a non-stop love affair with the music of Bruckner ever since. And now with recordings available of so many of the different 'versions', and who would have dreamt of hearing the 1869 B-flat sketch back in the 70's, Bruckner's music is one of the most important things in my life.

Jeremy Wilkinson: My thunderbolt experience was when I was 16. I had been getting old LPs from an “army surplus” store in Loughborough, England. Most of the LPs for popular composers and titles were very worn and scratched, so I decided to choose those in good condition. I found a B6 – Henry Swoboda conducting the VPO on the Westminster lable – I'd never heard of Bruckner. On first hearing I was struck by the unique and haunting sound, like nothing else I'd ever heard. I only had the first movement, but played it over and over. Next time I went to the shop I found the second LP of the set and hurried home to listen to the rest of the music. I love the deliberate slow tread of the scherzo in this performance, a great contrast to the often “scurrying” fast performances. Next I found B3 with Haitink and 9 with Lovro von Matacic and the Czech Phil on cassette. I didn't discover the other symphonies until I got to university. Since then I have been intrigued and delighted by Bruckners music, the power, structure, beautiful moments of heavenly peace (e.g. the ascent to heaven which closes the adagio of B6). I was lucky enough to see live performances with Haitink, Solti and others in London. I take regular breaks from Bruckner, but always come back and rediscover it afresh.

Martin Tousignant: My own Bruckner conversion was not a thunderbolt, but a strong attraction. I was 16 years old, riding with my parents, and they allowed us to hear the local NPR station, upper Michigan's WNMU-FM. They were playing the 1975 Karajan/Berlin Phil Bruckner 8th, and from the outset, the harmonic structure opened new vistas for me. Once it got to the C minor fanfare in the 1st movement (rehearsal V in the Haas score), I felt as if I had reached a new summit. More than 30 years later, Bruckner's achievement impresses me. The more I learn about music theory, the more I understand the depth of his work.

Conrad von Metzke: The year was the 1964-65 concert season. I was 20 and a college student in San Diego (where I still live). I had a fair background in some classical music, but to the best of my knowledge I had never even heard of Bruckner, let alone encountered his music. In those days the San Diego Symphony was rather weak, but for four concerts per year we had the Los Angeles Phil. coming in to perform rather better programs (in an old high school auditorium), and I had season tickets. One of the '64/'65 concerts featured William Steinberg, guest conducting the Bruckner 8th. Of course I went - having absolutely no idea what to expect except "long and monumental" (per the advance notice in the newspaper). Just prior to beginning the symphony, a stage hand came out and made a production of removing the conductor's music stand. Long and monumental? From memory? Boy, were we impressed! And then Maestro Steinberg walked out, the music started, and everyone in the hall was suddenly frozen in their seats. And to keep with the thunderbolt imagery, we had an hour and ten minutes of them, one after another; at the end, it was instant and total standing ovation. And then, a couple of days later, I went to my favorite local hi-fi shop, where I knew the owner well, and asked her: "Do you have any Bruckner? I want it all!" It was a small shop dealing mostly in equipment, so she didn't have much; I walked home with the 8th by Knappertsbusch (the last one, in Munich, on Westminster) and the 9th with Walter. And, oddity of oddities, the First, with F. Charles Adler on a long discontinued Siena pressing that she had never managed to sell. And the floodgates opened, and nobody has managed to shut them yet.

Robert Alps: I had two Bruckner “thunderbolt” experiences. The first was in 1969. My wife, Marianna, and I were in the first year of our married life, and I had recently purchased a $125 record player that could play discs in sequence. I had become interested in Bruno Walter from his recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and I wanted to hear more from him. I found a Columbia boxed set at Korvette’s called Bruno Walter’s Bruckner. I was three LP’s containing Symphonies 4, 7, and 9 in sequenced order. I put all three LP’s on my record player and started them playing. I was not listening intently, but something on the third disc grabbed my attention. It was the coda of the first movement of Symphony 7. Marianna was out when I was listening, so when she got back, I wanted her to hear this amazing music. But without the context of the music that comes before the coda, it did not register with her like it did with me. This was the beginning of my love of Bruckner, and in the years that followed, I got to know more of the Bruckner symphonies, primarily through the recordings of Jochum and Haitink. Some time in the early 1990’s, I bought a recording of the Bruckner Fourth by Celibicache on an Exclusive CD. I was pretty familiar with the Fourth Symphony, so when I played it, I was not paying close attention. However, the coda of the fourth movement absolutely got my attention away from whatever else I was thinking about. I had never heard anything like this. It was a new piece of music, and yet it fit with my image of Bruckner’s music.

Post Script:
Four or five years later, we were driving on vacation and I had the Celibidache Bruckner fourth with Munich playing in the car. When the music ended, my son, who was about 16 at the time, asked what the music was. I told him, and he wanted to have a copy of it. Thunderbolt junior.

Doug Rea: When was the first time you heard Bruckner's music? For me, it was in the spring of 1985, as a young man in my early twenties; I had just seen the movie Amadeus-in a theatre-and decided that classical music was really worth delving into. The day after, I went to the local public library, where I borrowed some lp box sets (Time Life series), and one of them was Bruckner! I listened to the 9th with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta, and it was love at first listen. The grand design, and also the orchestral texture appealed to me right off the bat, and I just had to hear more of this composer. Not soon after, I realised that he was to be my favorite composer, and has been so to this day. When I started to collect classical lps later that year, I first heard Schuricht's studio VPO 9th and 3rd, and was bowled over! Then came Bruno Walter's 1959 studio 9th, and the 4th and 7th with the Columbia Symphony, other important early Bruckner listening experiences. Now, I must have hundreds of Bruckner recordings, also including the Masses and Te Deum.

Cem Buget: I was perhaps 8 years old. And, as far as I remember, I had no interest in any kind of music including popular music. One night, I saw a concert in one of the channels (the time was the first half of 1970’s and TV’s were black and white). Starting from the very beginning (it was the 4’th symphony), I was hypnotized and motionless. This mood of me continued until the last note died at the very end of the incredible coda... I remember that I couldn’t move and my mother took me to bed. I now remember that the other day I was in a mood impossible to describe (I am still in a similar mood when I hear even a note of Bruckner. But we are grown up. The effect of this music was on an 8 year old dreamy child...) I don’t know why I forgot this experience the following years (at that time it was not easy to find some media to play classical music, there were cassettes and LP’s, but they were rare) I started listening to the great masters of classical music. During certain periods, I was deeply interested with one of these masters. I still adore these greats and especially Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann... But there was a problem. I was sure that these were the greatest masters. Everbody agreed with that. But I couldn’t go beyond some point. I was searching unconsciously for something that these masters couldn’t provide... Then, I was at high school and there were more music shops around. In one of these, while looking at the LP’s, I saw a record which was the 4’th symphony by Anton Bruckner played by Zdenek Macal and Halle Orchestra. At the instant I hold this record, I started trembling (I felted my earlier experience to the bone). I took the LP to my house immediately and started listening. I listened to it every day many times for months. I am still amazed how I can listen to one work hundreds of times without reaching a full understanding of it and even getting bored... I have found the music of my life, and perhaps the meaning of my life. Since then, I live with Bruckner’s music everyday. I even started reading music at the conservatory to be able to conduct his music. Unfortunately, I couldn’t succeed to be a conductor because of the circumstances... Each and every time I listen or study these works I am more and more amazed. For me, there are no limits to Bruckner’s universe. It is boundless, infinite...

Gaffney Feskoe: Interestingly my Bruckner “thunderbolt” moment was the same Boston Symphony broadcast on New York’s radio station WQXR of the Eighth symphony conducted by Erich Leinsdorf that provoked Neil Schore’s “thunderbolt” moment as well way back in 1969. The radio program was broadcast in the summer of that year and I was home for the summer about to enter my junior year at Boston College. One of my chores at home was to mow the lawn and one Saturday I fired up the lawn mower and had a Sony Walkman device with earphones to keep me company during the tedious task. As a fan of classical music I had the Walkman tuned to WQXR and I tuned in somewhere during the first movement so I was unaware of the identity of the piece. But I was so thunderstruck by this mysterious music unlike that I had ever heard that I turned off the lawn mower and sat down on the grass to wait for the announcement at the end identifying the piece. As I listened I grew even more enthralled with this music. Well it was a long wait until the piece ended and the identity was revealed. Anton Bruckner! How was it that I had never heard of him even though I was acquainted with classical music and even had a job as an usher at Boston’s Symphony Hall while at Boston College. When I returned to Boston for the start of the semester, I went down to the old Jordan Marsh department store which had a record department and asked if they had any Bruckner. The only disc they had was Eugen Jochum’s recording of the Third symphony which I purchased. I well remember my reaction to the even more mysterious music of the first movement and recall that every time I listen to the Third. Well I have never looked back on my continuing voyage of discovery of Bruckner whose music has accompanied me through my life. As an aside, as an usher at Symphony Hall I got to know Leinsdorf a bit and even met Eugen Jochum when he guest conducted the Boston Symphony and he signed his box set of the recordings of the Nine Bruckner symphonies for me. His daughter Veronica lived in Boston and gave piano lessons.

Manki Perukangas: My very first encounter was to borrow a Bernard Haitink recording of Bruckner´s Seventh symphony. What lovely music, and how its blissful feeling of joy resonated with me as I was just experiencing my first love. And when that first love came to its unhappy close it felt of course a tragedy, and that feeling was best depicted by that time by the Otto Klemperer recording of Bruckner´s Sixth. There I cried in unison with Jock Sutcliffe´s oboe in second movement.