Whom I Wish to Destroy Shall Be Destroyed!

Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) is perhaps best know today for his attitudes about the music of his time, particularly his veneration of the more conservative music of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and conversely his vilification of the more progressive music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883). While these two composers exemplify Hanslick’s musical views, particularly throughout his own writings, it is his relationship with the composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) where he served the most impact. This essay will focus on the later work by Bruckner and the relationship between Hanslick and Bruckner around this period.
Before looking at Hanslick’s writings about Bruckner, it is important to contextualize both Hanslick’s opinions in general, as well as to look at other contemporary sources to explore the general attitude to Bruckner’s music. His contemporaries considered Hanslick primarily a critic, although he also held an important academic post in Vienna, as well as being an influential aesthetician. As mentioned earlier, Hanslick had a well-documented strained relationship with Wagner. This was originally caused by Wagner’s use of music as a dramatic tool, which lowered the value of music, which Hanslick decries in his Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (Hanslick, ein Beitrag zur Revision der Aesthetik der Tonkunst, 1858, pp. 35-36). Because of this professed love of absolute music, Hanslick decries the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) who uses program as a tool in many of his works. Despite Bruckner’s absolute musical approach, Hanslick’s views about Bruckner were influenced by the composer’s affinity for Wagner, demonstrated by the dedication of his third symphony to Wagner. Some critics of the time also struggled to appreciate the gargantuan proportions of Bruckner’s symphonies, and the consequent structural difficulties within Bruckner’s music, caused by the constant revisions required of him in order to obtain performances. This was because of the progressive attitude Bruckner had, which was also shared by very different figures like Franz Liszt (1811-1886) whom Hanslick also had a low opinion of at the time (Hanslick, ein Beitrag zur Revision der Aesthetik der Tonkunst, 1858, p. IX). It is important to remember Bruckner was neither the sole recipient, nor the worst affected by Hanslick’s scathing remarks. Of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristian and Isolde Hanslick is famously quoted as saying “[it] reminds one of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel” (Tristan und Isolde) which demonstrates Hanslick’s ability to articulate cruel derisive comments. As Derek Watson states, it is hard to empathize with Hanslick, in part because of his formidable tongue, but also his position of power within Vienna(Watson, 1996, p. 50). Hanslick was in such a position of power he was able make such outlandish statements as “Whom I wish to be destroyed shall be destroyed!” (Harrandt, 2004, p. 32)
Bruckner received a mixed reception in Vienna. Part of the reason for the divide in opinion is down to the split opinion over music that is more conservative and more progressive, both categories that could envelop Bruckner’s output, as Bruckner was attached to more conservative practices of music and studied composition techniques extensively with Simon Sechter (1788-1867). The notable critic Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) said of him, “one single cymbal clash by Bruckner is worth all four symphonies of Brahms with the serenades thrown in”
“Das publicum geigte freilich nicht viel ‘resistance’ es fluchtete sum theile schon nach dem gweiten das dieser symphonischen riesenschlange, fluchtete in hellen haufen nach dem dritten, so das nur ein Neiner Rest der horerschaft im Genuffe des Finales verblich. Diese muthige Bruckner legion applaudirte und jubelte aber mit der wucht von Tausenden” (Hanslick, Neue Freie Presse, 1886)
This quote from Hanslick’s review of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major shows Hanslick’s negative view about Bruckner’s music, combined with insight into the reception of the piece by the Viennese public at the time of the premiere. Hanslick uses the word ‘riesenschlange’ or snake to describe the unusual musical structure as well carrying sinister connotations and condemning the composition. This quote also concedes that no matter what Hanslick’s personal view of the music is, the audience applauded and cheered loudly after the performance. It is also important to note that Hanslick uses the same level of linguistic ingenuity when constructing praise for the work, and that despite his dislike for Bruckner; both the music and the man at this point; Hanslick is making an effort to remain impartial. Hanslick goes on to say “aber Bruckner ist Armeebefehl geworden und der gweite Beethoven im Glaubensartifel der Richard Wagner,”(Hanslick, Neue Freie Presse, 1886) which proclaims Bruckner to be the next Beethoven. If it were not for the political situation at the time, this might be seen as a compliment but is instead intended to attach the progressive nature of the composition. This is peculiar, as Hanslick had also proclaimed Brahms, a dear ally to be successor of Beethoven also, which could therefore be interpreted as praise for Bruckner.
“Ich bekenne unumwunden, das ich uber Bruckner’s Symphonie kaum ganz gerecht urtheilen konnte, so antipathisch beruhrt mich diese musik, so unaturlich aufgeblasen, frankhaft und verderblich erscheint sie mir. Wie jedes grobere werk Bruckner’s, enthalt auch die E-dur symphonie geniale einfalle, interessante, ja schone stellen – hier sechs, dort acht Tacte – gwischen diesen blitzen dehnt fich aber unabsehbares Dunfel, bleierne Langerweile und fieberhafte Ueberreizung.” (Hanslick, Neue Freie Presse, 1870)
This quote from the same review demonstrates Hanslick’s using bitter sarcasm to attack the work. The opening clause roughly translates as ‘we have no wish to hurt this composer for whom we entertain a high regard both as a man and artist’ which I would interpret to be written with mocking insincerity rather than genuine encouragement, and which is supported by the rest of the sentence ‘whose musical aims are sincere, albeit their treatment is strange’ which reflects Hanslick’s disapproval and sarcastic undertones. This also could be interpreted as showing Hanslick conceding there are elements of strong music within the composition. As Bruckner heavily revised his symphonies until his death, combined with the well-documented cuts he made to the performing versions of his scores, it is possible that the structure may have indeed been substandard for this performance and Hanslick’s comments therefore justified. It is likely that without the low confidence caused by Hanslick that Bruckner would have produced far fewer versions of his symphonies. What could be considered a patronizing tone in the opening statement is continued throughout this extract with Hanslick commenting ‘here six, there eight bars’ which uses positive criticism ironically to ridicule the piece. Hanslick also reveals here that he has trouble coping with the length of the symphony, ‘there are interminable stretches of darkness, somber boredom and feverish over-excitement’. This is important as there is some debate about how the large scope of Bruckner’s work was viewed by his contemporaries, and this statement reflects that the duration was an issue for some listeners. It is also important to note that there were many supporters for the extended scope of Bruckner’s music.
“In spite of his renown, Hanslick was far from universally revered. As a critic, he spoke solely for his time and class”(Sams). This statement demonstrates the kind of audience Hanslick was writing for, in addition to demonstrating the view that his contemporaries did not always value Hanslick’s opinions, however, this view is not further echoed in any of the other work I have come across. This is, however reflected in some the way he entered the music journalist profession; originally trained as a lawyer, Hanslick began his career writing articles for his local papers and the music journal Wiener Musik-Zeitung before he secured his position as a critic at the Neue Freie Presse, where he would eventually rise through the ranks to become chief music critic for the paper, and one of the most influential musical powers in Vienna. He had limited training in music theory, but actively read music history, however, despite this, his views as expressed throughout Vom Musikalisch-Schönen demonstrate reverence for what he called ancient music – included in this are composers such as Bach (Hanslick, ein Beitrag zur Revision der Aesthetik der Tonkunst, 1858). Modern insight into the general view of Hanslick’s criticism can be found in the statement “He was the typical cultured and eloquent journalist fashionable in Europe towards the end of the last centaury” (Doernberg, 1960, p. 74).
While Hanslick was not always highly admired for his writings, he was nevertheless extremely influential, and his prominence in the Viennese music world has been noted by several academics as seen in the following statement “Without Hanslick – nothing happens in Vienna” (Harrandt, 2004, p. 34). Like most critics, Hanslick’s views changed over time; and he praised both Bruckner and even Wagner when he first met them, although his views quickly soured over time. Conversely, his initial lack respect for Liszt began to change as Hanslick aged. “For Brahms, Hanslick was of some practical use; for Wagner he was an irritating nuisance. It was in connection with Bruckner that he gained in stature; here, he figures as the Adversary and doubtless enjoyed the distinction”(Doernberg, 1960, p. 75). As this statement reflects, Hanslick however is often shown to be a powerful figure, whereas Bruckner is often caricatured as a timid, almost cowardly figure. Because of the relative power of Hanslick, Bruckner was by far the most heavily effected by Hanslick’s often-harsh criticism. While Hanslick often criticizes Bruckner’s compositions, causing Bruckner stress and hurt, it is important to remember that Hanslick was on amicable terms with Bruckner. It is also important remember that while Bruckner’s compositions fell under harsh criticism Hanslick respected Bruckner’s musicality, which can be seen in the following review;
“In the professor of the local Conservatory, Anton Bruckner, we possess one of the most outstanding organ virtuosos, who at the last music festival in Nancy, then in Paris… performed on the famous organs of St Epvre, St Sulpice, and Notre-Dame with such success that he defeated the most renowned Belgian and French organists in formal competition. Only in Vienna is it impossible to hear Bruckner, for until now he, the Imperial Court Organist, has not been allowed to use the organ for a recital or even only for private practice.” (Hanslick, Neue Freie Fresse, 1870)
This review is unusual because Hanslick’s writing style focuses heavily on the composer, while generally spending little time commenting on the quality of the performance. This is true of Hanslick’s criticism in general, not just limited to Bruckner; Hanslick himself was strongly against the idea of a heroic singer or virtuoso performer. It is also important to remember that a large majority of the music that was performed in this period would be new music. It is because he had such high regard for Bruckner’s musicality that he made this variation to his customary writing style.
Hanslick said of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor;
“The Philharmonic Orchestra devoted its entire concert to a new symphony by Bruckner. It is the eighth in the series and similar to its predecessors in form and mood. I found this newest one, as I have found the other Bruckner symphonies, interesting in detail but strange as a whole and even repugnant. The nature of the work consists – to put it briefly – in applying Wagner’s dramatic style to the symphony.” (Hanslick, Music Criticisms 1846-99, 1963, pp. 288-290)
While this statement is clearly derogatory in nature, it is mainly just reiterating fact. Because of this, with only the clause “strange as a whole and even repugnant” used by Hanslick to express opinion on the concert, there is an inferred sense of credibility to the negative comments. Here Hanslick once again reiterates his failure to understand Bruckner’s work in its large scope, instead praising its details.
“Also characteristic of Bruckner’s newest symphony is the immediate juxtaposition of dry schoolroom counterpoint with unbounded exaltation. Thus, tossed about between intoxication and desolation, we arrive at no definite impression and enjoy no artistic pleasure. Everything flows, without clarity and without order, willy-nilly into dismal long-windedness. In each of the four movements, and most frequently in the first and third, there are interesting passages and flashes of genius – if only all the rest were not there! It is not out of the question that the future belongs to this muddled hangover style – which is no reason to regard the future with envy. For the time being, however, one would prefer that symphonic and chamber music remain undefiled by a style only relatively justified as an illustrative device for certain dramatic situations.” (Hanslick, Music Criticisms 1846-99, 1963, pp. 288-290)
This is an interesting and insightful paragraph. Hanslick reveals an acknowledgement that more progressive works may be more relevant to future generations than the more conservative music he cherished. Hanslick also makes positive comments in this paragraph, noting that there are moments in the music that he regards as genius, before continuing by again condemning the length of a Bruckner work. Structure is again commented on, as before. This may have been influenced by changes made to a performing score. While Hanslick notes some of the academic merit of the contrapuntal techniques, he continues by criticizing the artistic value of the work. This type of statement is typical of Hanslick; he makes a positive comment before later going on to criticize the work. This could be viewed as Hanslick attempting to give a rounded review of the work.
Derek Watson stipulates that the criticism, which Bruckner received heavily, deeply affected the composer. He became highly self critical as a result of criticism, and was nervous about performing or publishing his work. His letters show this insight into the composer’s feelings. The criticism of these later works are consistent with the criticism Hanslick made of Bruckner’s earlier works.
Throughout Hanslick’s criticism of Bruckner, he maintains a consistent stance on some aspects of Bruckner’s music. Most noticeably are Hanslick’s regular comments about the length of the concerts and consequently the large-scale structures used. This can be seen as a matter of opinion and not as a general consensus of how the public found Bruckner’s music. Another regular point of criticism is the dramatic nature of the music, often accompanied with references to Wagner. The points are interesting because both feature in Brahms’s music of which Hanslick approved of, and are surplus in his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Like many of the critics that succeed him, Hanslick avoids using technical language wherever possible to ensure the maximum number of readers can access his judgments. Because Hanslick was such an early critic, some conventional practices were not commonplace with Hanslick and his contemporaries; Hanslick uses first person in many of his critiques. Hanslick was extremely articulate (much to the misfortune of Bruckner!) and would use his charismatic and witty writing style to engage readers. This sort of style is particularly evident with the earlier reference to ‘riesenschlange’.
While Hanslick attacks Bruckner’s compositions, particularly for their length and proclaimed Wagnerian influence, he does make attempts to remain impartial. He also developed an interesting and varied writing style, which is displayed in his writings about Bruckner. Despite Bruckner’s low self-esteem, caused in part due to Hanslick’s writings, with far fewer revisions and desperation for approval, Bruckner would ultimately have been very a different composer without his arch nemesis Eduard Hanslick.

Doernberg, E. (1960). The life and symphonies of Anton Bruckner. London: Barrie and Rockliff.
Hanslick, E. (1870, January 11). Neue Freie Fresse (1928), p. 2.
Hanslick, E. (1870, January 11). Neue Freie Presse (1928), p. 2.
Hanslick, E. (1886, March 30). Neue Freie Presse (7755), p. 2.
Hanslick, E. (1963). Music Criticisms 1846-99. (H. Pleasants, Ed., & H. Pleasants, Trans.) London: Penquin Books.
Hanslick, E. (1858). Vom Musikalisch-Schönen. Leipzig: P. Reclam.
Harrandt, A. (2004). The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner. (J. Williamson, Ed.) Cambridge: University Press.
Sams, E. (n.d.). Eduard Hanslick. Retrieved 4 6, 2010, from Centro Studi Eric Sams: http://www.ericsams.org/sams_vocehanslick_eng.htm
Tristan und Isolde. (n.d.). Retrieved 4 21, 2010, from Wikipeadia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tristan_und_Isolde
Watson, D. (1996). Master Musicians Bruckner. (S. Sadie, Ed.) Oxford: University Press.
Worb, H. (2001). Bruckner, Anton. In S. Sadie (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Second Edition ed., Vol. 4, pp. 458-487). London: Macmillan.