Repertory breadth: of Bruckner and the Bible

Anton Bruckner is an interesting figure in 19C music history.  I have only a general impression of his music and have never participated in deep study of his works as either a conductor or player.  I once considered programming at least a movement of one of his symphonies, but that never occurred.  At the intersection of Bruckner and the Bible, there would be much to inquire about.  I won’t be analyzing Bruckner’s faith or his life, though.  I’m going somewhere different (and won’t be probing very deeply).

In or near my CD player right now are these discs:

  • Anton Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Doobie Brothers—Takin’ it to the Streets
  • Phillips, Craig, & Dean—Where Strength Begins
  • Frank Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Edgar Meyer/Yo-yo Ma/Mark O’Connor—Appalachian Journey
  • Carter Pann—The Piano’s 12 Sides
  • Fernando Ortega—Home

A nice smattering, yes?

I like variety.  I suspect many people think they’re getting variety these days when they listen to two different rappers or three pop-country “singer-songwriters.”  Ah, the choices we make.  Maybe I should have substituted some Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, brass ensemble or choral music for the Phillips, Craig & Dean or one of the two orchestral CDs . . . but the above list nonetheless provides a good deal of diversity.

pandoraSince I also like high-quality sound reproduction (not to mention valuing my hearing), I don’t use earbuds very much, and I’ve never had an iPod.  I have rarely used my smartphone or small tablet as an .mp3 player.  On the other hand, I have been streaming Pandora through speakers a lot lately and would like to recommend that some of you Pandora users try out the channels marked in blue to the right.  I was very happy to find the “Classical Complete Performances” channel; it seems to have little to no commercial interruptions.  The “Chamber Winds” channel is a favorite of mine, and I’m working to refine it more.  The offerings here so far are really only about 1/4 true-blue “chamber winds,” but it still makes for transparent listening.  “The Folks” consists in gentle, folk-ish songs; it and “Acoustic New Age” “and “Classical Guitar” are all very good streams, too.

Back to Bruckner and the point I started out to make.  There’s this ongoing thing with the so-called Three Bs:  the powerhouse music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  A few have added other Bs such as Bruckner and Britten.  For whatever reason, I once programmed two entire orchestral concerts of “B” music with only marginal recourse to one of the original Three.  Instead, I used music of Bax, Britten, Beach, Barlow, Brouwer, and Bernstein (Elmer, not Leonard).

For grins, I’m going to make a hypothetical exercise a little more challenging here by pretending my CD stack had been this one full of various “B”-composed art music:

  • Brahms—Symphonies No. 2 and 3
  • Boccherini—String Quintets
  • Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Beethoven—Symphony No. 7
  • Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Borodin—Symphonies No. 1 and 2; Prince Igor
  • Bax—Tone Poems

Now, I rarely use the “Random” or shuffle functions, since I tend to like hearing one style or genre for a while before moving on.  What if I had pushed the “Random” button and then found myself in another room when the next track started playing?  Could I have identified the composer as Brahms or Borodin?  Bax or Bruckner?  (Boccherini, Beethoven, and Bridge would be a bit more distinct and easier to identify here.)

There’s been this other thing occurring in music appreciation and music history classes through the decades since the invention of the phonograph.  It was at first called the “drop the needle” test.  The professor would actually drop the needle of the record player in a random groove on the record, let the music play for a few seconds . . . and then the students being tested were required to identify the piece:  composer, title, and sometimes more.  The tough profs might play only an obscure section of the second movement of a symphony, and you almost never got the first few notes, so you really had to know the piece in order to succeed on the test.  (The last time I did this for a class, I edited some .mp3 files with the precise excerpt I wanted to play and collected them into a playlist.  It worked fine, but it took way too much time to prepare.  The record player would have been easier!)

As an undergraduate student, I think I experienced this type of test three or four times.  On the graduate level, the method was brought back with a vengeance.  There, our esteemed professor would inflict on us entire exams that consisted of a few pages of each of several scores.  The title and composer were blacked out, of course.  Based on other clues in the score, we were to write our analytical thoughts that led us to a guess as to the style, the genre—and the composer and title, if possible.  As with certain math tests, we were graded mostly on “showing our work.”  The reasoning was more important than the correct answer.  Although I made good grades in those courses, I never really aced one of those tests.  It’s difficult to know a whole repertory (body of music literature) so well that you can make a very educated guess as to the composer and style after hearing or seeing a small bit of music.

So, earlier today, when I heard some music coming from my study, I knew immediately that it could not be Bridge and had to be Bruckner.  That particular comparison really wasn’t that difficult, but I could probably be tripped up if presented with early Bruckner passages vs. late Beethoven ones.  Some Bax might sound like some Bridge—unless I knew the work of each of them very well and could identify the musical language used by each.

Here’s where all this connects to the Bible.  Does any one of us know the biblical texts—the entire repertory—well enough to succeed on a “drop the needle” test?  If we were presented with a few sentences, could we identify them as having come from

  • Paul’s letter to the Colossians as opposed to the Galatian or Ephesian letters?
  • Matthew’s gospel vs. Luke’s?
  • Ecclesiastes vs. Proverbs?
  • 2Timothy vs. Titus?

Many of us could nail many passages from Genesis onto a reasonable place on the wall, but can I hear Isaiah and know it’s neither Jeremiah nor Amos?  Can I distinguish where the history of Joshua leaves off and where 1Samuel begins?  If 1Peter sounds like Hebrews to me, I don’t know either of them well enough.

Maybe I need something more than a Bible app . . . something more than background biblical Pandora.  I also need more devotion—both to the texts and to the God their authors served.

B. Casey, 1/7/17


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