Bruckner's New York debut

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

On today’s date in 1885, at an open public rehearsal at the Old Metropolitan Opera House, the New York Symphony gave the first performance in America of any symphony by the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. It was a fresh-faced 23-year-old conductor named Walter Damrosch who programmed the 61-year-old Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in d minor, a score dedicated to Richard Wagner and quoting themes from Wagner’s operas.

The New York Times critic, in fairness to this “new” music by a totally unfamiliar composer, attended both the December 4th rehearsal and the December 5th concert before venturing an official opinion:

“As to form and workmanship,” he wrote, “it is a highly commendable achievement. The composer’s motives are distinct and fluent, the instrumentation is rich, though not cloying, and vivid without being clangorous. Unfortunately, there is not in the whole composition a measure in which a spark of inspiration, or a grain of inventiveness is discernible.”

Some of the other New York papers were more blunt: “A dreary waste of sound… formless, weird, flimsy, uncongenial and empty” wrote the Sun, and, according to the Post: “The first movement is marked ‘misterioso,’ but the only mystery about it is how it ever came to be written, printed and performed.”

In fairness to the music critics of 1885, it would take another hundred years or so before American audiences started to acquire a taste for Bruckner’s particular blend of music and mystery.