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John Williamson (editor)

£47.50 hardback

£17.99 paperback


Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0 521 80404 3 hardback. 0 521 00878 6



The Cambridge Companion series is one of the most flourishing projects in today’s music book market. There are three sections across which this prolific set of publications divides: Instruments, Composers and Topics. And in their various ways all these publications add valuable insights to our knowledge of their subjects.

The new Companion to Bruckner is no exception. Expertly edited by John Williamson, Professor at Liverpool University, there are contributions from various academics based on either side of the Atlantic, and with a Liverpool-based editor the linguistic style is firmly British.

The book is well organised across four sections: Background, Choral Music, The Symphonist and Reception, with various essays under each heading. The opening section is particularly interesting, perhaps the most rewarding of all, beginning with Williamson himself placing Bruckner in his time as ‘a Catholic composer in the age of Bismarck’. Then there are illuminating chapters on ‘Musical life in Upper Austria’ and then ‘Bruckner in Vienna’, the latter containing some particularly interesting extracts from contemporary criticism of the music, including some reviews by Eduard Hanslick.

It is when it comes to the music that one wonders about the approach. Perhaps this caveat applies to the whole series rather than to this Bruckner book alone, but it remains a point worth making. In order to gain from reading the various chapters about the music, both vocal and symphonic, it is really necessary to know it – or at least some of it – quite well. This is decidedly not a book for the beginner, not for the uninitiated.

Rather than take the works one by one, it is ideas about the music that drive the coverage and analysis. Thus there are chapters on such matters as ‘Between formlessness and formality: aspects of Bruckner’s approach to symphonic form’ and ‘Formal process as spiritual process: the symphonic slow movements’. Here and elsewhere the ideas are developed with great rigour, with reference hither and thither among Bruckner’s compositions. All very interesting and academically driven, to be sure, but as a reader I longed for something more straightforward in the manner of a detailed programme note. In other words, something that would treat the music on the terms Bruckner surely intended, with each symphony as an individual work of art with compelling and profound things to say.

Terry Barfoot



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