The last works of Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner are imbued with a remarkable spirituality, as if the two composers, both of whom were around the age of seventy when they wrote them, were distancing themselves once and for all from the earthly realm. It is difficult to imagine that either could have written anything else after these compositions, despite the fact that Wagner had planned to compose a number of symphonies after completing Parsifal and that Bruckner died even before completing his Ninth Symphony. Even on the day of his death, he had worked on the final movement.
Admittedly, both had built a deep relationship with the concept of eternity earlier in their careers. Bayreuth, where Wagner had built his own opera house, was the center of a cult the likes of which no composer before him had inspired and which lives on to this very day. Similarly, Bruckner’s symphonies are suffused with the sacred. In these sprawling orchestral structures, the individual is an insignificant creature, one who is at the mercy of divine omnipotence. This is why performances of these compositions are for many concertgoers something akin to a religious experience, and a daunting challenge for conductor and orchestra alike.
Just as Bruckner’s name is inextricably linked with the symphonic genre, Wagner’s is shorthand for that of the music drama. Wagner himself avoided the term ‘opera’ to emphasize his own exclusive, extended conception of the genre. He was, after all, the ultimate Romantic genius who had revolutionary sympathies and who was averse to authority, was philosophically well versed, reckless in his spending, bold in love, very outspoken in his opinions on fellow artists and an avowed anti-Semite. Music theatre was the perfect outlet for his soaring ambitions and groundbreaking views.