Living music: Professor’s Austrian festival experience proves memorable

September 20, 2016
Professor Benjamin Korstvedt, seated at right at table, presented his research into the music of composer Anton Bruckner in August at the St. Florian Brucknertage festival in Austria.
Professor Benjamin Korstvedt, seated at right at table, presented his research into the music of composer Anton Bruckner in August at the St. Florian Brucknertage festival in Austria.

An ancient Austrian monastery brought 19th-century music to life in a new way for Benjamin Korstvedt this August.

The professor of music in Clark University’s Visual and Performing Arts Department traveled to the St. Florianer Brucknertage festival, or Bruckner Days, to present his latest research into the music of composer Anton Bruckner. St. Florian, a small town in Upper Austria with a population of around 5,000, claims Bruckner as its greatest native son and celebrates his music for five days each year.

“It’s always a pleasure to share my ideas and work with an interested audience, especially one that reaches beyond the circle of academic scholars,” says Korstvedt, who is also affiliated with Clark's major in comparative literature.

“But this time it turned out to be even more enjoyable than usual,” he continues. “It wasn’t so much a classical music event, but a living music event.”

Here, Korstvedt describes his experience at the festival where his talk, “On the Path to the ‘Homeric Seas’: Bruckner’s symphonic style, ca. 1880,” was well received, and he explains in his own words below why the character of the festival “was quite extraordinary and highly memorable”:

A brass band performs in the basilica during a festival event. “Bruckner Days takes place on the grounds of one of the oldest monasteries in Austria, located in St. Florian. From Bruckner’s days as a schoolboy through his annual summer trips there while a professor in Vienna, he spent much of his life in the town and, according to his wishes, was buried there when he died in 1896. Today, the town is still dominated by a magnificent 17th-century abbey and basilica where Bruckner served as a choirboy and later as organist, which served as the setting for many events. 

“An ancient monastery might sound like a dull or stuffy setting for a summer festival, but to the contrary it proved to be truly welcoming and remarkably open to secular social activities. The imposing basilica, with its grandiose organ and stunning Baroque ornamentation, remains active as a parish church (complete with a bulletin board festooned with snapshots of babies recently christened). It served as the site of several concerts, including one by a full symphony orchestra. Other events were held on the secular side of the abbey, in rooms that feel princely, not sacred, with marble pillars, classical sculptures and ornate ceiling paintings. The Stiftskeller, a tavern that occupies the main inner courtyard, was also a lively place for eating, drinking and socializing — essential elements of any music festival.

A youth orchestra performs during the festival. “A true community spirit infused the festival from the main concert, which was given by an excellent youth orchestra of students from across Upper Austria, to the other events. The orchestra’s vigor — and their glorious music-making — complemented the ancient resonance of the setting and its presence contributed to the throngs attending sold-out concerts. Proud parents and families rubbed shoulders with visitors from Austria and Germany, as well as Italy, France, England, Scotland and the United States.  

“The Bruckner Organ Night, which included performances by six organists from four European countries, opened the festival and ran late into the night. The public was invited to make themselves at home on canvas lounge chairs provided alongside old wooden pews as they listened, and parents were invited to bring sleeping bags for tired children to curl up in. Equally remarkable was the final night’s performance by the magnificent Vienna Brass Collective, which ranged from the deeply spiritual to the exuberantly popular. The music began with somber works performed in the abbey’s crypt, with the musicians literally surrounding Bruckner’s sarcophagus — truly an unforgettable experience. Then the audience moved en masse to the chapel to hear some splendidly loud works for organ and brass. At the end of the night, the audience and musicians retired to an impromptu tavern set up under the stars for beer and food accompanied by rousing performances of modern brass band music featuring American works including John Williams and — no joking — a medley from the movie ‘How to Train your Dragon.’  

“The entire festival was not so much a classical music event, but a living music event. It seamlessly combined intellectual curiosity, committed musicianship and plain-old fun and togetherness. It also encompassed hugely contrasting elements — modern and ancient, secular and sacred, local and global — in a natural and spontaneous way. In fact, the festival opened not long after Pokémon Go debuted in Austria, and the abbey’s grounds were inevitably crisscrossed by local kids on the trail of Pokémon. It felt oddly fitting that these newest virtual creatures, including a rare Snorlax, inhabited the same space as the oldest and best form of virtual reality: great live music.”