Bruckner and The Three Monkeys


Anton Bruckner’s love for animals was exceeded only by his love for God. When three of Vienna’s most popular organ grinders died suddenly during a cholera epidemic, Bruckner adopted their three monkeys. To his delight, he discovered that these monkeys had the ability to play the instruments, not just turn the crank. In a dream, Bruckner realized that he could use the monkeys to play his unperformed Eighth Symphony, so he proceeded to teach the three monkeys the difficult parts. They were so adept, in fact, that they were also able to play drums, so Bruckner created his Eighth Symphony for Three Street Organs and Obbligato Drums.

One morning, Bruckner set up the three organs, monkeys and drums in the square in front of the Imperial Palace. “The Emperor will finally hear my symphony!” Bruckner exclaimed. All went well, and a small crowd gathered around as the performance began. Windows in the palace opened, and servants and nobles looked down at the spectacle. Several Hapsburg faces with their distinctive lack of chin peered out from the upper balcony.

Then, a disaster. As is well known, Bruckner was so profoundly religious that he compulsively fell to his knees every time a church bell rang. Sure enough, a nearby church bell began to chime, and the composer dropped to his knees and crossed himself. The monkeys, seeing him thus employed, tried to imitate him, but, as they had the drumsticks in their hands, they wound up putting out their own eyes.

Blind and confused, the monkeys played and drummed on, reaching the tumultuous ending of the first movement. Random notes and shrieking discords rang out, peppered with cacophonic drum rolls. At that climactic moment, a young music student named Arnold Schoenberg turned the corner into the square, and stood transfixed.

“Mein Gott,” he cried. “This is the breakthrough I have been waiting for!”

(Source: Gessellschaft des Oesterreichich Orgelplayerfunken Orangutangen)

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