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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Bruckner in Church

Anton Bruckner is a composer who tends to divide people. His life covered most of the 19th century (he lived from 1824 to 1896) and people like Wagner, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Brahms were his contemporaries. Most people remember Bruckner today as the composer of nine gigantic symphonies, most of which exist in a confusing array of versions and revisions. People who love Bruckner are a bit like those who love Wagner or Mahler; they tend to be very passionate - some might say fanatical - about it. An equal and opposite passion seems to inhabit those who don't like Bruckner's symphonies as well.

But there's another side to Bruckner the composer, and that is the large amount of sacred choral music he composed. Among choirs, this repertoire is usually cherished and there are some of the motets which are very much "standards" in the choral world. In this post I want to, almost perversely, ignore Bruckner's symphonies and look at his sacred music. It's music which very much breathes the spirit of the real Bruckner, and apart from anything else, it's very beautiful. [listen]

This motet, Locus iste, is perhaps the best-known of Bruckner's many small scale motets. It's so well-known that Howard Goodall seems to have parodied the piece to write the theme for Mr Bean [listen]. Locus iste sets a text appropriate to the consecration of a church and is a model of restraint and clarity. It's from relatively late in Bruckner's output, dating from 1869, the year he moved from Linz to Vienna. To discover Bruckner's sacred music roots, though, we need to go back a quarter of a century.

Anton Bruckner (c. 1860)

In 1841, after a year's teacher training in Linz, the 17 year old Bruckner took up his first teaching position in the village of Windhaag bei Freistadt in northern Austria, very close to the current border with the Czech Republic. While engaged in musical studies of some sort or another since his childhood, Bruckner decided to follow the career of a school teacher rather than risk the uncertain life of a musician, and in Windhaag he worked as assistant schoolmaster.

One of Bruckner's earliest known compositions, and the only work to have survived from the Windhaag period, is a simple setting of the Mass. The Windhaag Mass, as it's known, is scored for alto voice, organ and two horns. While an interesting historical curiosity, it gives no indication at all of the real Bruckner voice which was to come. [listen]

After 16 difficult months in Windhaag, Bruckner found a better teaching position in the village on Kronstorf, south of Linz. There he spent two reasonably happy years before he took up the position of assistant schoolteacher at St Florian, about halfway between Kronstorf and Linz. Here he was on familiar territory; after the death of his father, his mother managed to get the 13 year old Bruckner enrolled as a choirboy at St Florian and Bruckner immediately fell in love with the place. The priory with its Baroque architecture and fine musical tradition had made the boy - if he wasn't already - a devoted musician and a devoted Catholic. Now in 1845, back at his old school as a 21 year old teacher, he was living and working in his spiritual home.

St Florian

Bruckner spent ten years as a teacher at St Florian. During this time he continued his own studies, doggedly seeking to improve himself by studying Latin, developing his skills as an organist, studying theory and counterpoint in his spare time, and discovering the music of older composers, such as Mendelssohn.

Bruckner continued to dabble in sacred composition at this time, and among his most interesting works is a Requiem Mass, composed in 1849 in memory of his good friend Franz Sailer, the monastery administrator. Bruckner's Requiem is scored for four-part choir and soloists, accompanied by strings and organ with three trombones (one of whom briefly doubles on horn). Bruckner was clearly devoted to the Mozart Requiem when he wrote this; in fact Mozart's sacred music is a constant inspiration and the Requiem, in particular, was a work he adored. Its presence can be sensed regularly in Bruckner's fascinating early setting of the same text. [listen]

Much earlier music - that of the Baroque - seems to influence the young Bruckner in another work from the St Florian period, a German-language setting of Psalm 114, the text of which corresponds to the first nine verses of Psalm 116 in the English Bible. Scored for five-part choir and three trombones, Bruckner's music is austere, and the counterpoint occasionally gauche. But it's still an impressive piece and indicates that Bruckner took sacred music composition very seriously.

The "Bruckner Organ" at St Florian

In 1855, after ten years at St Florian, the young teacher-musician was ready for a change. The Psalm 114 setting was dedicated to the Imperial Kapellmeister in Vienna, Ignaz von Assmayr, in the hope that this might pave the way for some work there, but Bruckner still kept his mind open about continuing his career as a teacher. He had been steadily improving his teaching qualifications while at St Florian, and was prepared to continue in that profession if that was where his future lay.

Eventually Bruckner applied for the post of organist at the Old Cathedral (Alter Dom) in Linz, and he was successful. This was a major step up the musical and social ladder for Bruckner, who most definitely came from the wrong side of tracks. He took up the post in Linz in early 1856, and eventually stayed there for twelve years. He never returned to school teaching but as any ex-teacher will tell you, you never really stop teaching; you just do it in different ways.

Linz Alter Dom (Old Cathedral)

Linz was a major regional centre. At the time it had 27,000 inhabitants and boasted a rich musical life. But for Bruckner, his life centred on his duties as organist at the cathedral, understandably. Most fascinating of all was the fact that just before taking up the position, he embarked on an extended period of counterpoint study with the famous Viennese teacher Simon Sechter. Mostly carried on by correspondence, this period of study lasted six years, during which Bruckner abstained almost entirely from composition of any sort. Thousands of pages of Bruckner's exercises for Sechter survive and he was clearly a focused, some would say obsessive, pupil.

Simon Sechter

After six years Sechter announced Bruckner was in need of no more teaching, after which Bruckner embarked on composing once more. One of the first pieces he wrote after the study period is a work described in Grove as his "first masterpiece": a setting of the Ave Maria for unaccompanied seven-part choir. This was first performed in Linz cathedral in 1861 and it remains once of Bruckner's best-loved sacred works. [listen]

Shortly after writing this glorious setting, Bruckner composed a short Offertory, Afferentur regi, for four-part choir and three trombones. This was one of many works which showed that even while in Linz, Bruckner maintained his connections with St Florian. Afferentur regi and several other short works were composed for St Florian and given their first performances there. It also shows how effortless Bruckner's counterpoint became after his six years' study. [listen]

By the end of 1861, just after Afferentur regi was performed, Bruckner immersed himself in more study, this time in form and orchestration. Over the next few years Bruckner's musical world caught up to the mid-19th century, and while he never forgot or ignored the music of the Baroque and Classical periods which had been his bread and butter until now, it was from this time that he discovered up-to-date ways of writing orchestral scores, heard recent music, and probably attended the theatre for the first time. Above all it was at this time he discovered the composer he called "master of masters": Richard Wagner.

Chamber music and symphonies poured from Bruckner's pen in the early 1860s, works he always regarded as exercises. Then in 1864 he began to number his Mass settings and his symphonies: the official Mass no 1, the D minor Mass, was written in 1864, shortly before the first official symphony, No 1 in C minor.

Bruckner's three numbered Masses show his multiple preoccupations. Written in the classical Viennese Mass structure, they immediately suggest the world of Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven. But their harmonic language is far more modern, far more individual, and far more Wagnerian. As the Bruckner scholar Paul Hawkshaw has suggested, "if the Ave Maria was Bruckner's first miniature masterpiece, the Mass in D minor was without question his first great work in a large form". It was first performed in Linz cathedral in November 1864 and was such a success that it was repeated in a concert in Linz a month later. It was also the first of Bruckner's works to be performed in Vienna, before Bruckner himself moved there from Linz.

Now fifteen years after the occasionally gauche attempts at choral and orchestral writing evident in the 1849 Requiem, we have here in the 1864 Mass a composer handling large forms with apparent ease, great beauty and genuine innovation. This is the Mass's Sanctus movement. [listen]

And here’s a performance of the entire Mass. [listen]

Two years later, Bruckner wrote his next Mass setting. This was dedicated to his employer at Linz, Bishop Rüdiger, and it is a very different work indeed to the D minor Mass. It was first performed in Linz in 1869.

The second Mass seems to be written in response to criticisms Bruckner received from members of the Cecilian Movement, founded by the German priest Franz Xaver Witt. Witt rebelled against what he saw as worldly elements in 18th and 19th century church music - operatic styles, orchestras - and set up Palestrina's music of the Renaissance as the ideal.

Franz Xaver Witt

Bruckner's D minor Mass would very much have offended the Cecilians, but in his second Mass the style is completely different. The work is scored for an eight-part choir without soloists (so nothing operatic), accompanied by a wind and brass ensemble (nothing orchestral, just a band which functions like an organ). And even then, large tracts of the work are unaccompanied (like the music of Palestrina). The E minor Mass is as austere as the D minor Mass is modern; it remains supremely challenging to perform and it ranks as one of the most beautiful things Bruckner ever wrote. This is the Kyrie. [listen]

And here’s a performance of the entire Mass. [listen]

In 1868 Bruckner left Linz to live in Vienna, but before he did he composed his final Mass, the Mass No 3 in F minor. The F minor Mass is a magnificent work, one of my favourite pieces to conduct, and probably the greatest Viennese Mass of the 19th century after the Beethoven Missa Solemnis (on which it's modelled). In this Bruckner returns to a full Viennese Mass with orchestra and four soloists and it's on a large scale, lasting about an hour in performance.

Themes from earlier movements recur in later ones, giving the F minor Mass a feeling of unity across its vast stretches, and its emotional territory gives the impression that Bruckner has been somehow liberated. Achingly beautiful passages contrast with music of overwhelming, dynamic power. This is the Credo. [listen]

And here’s a performance of the entire Mass. [listen]

Bruckner's F minor Mass was not given its premiere in Linz, though. Shortly after writing it Bruckner left Linz and took up a teaching post at the Vienna Conservatory, and he lived in Vienna from 1868 until his death in 1896. The last Mass was first performed there in 1872, the same year as he composed the first version of the second symphony.

Vienna Conservatory, now the University of Music and Performing Arts

From this point onwards, Bruckner's major compositional outlet was the symphony. In one sense these vast orchestral canvases are no less sacred than his more conventional sacred works. Indeed, more than one writer has described them as orchestrated organ improvisations, and Bruckner was renowned by this time as both an organist and an improviser of the highest rank. But as he worked on his symphonies over the next quarter century or so, he still took time out to write church music.

One of the most important small-scale sacred works from the Vienna period is the 1869 Locus iste to which I linked at the start of this article. Other gems from this time include Tota pulchra es (composed in 1878) [listen], Os justi (1879) [listen], and Virga Jesse (1885) [listen].

Bruckner's later years saw him write two large-scale sacred works and his final small-scale motet. The Te Deum for choir, soloists and orchestra was written between 1881 and 1884, in tandem with work on the seventh symphony. While strictly speaking a concert work, Bruckner's Te Deum is as sacred as anything else he wrote, with or without a text, as he saw all the creation of all his music as an act of homage to God. The Te Deum opens with an overwhelmingly powerful representation of bells in the open fifths and clashing seconds of the orchestral and choral texture. It remains the most popular and regularly-performed of Bruckner's large scale sacred works today. [listen]

The other large-scale sacred work from Bruckner's final years was the setting of Psalm 150 for choir and orchestra. Written in 1892, the year he turned 68, it inhabits a similar celebratory vein to the Te Deum and it was in fact his last completed sacred work. [listen]

Anton Bruckner (1886)

In Vienna Bruckner didn't have a church post which required him to write motets, but just as he had occasionally sent sacred works back to St Florian when he was in Linz, so he occasionally sent such works back to both St Florian and Linz when he was in Vienna. His final motet, the exquisite Vexilla regis, was written a few months before Psalm 150 and was first performed at St Florian. Scored for four-part unaccompanied chorus, it's in the Phrygian mode and creates an other-worldly atmosphere with the simplest of means; a greater contrast in mood with the Te Deum and Psalm 150 couldn't be imagined. This hymn to the Cross summarises, as much as anything else Bruckner wrote, the spirit which infused the man, and which is especially evident in his sacred music. The final stanza is translated: To thee, eternal Three in One, let homage meet by all be done: whom by the Cross thou dost restore, preserve and govern evermore. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2012.

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