(Joseph) Anton Bruckner
Mass in F Minor, Christus factus est, Os justi, Libera me, Locus iste
Born: 4 September 1824, Ansfelden (near Linz)
Died: 11 October 1896, Vienna
Born in a small Austrian village, Bruckner showed musical talent from an early age. Unlike many important nineteenth-century composers, he had a strong background in vocal music, becoming a choirboy at age 13 at the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian, located not far from his home. Here he studied singing, violin, and organ; he had begun piano studies earlier.
Despite his evident musical gifts, after leaving St. Florian’s he trained as a schoolteacher in Linz (1840–1841) and then taught in two small villages between 1841 and 1845. He continued to study music and was composing by this time. In 1845 he moved to a much better position as assistant schoolteacher back at St. Florian’s, where he also taught the choirboys singing. During his time there he developed into an outstanding organist with special skills in improvisation. In 1850 he became the organist for the monastery, a position that, however, never moved beyond provisional status.
In November 1855 Bruckner accepted the position of organist at Linz cathedral (provisional at first, then permanent two months later). In 1855 he also began studying counterpoint and harmony with the famous Viennese theorist Simon Sechter, training that lasted until 1861. After ending that round of study, he embarked on another, this time of form and orchestration with cellist and Linz theater conductor Otto Kitzler, continuing his studies until 1863. Through Kitzler Bruckner learned the music of Wagner and rapidly became an ardent disciple of the operatic master. The results of this were mixed. On the positive side, Bruckner adopted aspects of Wagner’s harmony and orchestration (though earlier composers, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert remained important influences). On the negative side, Bruckner’s association with Wagner (and the “new” music that he stood for) created obstacles to the acceptance of his compositions, especially by the important Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick (a delicious story—possibly apocryphal—is that the foolish and pedantic Beckmesser in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, the “villain” of the piece, was originally named Hans Lick).
During Bruckner’s time in Linz he was part of the “Liedertafel Frohsinn” chorus, first joining in 1856. As a chorister he sang second tenor; any especially gorgeous second tenor parts are surely owing to that experience. He also was the director of the chorus for two periods, first from November 1860 to September 1861, and then again from January to October 1868. He was said to be especially concerned with dynamics.
In October 1868 he moved at last to the cultural capital of Austria, Vienna, where he was Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory until his retirement in 1891; his pupils included the influential theorist Heinrich Schenker. He taught organ at the Conservatory as well, and held various other positions, including organist (one of three) at the Hofkapelle. It was in Vienna that almost all of his symphonies were written and that the slow path of his musical acceptance finally began. He died there in 1896.
For a major composer, Bruckner wrote relatively few compositions in relatively few genres, for several reasons. He began serious composition rather late (in his view, it only began in 1863 after his studies with Kitzler), his symphonies tended to be very long, and he constantly revised what he had already written (often to match his theories of metrical analysis). As for his choice of genres, Bruckner’s only significant chamber work is his String Quintet, and despite his stature as a virtuoso organist, he wrote barely any works for that instrument. A few songs and piano works exist, but his symphonies and his choral works are his claim to fame—and, of course, given the implicit hierarchy of classical music, that means the symphonies.
Bruckner wrote eleven symphonies. Nine of them are known as (surprise!) Symphonies 1 through 9. The symphony Bruckner wrote after Symphony #1 was withdrawn; it is sometimes known as Symphony #0 but also as the “Nullte” Symphony, the “nullified” symphony. The symphony written before Symphony #1 is usually referred to as the “Study” Symphony, but sometimes as Symphony #00, a designation unique in the annals of music.
Many symphonies exist in multiple versions. Symphony #4, for example, has three distinct versions, and Symphony #8 has two versions. Symphony #9 was left with an unfinished last movement. For many reasons—Bruckner’s constant revisions, the interference of well-meaning admirers, the loss of primary materials--his compositional intentions have been the source of controversy since his lifetime. A good summary of the complex state of affairs can be found in the New Grove article on the composer.
Bruckner was unfortunately one of Hitler’s favorite composers. This depressing fact did not help Bruckner’s reputation in the post-war years, and may have contributed to assessments of his music and character designed to distance him from the Nazi embrace. Writing in 1959 in The New College Encyclopedia of Music, for example, musicologists Jack Westrup and Frank Harrison claimed that Bruckner’s “compositions...are romantic in style and characterized by a mixture of homely simplicity and Catholic mysticism...[His] music is popular in Austria, but is less admired in other European countries, where its naivety and excessive length have proved obstacles to appreciation.” Recent scholarship provides more nuanced and sophisticated analyses that respect Bruckner’s outstanding creative mind.
It is undoubtedly true that Bruckner’s symphonies are long, especially in their slow movements. To cite a few figures: the last movement of Symphony #5 times in at 21:01 (Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra on Telarc); the slow movement of Symphony #6 lasts 17:05 (Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic on Teldec); the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony clocks in at 23:12 (Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic on DGG); the slow movement of No. 8 is 26:02 (Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic on EMI); and the slow movement of No. 9 comes to a startling 27:22 (Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw on London). But these are gorgeous movements, truly inspirational in their unfolding. And they are surrounded by other equally moving components (Bruckner followed the traditional four-movement layout for his symphonies), including exuberant Scherzi that provide lively contrasts to the more slowly-moving neighboring movements. Symphonies 4 to 9 are now part of the standard repertoire and are well worth the investment in time to get to know them.
Unlike Mahler, Bruckner never included a chorus in his symphonies, with one quasi-exception to be noted below. But he wrote important choral works with symphonic accompaniment, as well as numerous a cappella gems. And choral works show up at important moments in his compositional life, starting with his seven-voice Ave Maria (SAATTBB) categorized by the New Grove as Bruckner’s first masterpiece. This dates from the spring of 1861, not long after he finished his intensive period of study with Simon Sechter.
Bruckner wrote three mature masses, in D Minor (1864), E Minor (1866), and F Minor (1867–1868; premiere in 1872 at the Augustinerkirche in Vienna); various earlier masses exist. The D Minor and F Minor masses use full orchestra and organ in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, while the E Minor mass uses winds and brass only. All underwent revisions, but, interestingly, the revisions were concentrated on the instrumental accompaniments much more so than the vocal parts; the jewels of his choral part-writing received new settings. The first two masses had their premieres in Linz, the second one being used to consecrate the votive chapel of the cathedral in 1869.
The F Minor mass, which many writers consider the best of the three (though they are all good), came about under unusual circumstances. In the spring of 1867 Bruckner had a nervous breakdown, brought on in part by stress, overwork, and concentrated compositional activity. For a period of three months (May 8 to August 8) he resided at the sanatorium of Bad Kreuzen. Not long after his release he was back at work composing (against the advice of his doctors). The resulting piece, which took almost a full year to create, was the F Minor mass, commissioned by the Vienna Hofkapelle.
The work is comprised of six movements; the standard Mass Ordinary “Sanctus” is divided into two separate movements, Sanctus and Benedictus. Both Gloria and Credo end with large-scale fugues (the Gloria’s being a double fugue), following the Classical models so important to Bruckner, but each of those movements begins with full polyphony rather than the chant incipit found in the D Minor and E Minor masses (a practice dating back to the Middle Ages). The work is unified by the return of various musical themes; more striking is the return of text: the reiterations of “Credo, credo” at the conclusion of that movement. Dermot Gault (The New Bruckner, 2011) sees the F Minor Mass as not merely Bruckner’s most important mass but as being crucial for his development as a symphonist via expansion of scale, the use of dramatic changes, and long-term unification through melodic means. In addition, a direct influence on his later work was the quotation of material from the Mass in three different symphonies. Interestingly, Brahms, who was not much of a Bruckner fan, liked this mass (a work initially declared “too long and unsingable” by conductor Johann Herbeck).
After the F Minor mass, Bruckner wrote three other important works with chorus and orchestra: Helgoland (with male chorus); Psalm 150; and the Te Deum. Bruckner considered this last to be his best work (it is indeed spectacular), and when it appeared as if he would not finish his ninth symphony, he indicated that the Te Deum could be used as its finale—shades of Beethoven!
Bruckner’s smaller-scale choral works are less well-known than those with orchestral accompaniment, though again many spectacular pieces fall into this category. Some of my favorites include the aforementioned Ave Maria; Locus iste (1869); Tota pulchra es (1878, with tenor and organ); Ecce sacerdos magnus (1885, with three trombones and organ); and Virga Jesse floruit (also 1885).
Many of Bruckner’s motets are unaccompanied, and in that respect fit into the Cecilian movement that was current in Austria and Germany while Bruckner was alive. This was a movement that strove to restore Catholic church music to the style of the distant past, as in plainchant and Palestrina. The emphasis was on functional church music of relatively simple compositional means. Although Bruckner was a devout Catholic, his taste in church music had been formed and influenced by the dramatic sacred music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, which often used full orchestral forces to increase theatricality and affect.
Christus factus est is his third and last setting of this text; the first time was in a youthful plenary mass (1844); the second setting, from 1873, includes instruments. Our version (1884, dedicated to Oddo Loidol, a priest in the Benedictine monastery of Kremsmünster) is SATB, departing from four voices only when the alto line splits in mm. 24, 27, 28, and 55, and the bass moves to octaves on the final note. Bruckner’s textural restraint is for naught, though, as he uses dynamics, rests, melodic contour, and especially harmony to create a blazing musical drama in a mere 79 measures. Consider for example the work’s constantly shifting dynamics, such as the move from a forte dynamic to pp in less than two measures (mm. 15–17; remember that the choral conductor Bruckner was a stickler for dynamics); the impact of general pauses in both mm. 20 and 56 (the first in the structurally appropriate position immediately before the verse); the move away from the home key of D Minor beginning already in m. 3, with the first firm cadence on the far distant key of D-flat Major in m. 19; a lively melodic contour that includes for example an upward leap of a tenth in m. 53 of the alto part; and the constantly shifting chromatic lines throughout: all appropriate for a text that reminds us of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. The ever-changing key center makes the work challenging to keep in tune. Mad-Eye Moody’s exhortation for “constant vigilance!” is useful here, as is strict attention to uniform pronunciation of vowels.
Os justi (1879) is different from Christus factus est in almost every respect beyond the lack of instruments. The choral forces are SSAATTBB; the dynamics shift and change rather more slowly than in Christus factus est; general pauses are not indicated in the score (though all voices are silent before the beginning of the verse at “Lex Dei eius”); the melodic motion is somewhat smoother. But the greatest contrast is harmonic, for Os justi is written in pure Lydian throughout.
Lydian was one of the medieval church modes, and its use in a late nineteenth-century motet is an obvious gesture to the past that would be appreciated by followers of the Cecilian movement. To simplify a complex matter, we can describe the medieval modes as the scale patterns from which music before 1600 was constructed (as opposed to the major and minor scales used to create later music). The scale patterns were specific mixtures of half and whole steps most readily described as the white notes on a piano from D to an octave above (Dorian); the white note octave on E (Phrygian); on F (Lydian); and on G (Mixolydian). Thus, a work in pure Lydian uses no B-flat despite its “tonic” of F. And, indeed, Os justi has no accidentals anywhere. It further eschews six-four chords and seventh chords, as Bruckner himself pointed out in a letter to its dedicatee. Yet despite these restrictions Bruckner manages to include harmonically effective devices such as a quick taste of the circle of fifths starting in m. 29, as well as yummy suspensions from m. 57 on. But the unison chanted “Alleluia” conclusion leaves no doubt as to where the heart of this composition lies, while the central fugal passage on “et lingua eius,” the longest such passage in his motets, is another gesture to Cecilian ideals (notwithstanding the initial G, D, A, and E entry pitches of the four parts).
Os justi was dedicated to Cecilianist Ignaz Traumihler, the chorus director of St. Florian, and it obviously suits the objectives of the Cecilian movement far better than does the thrilling Christus factus est. It also meets the Cecilian desire for a functional liturgical work. The text is that of the Gradual for the mass for the common of doctors (doctors of the church, that is, such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and—yes!—St. Hildegard of Bingen), and the premiere was at St. Florian on the litugically appropriate date of 28 August 1879—the Feast of Saint Augustine (a farewell gift; Traumihler died less than two months after the premiere). In contrast—as we might expect from the music’s style—the premiere of Christus factus est on 11 September 1884 was far removed from the text’s liturgical position as the Gradual for the evening mass on Holy Thursday. The text for Os justi is biblical, incidentally, Verses 30–31 of Psalm 36/37 (did you know that Catholics and Protestants number the Psalms differently? They do. Thank you, Martin Luther).
Bruckner wrote two settings of the “Libera me” text. The later one (WAB 22), from 1854, is much better known than the rarely-performed WAB 21. WAB, by the way, stands for “Werkverzeichnis Anton Bruckner” (Anton Bruckner Work List).
WAB 21 is one of Bruckner’s earliest choral works, and, in fact, is one of his earliest compositions overall. It dates from the period 1843–1845. Music lovers typically know the “Libera me” text from its use in both the Verdi and the Fauré Requiems, although it is not technically part of the mass itself. Instead, it is a responsory from the Absolution, the ceremony over the coffin after the conclusion of the mass itself. Fauré’s Libera me is mournful; Verdi’s is passionately dramatic. Bruckner’s, which predates either of those famous settings, is altogether different. Set for SATB chorus with organ accompaniment, it is in a reassuring F major. With the move to “Tremens factus” the key modulates to Bb and then G minor, to return to F major for the concluding “Requiem aeternam.” The text setting is overwhelmingly syllabic and the texture is pervasively homorhythmic, with all voices moving together. The straightforward organ accompaniment largely doubles the vocal lines, adding to the simplicity of texture. The work is readily recognized as a youthful effort that belies the terror described in the text to focus instead on the message of the closing line via the overall gently melodious and soothing style.
Locus iste is one of Bruckner’s great mature motets. Written in 1869, by which time Bruckner was living in Vienna, it was intended for the dedication of the votive chapel of the Linz Cathedral, a venue of enormous importance for him given his many years at the cathedral as organist. The premiere took place on 29 October of the same year, and the work was later dedicated to his friend Oddo Liodol.
The text, appropriately enough, comes from the Gradual of the mass for the dedication of a church. The Gradual gets its name from “gradus,” Latin for “step,” since it was sung on the steps leading to the altar. In the mass, the Gradual follows the Epistle. The latter, as a biblical reading, was originally sung to a musical formula consisting largely of repeated notes. The lack of musical variety meant that the focus was completely on the text. The Gradual was both a textual and musical response—and contrast—to this. A Gradual text was short (unlike the usually lengthy Epistle text) and the music was especially elaborate, as if to compensate for the musical sameness of the Epistle.
Bruckner’s text is quite short (he does not, in fact, use the full text of the Gradual for a church dedication), and the music is relatively straightforward, but it is nonetheless powerful. The piece is for unaccompanied SATB chorus, with an A B A formal structure. The opening section (Locus iste a Deo factus est) is in a clear C major; the mostly syllabic text setting and use of homorhythm, along with the a cappella texture, are nods to the contemporary Cecilian movement that strove for Palestrina-like writing in sacred music. The central B section, however, is pure Bruckner, with its use of imitation, shifting tonal center, and especially sequence, first rising (inaestimabile sacramentum) and then falling (irreprehensibilis est). A poignant half measure of silence leads to a varied return of the opening text and music. For obvious reasons, it is best to sing this in a cathedral acoustic, but even in a normal venue the power of Bruckner’s exquisite setting will come across.
Bruckner has generated a great deal of scholarship, the majority of it in German. For a change, scholars have not neglected the choral music, going back to Max Auer’s Anton Bruckner als Kirchenmusiker (1927) and even earlier. Again, though, German writings outpace material in English on the subject. Readers might wish to consult The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner (2014) or Bruckner Studies (1997), the latter of which includes an article by Paul Hawkshaw on the revisions to the F Minor mass. A relatively short recent life and works (translated from the German) is Constantin Floros, Anton Bruckner: The Man and the Work (2011); Crawford Howie has a two-volume work (Anton Bruckner: A Documentary Biography, 2002). The thematic catalogue for Bruckner (Werkverzeichnis Anton Bruckners, 1977) was done by Renata Grasberger; the designation for a composition of “WAB” with a number following it is drawn from this catalogue. The F Minor Mass, for example, is WAB 28. For those of us who like pictures, Grasberger has also compiled an exhaustive three-volume iconography (Bruckner-Ikonographie). The first volume (1990) covers the years 1854 to 1924 and includes not just the photographic record of that vanished time but also fascinating caricatures, the charming silhouettes by Otto Böhler, and the 1886 painting of the Last Supper by Fritz von Uhde that depicts Bruckner as one of Christ’s disciples. But the world could still use a comprehensive and up-to-date study of Bruckner’s choral music.
I have the recording on Hyperion by the Corydon Singers of the dm, em, and fm masses plus the Te Deum and a few other works. I like this ensemble very much—check out their absolutely gorgeous Hyperion recording of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Five Mystical Songs, and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols—and this Bruckner CD set is very nice. My one quibble is not the Italianate Latin (which is what most of us non-German speakers “grew up with” in our choral singing, after all) but rather their pronounced “R” in “Kyrie”—and they aren’t even American!
My introduction to Bruckner was through singing Virga Jesse in a Christmas concert as an undergraduate—certainly a great place to start—followed by Ecce sacerdos magnus and the Ave Maria. Other choral music and the symphonies soon followed, the latter not seeming all that long since I had by that time sung Mahler’s Second. And I loved pretty much everything I came across. But actually travelling in Austria for the first time, and specifically the Austrian Alps, made me respond to Bruckner in a different way. Even though Bruckner lived north of the Alps, the majesty of that landscape seemed to capture perfectly the majesty of Bruckner’s writing, whether for voices or orchestra. If you have the chance, see for yourself.
All translations by Honey Meconi.
April 2015. Revised March 2023