From the Cathedral into the Concert Hall
A sacred and a secular work by Anton Bruckner
The damning reviews that vilified Bruckner’s symphonies in his lifetime are legion and legend. But the circumstances have inverted during the nearly two centuries since the composer’s birth, and it is now easy to forget that his sacred works, in contrast to his orchestral music, were admired even by his detractors. Whereas today Bruckner’s symphonies stand proudly alongside Beethoven’s, his mass settings are rarely mentioned in the same breath with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or corresponding works by his great model Mozart – not to mention the neglect of Bruckner’s early sacred works and even his secular choral music, including once-popular cornerstones of that genre, Germanenzug and Helgoland.
Above the crypt: the Mass in E minor
For some years now there has been a resurgence of interest in Bruckner’s non-symphonic output. Ostensibly secondary or preliminary pieces have been newly surveyed, with an emphasis on the continuity of his cultivation of sacred music from first works to last. Long ago rejected is the image of Bruckner as “a poor, deluded man whom the priests of St. Florian have on their conscience” (Brahms) – who had to leave Linz for Vienna in order to find himself.
In 1855, Bishop Franz Josef Rudigier initiated the construction of a new cathedral in Linz. The first stone was laid in 1862, and in 1924, though still not quite finished, Austria’s largest church was consecrated. An important step towards the monumental Neo-Gothic structure’s completion was the consecration of a votive chapel above the crypt, and it was for this solemn occasion that Bruckner composed his Mass in E minor in 1866. Three years would pass before the work received its premiere, for which the composer travelled from the capital – he had moved to Vienna in the meantime. The performance took place in – or, more precisely, in front of – a building site, which may explain the unusual though beguiling scoring with which Bruckner took the challenging setting into account: dispensing with strings, organ and soloists, he wrote exclusively for choral singers and a small wind orchestra without flutes.
The E minor Mass derives its majestic sonorities essentially from the eight-part choir, often singing a cappella; and contemporary sources report that Bruckner favoured very broad tempi at the premiere. The result is lofty, austere, slow-paced and powerfully surging – like a procession joined by more and more people. An indication heading the choral parts reads: “Beginning in moderate strength, later gradually intensifying.” The work’s chromatic, at times astonishingly dissonant harmony is thoroughly modern, distinguishing the composer as a contemporary of Wagner.
The alternation of female and male voices heard right at the beginning of the E minor Mass and running through the entire work is not operatic, but it is wholly theatrical – especially effective in the Credo when the voice parts exclaim the message of the “Et resurrexit”, seconded by the wind instruments’ unrelentingly loud jabbing chords. But the mass setting also knows moments of great inwardness, for example the Agnus Dei’s polyphonically driven closing prayer for peace, growing ever calmer as it vacillates between modes and finally comes to rest in an ethereal E major. Bruckner considered the premiere of the E minor Mass “the most glorious of my life” and proudly noted the honour he was paid: “Bishop and vicars toasted me at the episcopal table.”
In the cloister: the Symphony in A major
Unlike a number of other 19th-century composers, Bruckner concentrated in his large-scale works on a few basic tonalities. Whereas only a single home key is repeated in Beethoven’s symphonies (the Sixth and Eighth are both in F major), in Bruckner’s, three symphonies in C minor are each followed by one in D minor, and the keys of his three great masses – D minor, E minor and F minor – could be imagined as the beginning of an overarching D minor scale. Sharp keys are comparatively rare in Bruckner, so that, along with the Seventh Symphony’s E major, the Sixth’s A major stands out from the rest of his output. But this is an A major with such tonal fluctuation that it can hardly be compared to Beethoven’s use of the same bright key in his Seventh Symphony. Given Bruckner’s obsessive exactitude in musical as well as spiritual matters, it can be assumed that the three sharps predefining the tonality can also be regarded as a religious image.
The Sixth Symphony was a step on Bruckner’s path of steady improvement towards the achievement of a Ninth he felt worthy of dedicating “to the dear Lord”. Next to God in Bruckner’s world view stood the emperor (Franz Joseph I as dedicatee of the Eighth Symphony), below him the king (Ludwig II as dedicatee of the Seventh Symphony), and a further step down, the knight to whom, in the person of Anton von Oelzeit the younger, the Sixth was dedicated. Arguably the most chivalrous deed of this Viennese philosophy professor, who inherited the title of “Knight of Newin”, was improving Bruckner’s living situation by providing him with an apartment near the Schottentor. It was there between 1879 and 1881 that the composer polished his Sixth Symphony, which even now has not fully emerged from the shadow cast by the contrapuntal peak of its predecessor, the Fifth.
There is a paradox. Bruckner has repeatedly been accused of composing schematically, yet the one work is ignored which least complies with his supposedly obligatory formal prototype. According to that putative model, Bruckner’s symphonies always emerge from the “primeval mists”, out of which the first theme solemnly arises. This is not the case with the Sixth, which still begins quietly but with the launching of a dogged ticking rhythm of machine-like precision. The violins persistently repeat a C sharp, ten times per bar, but in three different note values – quavers (eighth notes), quaver triplets and semiquavers (16th notes). The resulting continuum is extended by the high and low strings, unfolding for 46 bars without interruption between ppp and ff: 460 individual sounds arrayed like a string of pearls – an eccentric inspiration for a symphonic work of that time.
Most closely approaching tradition is the Scherzo, the third movement with its zither-like pizzicati and picturesque hunting fanfares in the Trio. The Finale brings the expected A-major apotheosis but otherwise operates like a resumption of the development section of the first movement, taking up its motifs and, especially, its rhythms. With “deliberately long bowing” the strings play the principal theme of the Adagio second movement – which is also indebted to the first. Then an idyllic second theme is followed by a dirgelike hymn. The development culminates in a soundscape marked “Largo”, whose floating, intangible and seemingly directionless qualities are to be found only in Bruckner.
During the composer’s lifetime only the middle movements of the Sixth were performed. In 1899, more than two years after his death, the Vienna Philharmonic played all four movements under the baton of Gustav Mahler, who had, however, cut and re-orchestrated the work. Bruckner’s Sixth was heard uncut for the first time under Karl Pohlig in Stuttgart in 1901. Apparently, this music was better suited to the new century than to the time of its creation.