Personalities | Anton Bruckner | Late Romantic | Classical

(An’-ton Brook’-ner) 1824–96
Austrian composer

Bruckner’s Masses and symphonies, alongside those of Mahler, brought the Romantic symphonic tradition to its zenith. In contrast to Mahler’s angst and irony, Bruckner’s symphonies express triumphant faith, their almost cathedral-like proportions infused with exciting orchestral power and poetry.

Born in the small town of Ansfelden near Linz, where his father was schoolmaster, Bruckner grew up in an environment of rustic humility and devout Catholicism. After his father died, the talented 13-year-old began studies as a chorister at the nearby monastery of St Florian in 1837, where in 1845 he was appointed organist and schoolmaster for 10 years. He then obtained the prestigious appointment of organist at Linz Cathedral (1856–68), studying in Vienna with the famous teacher Simon Sechter; he received a glowing recommendation from him in 1861. When he graduated from the Vienna Conservatory one of his examiners is said to have remarked, ‘If I knew one tenth of what he knows, I’d be happy’.

Forming a Style

The next few years were decisive for Bruckner’s style: during his studies with Otto Kitzler, who conducted the Linz premiere of Tannhäuser, he first encountered – and was overwhelmed by – Wagner’s music. He later attended the premiere of Tristan in Munich in 1865 and of Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman, and received Wagner’s approval to conduct the premiere of the finale to Die Meistersinger in 1868, prior to the opera’s first production. These years also saw the composition of the three great Masses and the first three symphonies (in F minor, No. 1 in C minor and one in D minor, which he numbered 0). In 1867 he was appointed successor to Sechter as court organist in Vienna and the following year he became professor of organ and theory at the Vienna Conservatory. He won international fame for his organ improvisations at competitions in Paris and London (1869–71), at Notre Dame and the Royal Albert Hall. His Mass in F minor, first given in 1872, was highly praised by Liszt.

Masses and Symphonies

Of the seven Masses Bruckner eventually wrote his three masterpieces are those in D minor (1864, rev. 1876, 1881), E minor (1866) and F minor (1868). The Mass in E minor, composed for the new Linz Cathedral, is unusually scored for choir and woodwind ensemble. It is modal and extremely contrapuntal in the style of Renaissance polyphony. Both the Masses in D minor and F minor are symphonic in scope with Wagnerian brass, cyclic structures, incisive fugues in the Glorias and resonant choruses. Bruckner’s Te Deum (1884) and Psalm 150 (1892) crown his liturgical output: triumphant hymns of praise, each with climactic double fugues.

Bruckner’s symphonies, though not ‘programmatic’ in the sense of Berlioz or Liszt, express a transcendent vision that is similar to the religious works, several of which are quoted. The influence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is strongly evident, particularly at the outset, often a string...

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