Anton Bruckner

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Anton Bruckner by Josef Büche (1848-1917)

Anton Bruckner (September 4, 1824 – October 11, 1896) was an Austrian composer of the Romantic era who used his religious background to give the world many works which expanded symphonic music into compositional forms of great sizes and scales. This composer is most significant as the transformative link between classical symphonic styles of the early nineteenth century and the expansive expressionistic symphonic styles of the early twentieth century. During his lifetime, many of his works received scathing criticism, yet they stand alone in the symphonic repertoire because they exist in several versions, giving musicologists a unique window into the composer's mind. The study of Bruckner remains prominent among orchestrators and composers today. It provides a glimpse at the problems Bruckner encountered in an age when the symphony orchestra was expanding in size. Bruckner's works are known for the overpowering use of augmented brass as well as his strong use of strings for instrumental depth.

Perhaps no other composer since Johann Sebastian Bach (1865-1750) was as motivated by his religious convictions as was Anton Bruckner. One of his biographers, Hans Redlich, stated that Bruckner may have been "the only great composer of his century whose entire musical output is determined by his religious faith." For Bruckner, like Bach, music served the purpose of praising and glorifying God. He attributed his creativity to divine inspiration and often spoke of God as being the source of his creative impulses, even dedicating his ninth (and final) symphony to the Almighty with the declaration, "to the King of kings, or Lord—and I hope that He will grant me enough time to complete it."

Known as a person of constant prayer and fasting, Bruckner's religious devotion was not symbolic, but a very sincere expression of deep-seated beliefs. As Redlich obvserved, Bruckner's prayers "were no mere word-saying, but a complete immersion in a meditative process which shook him beyond the confines of the physical world." Anton Bruckner can be said to have been an exponent of the Romantic ethos in relation to the concept of creating music based on extra-musical connotations, in his particular case, religious motives. An overriding narrative that motivated Bruckner’s music is the idea that the contradictions between the ideal and reality of life, and the difficulties that ensue as a result of those contradictions, though a significant aspect of the human experience, will only find ultimate redemption in a final allegiance to God.


Anton Bruckner was born in Ansfelden. His father was a schoolmaster and organist with whom Anton first studied music. He worked for a few years as a teacher's assistant, playing the fiddle by night at village dances to supplement his income. At the early age of 13, while studying at the Augustinian monastery in St. Florian, Bruckner became a chorister. He later taught at the monastery and became an organist there in 1851. He continued his studies until he was 40 years old, under Simon Sechter and Otto Kitzler. The latter introduced him to the music of Richard Wagner, which Bruckner studied extensively beginning in 1863. Wagner's influence on Bruckner's music, is especially noteworthy in his religious compositions and his first symphony. Bruckner's genius did not appear until his late 40s. His broad fame and acceptance did not come until he was into his 60s. Due in part to his devotion to his Catholic faith, Bruckner was out of step with his contemporaries. In 1861 he had already made an acquaintance with Hans Liszt who was similarly religious. Liszt was first and foremost was a harmonic innovator, initiating the new German School together with Wagner. Soon after meeting Liszt, following his studies under Sechter and Kitzler, Bruckner wrote his first serious work, the Mass in D Minor.

Did you know?
For Anton Bruckner, like Bach, music served the purpose of praising and glorifying God

In 1868 Bruckner accepted a post as a teacher of music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, during which time he concentrated most of his energies on writing symphonies. These symphonies, however, were poorly received and at times criticized as being "wild" and "nonsensical." He later accepted a post at the University of Vienna in 1875, where he tried to make music theory a part of the curriculum. Overall, he was unhappy in Vienna, which was dominated musically by the critic Eduard Hanslick. At that time there was a feud between those who liked Wagner's music and those who liked Brahms' music. By aligning himself with Wagner, Bruckner made an unintentional enemy out of Hanslick. He did have supporters; famous conductors such as Arthur Nikisch and Franz Schalk constantly tried to bring his music to the public, and to that end proposed many 'improvements' for making Bruckner's music more acceptable to the public. While Bruckner allowed these changes, he also made sure in his will to bequeath his original scores to the Vienna National Library, confident of their musical validity. Another proof of Bruckner's confidence in his artistic ability is that he often started work on a new symphony just a few days after finishing another.

In addition to his symphonies, Bruckner wrote Masses, motets, and other sacred choral works. Unlike his Romantic symphonies, Bruckner's choral works are often conservative and contrapuntal in style.

Bruckner lived very simply. Numerous anecdotes abound as to his dogged pursuit of his chosen craft and his humble acceptance of the fame that eventually came his way. Once, after a performance of his Symphony No. 5, an enthusiastic young person approached him and said his work was the greatest creation since Beethoven. Bruckner, overcome with emotion, and not knowing how to respond, reached in his pocket and gave the young man a silver piece and told him he had waited his whole life just to hear someone say that.

Bruckner was a renowned organist in his time, impressing audiences in France in 1869, and England in 1871 with six recitals on a new Henry Willis organ at Royal Albert Hall in London and five more at the Crystal Palace. Yet, he wrote no major works for the organ. His improvisation sessions sometimes yielded ideas for his symphonies. He also taught organ performance at the Conservatory. One of his students was Hans Rott, whose music influenced Gustav Mahler.

Bruckner died in Vienna, and his Symphony No. 9 premiered in the same city on February 11, 1903. He never married.

Anton Bruckner Private University for Music, Drama, and Dance, an institution of higher education in Linz, close to his native Ansfelden, was named after him in 1932 ("Bruckner Conservatory Linz" until 2004).


Sometimes Bruckner's works are referred to by WAB numbers, from the Werkverzeichnis Anton Bruckner, a catalogue of Bruckner's works edited by Renate Grasberger.

The Symphonies

All Bruckner's symphonies are in four movements, starting with a modified sonata form (allegro), a slow movement, a scherzo, and a modified sonata form (allegro finale). They are scored for a fairly standard orchestra of woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two or three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings. The later symphonies slightly increase this complement.

Bruckner's symphonies tend to resemble the churches and cathedrals that he loved so much, especially in their grandeur in scale and size. Bruckner's use of sectional intensities expresses his depth of religious thought and contemplation. His compositional forms bring out the changes between substantive climaxes and virtual silences, motif repetitions, orchestral build-ups, and chorale-like dance rhythms that reflect many folk dance rhythms. Beethoven was a great influence on Bruckner, especially in Beethoven's basic orchestral forms for shape and scale. Wagner was also an influence on Bruckner with Wagner's expansive orchestrations and heavy brass influence along with the changes in compositional shape and size. Notable is the use of Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies. With the exception of Symphony no. 4, none of Bruckner's symphonies have subtitles, and most of the nicknames were not thought up by the composer. Bruckner's works are trademarked with powerful codas and grand finales. He was accused in his lifetime of trying to "out-Beethoven Beethoven."

Otto Kitzler, Bruckner's last composition teacher, set three final tasks before him as the climax of his studies: a choral work, an overture, and a symphony. The latter, completed in 1863 was Bruckner's Study Symphony in F Minor, also known as the “00th.” Bruckner later rejected this work, but he did not destroy it.

While it certainly reminds one of earlier composers such as Robert Schumann, it undeniably also bears the hallmarks of the later Bruckner style, especially in the parts of the first movement where the trumpet dominates and in the scherzo. The finale, although weak, promised many riches to come. Kitzler was not able to see these and simply commented that the work was "not very inspired." It was first performed in 1924 and not published until 1973.

Bruckner's Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (sometimes called by Bruckner "das kecke Beserl," roughly translated as "saucy maid") was completed in 1866, but the original text of this symphony was not reconstructed until 1998. Instead, it is commonly known in two versions, the so-called “Linz Version” which is based mainly on rhythmical revisions made in 1877, and the completely revised “Vienna Version” of 1891, which in some ways sounds like Symphony no. 8.

Next was Symphony no. 0 in D Minor of 1869, a very charming work which unfortunately was so harshly criticized that Bruckner retracted it completely, and it was not performed at all during his lifetime, hence his choice for the number of the symphony. The scherzo has a raw power that sometimes seems missing in later works that had undergone more revisions.

The Symphony no. 2 in C Minor (apparently one of Bruckner's favorite keys), was revised in 1873, 1876, 1877 and 1892. It is sometimes called the “Symphony of Pauses” for its dramatic use of whole-orchestra rests, very nicely accentuating the form. In the Carragan edition of the 1872 version, the scherzo is placed second and the adagio third.

Bruckner presented the Symphony no. 3 in D Minor, written in 1873, to Wagner along with the Second, asking which of them he might dedicate to him. Wagner chose the Third, and Bruckner sent him a fair copy soon thereafter, which is why the original version of this “Wagner Symphony” is preserved, despite revisions in 1874, 1876, 1877 and 1888-1889. The determination for Wagner to choose which Symphony to accept was that the Third contains quotations from Wagner's music dramas, such as Die Walküre and Lohengrin. Some of these quotations were taken out in revised versions. Gustav Mahler and Rudolf Krzyzanowski made a piano duet version of this symphony. It is said that Bruckner became a bit inebriated during his meeting with Wagner and could not remember whether he preferred the Second or Third. To clarify, Bruckner wrote a short note asking "The one with horns, right?" Wagner replied, "Yes, yes. Best wishes." This also provides some etymology for his nickname "Bruckner the horn."

Bruckner's first great success was his Symphony no. 4 in E-flat Major, more commonly known as the “Romantic Symphony.” The success, however, was not immediate, but came only after major revisions in 1878, including a completely new scherzo and finale, and again in 1880-1881, once again with a completely rewritten finale (the 1880-1881 version is referred to as the “Volkfest Finale”). Despite the great success of the first performance in 1881 (under the conductor Hans Richter), Bruckner made more minor revisions in 1886-1888. The 1874 version is interesting to listen to, especially with the repetitive motifs.

Finally, Bruckner's Symphony no. 5 in B-flat Major crowns this productive era of symphony writing, finished at the beginning of 1876. Unfortunately the original version seems unrecoverable and only the thoroughly revised version of 1878 remains. Many consider this symphony to be Bruckner's lifetime masterpiece in the area of counterpoint. For example, the Finale is a combined fugue and sonata form movement, and has been referred to “as the most monumental finale in symphonic literature.” It has also been referred to as the “Tragic,” “Church of Faith,” or “Pizzicato” (as it is the only one of his symphonies to begin with a pizzicato theme).

Symphony no. 6 in A Major (sometimes referred to as the “Philosophic”), written in 1879-1881, is an oft-neglected work. Although the Bruckner rhythm (triplet plus two quarters, also in inverted form: two plus three) is completely absent from the previous Symphony, it permeates everything in this work, appearing in the first movement in multiple simultaneous instances overlaid in divergent patterns resulting in rhythmic complexity. Perhaps the rhythmic difficulties of this work, especially in the first movement, are part of the reason why this work is so seldom played.

The most beloved of Bruckner's symphonies with audiences of the time and still popular today is Symphony no. 7 in E Major (“Lyric”). It was written from 1881-1883 and revised in 1885. During the time that Bruckner began work on this symphony, he was aware that Wagner's death was imminent: thus the Adagio contains slow mournful music for Wagner, and for the first time in Bruckner's oeuvre, the Wagner tuba is included in the orchestra. There's also a legend that Bruckner wrote the climactic cymbal crash in this movement at the precise moment that Wagner died; research has since revealed that Bruckner eventually decided against the cymbal crash, though the piece is often performed with it. Arnold Schoenberg made a chamber ensemble version of this work.

Bruckner began composition of his Symphony no. 8 in C Minor (“The German Michel,” or “Apocalyptic”) in 1884 and it was performed at the Three Emperors League summit at Skierniewice, attended by three heads of state and their foreign ministers. In 1887 Bruckner sent the work to Hermann Levi, the conductor who had led his Symphony no. 7 to great success. Hermann Levi did not understand this very different work at all and utterly rejected it, almost driving Bruckner to suicide. Fortunately, Bruckner recovered and set to work thoroughly revising the symphony, sometimes with the aid of Franz Schalk, completing this new version in 1890. The 1890 version is now performed in the modern edition by Nowak, although many conductors favor the somewhat earlier Haas edition, which restored a few passages from the initial 1887 version. The 1887 version was first recorded in the 1980s and has attracted some adherents. Most experts, however, regard Bruckner's revision of this symphony as a decided improvement, particularly in the deletion of an ill-prepared triumphant coda to the first movement, thereby leaving the resolution of the symphony's chromatic turmoil to the final movement, and in the replacement of the scherzo's trio section with an adumbration of the ensuing adagio movement.

The final accomplishment of Bruckner's life was to be his Symphony no. 9 in D Minor, which he started in 1887. The first three movements were completed at the end of 1894. By the time of his death in 1896, he had not finished the last movement, but he left extensive sketches. There have been several attempts to complete these sketches and prepare them for performance, and perhaps the more successful, scholarly attempts are those by John A. Phillips's team and the one by William Carragan. Bruckner wrote down his music in a very methodical manner that allows musicologists to form a very clear idea of what Bruckner had in mind and to create performing versions that sound very much like Bruckner.

Bruckner suggested using his Te Deum as a Finale, which would complete the homage to Beethoven's Symphony no. 9 (also in D minor), but he was intent on completing the symphony. The problem has been the difference in keys in that the Te Deum is in C Major, while the Ninth Symphony is in D Minor. For the most part, just the first three movements of the symphony are performed.

Two of the most famous conductors of Bruckner are Georg Tintner and Günter Wand, the former having preferred Bruckner's 'first conceptions' in almost all cases, following the texts of Leopold Nowak and William Carragan; whereas the latter was of the old school relying on the first critical edition published by Robert Haas. Another devoted interpreter is Sergiu Celibidache, whose performances of Symphonies no. 3 - 9 with the Munich Philharmonic have been recorded. Carlo Maria Giulini is considered a major interpreter of Symphony no. 9. Other famous interpreters are Eugen Jochum, Bernard Haitink and Eliahu Inbal, the latter of whom was the first to record the original version of the Third, Fourth and Eighth Symphonies. Bruckner has been referred to as a “conductor's composer,” in that the orchestra itself is a musical instrument that is played by an artist, the conductor.

Sacred Choral Works

Bruckner wrote a Te Deum, setting of various Psalms, (including Psalm 150 in the 1890s) and motets such as Ave Maria, Ecce Sacerdos Magnum, Locus iste, etc.

Bruckner wrote at least seven Masses. His early Masses were usually short Austrian Landmesse for use in local church services; however, he rarely composed or set music for the routine and unchangeable parts of the Mass known as the “ordinary.” These early Landmesse compositions seem to be of interest only to music historians and ethnomusicologists. The three Masses Bruckner wrote in the 1860s and revised later on in his life are performed and recorded today, and referred to by numbers. The Masses numbered 1 in D Minor and 3 in F Minor are for solo singers, chorus and orchestra, while Mass no. 2 in E Minor is for chorus and a small group of wind instruments, and was written in an attempt to meet the Cecilians halfway. The Cecilians wanted to entirely rid church music of instruments. Mass no. 3 was clearly meant for concert rather than liturgical performance, and it is the only one of his masses in which he set the first line of the Gloria, “Gloria in excelsis Deus,” and the credo, “Credo in unum Deum,” to music (in concert performances of the other Masses, these lines are intoned by a tenor soloist in the way a priest would, with a psalm formula).

Other Music

As a young man, Bruckner sang in men's choirs and composed a lot of material for them. Today, this music is rarely played. Biographer Derek Watson characterizes the pieces for men's choir as being "of little concern to the non-German listener." Of 30 such pieces, Helgoland is the only secular vocal work Bruckner thought worth bequeathing to the Vienna National Library.

Bruckner never wrote an opera, because he felt that he had to keep the libretto "entirely free of all that is impure," and he was never able to live up to that individual standard.

He also wrote some quaint Lancer-Quadrille for piano.

His Overture in G Minor was occasionally included in LP recordings of the symphonies.

A String Quartet in C Minor was discovered decades after Bruckner's death, but it appears that it is only of interest as a student composition. The later String Quintet in F Major, contemporary of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, is sometimes recorded and performed.

There is an orchestral "Symphonic Prelude" that is sometimes attributed to either Bruckner or Mahler. It was discovered in the Vienna National Library in 1974 in a piano duet transcription. It was orchestrated by Albrecht Gürsching and recorded by Neeme Järvi on a Chandos CD as filler for his "quick-tempoed" performance of Mahler's Symphony no. 6 in A Minor. If it is not in fact by Bruckner, it may be the work of one of his students.

Reception in the Twentieth Century

The Nazis appropriated the music of Bruckner more than likely for propaganda purposes. This may have been because Hitler shared Bruckner's hometown of Linz. Both Hitler and Bruckner idolized Wagner, and Hitler identified with Bruckner as another artist rejected by the establishment in Vienna, which included Jews. Thus, in keeping with the politics of propaganda, Bruckner's humble origins and Wagnerism were emphasized while his religiousness was downplayed. When Herbert von Karajan wanted to play Bruckner's Fifth Symphony in Aachen together with motets, the party disapproved.

Despite the use of Bruckner's music in Nazi propaganda, Bruckner's music was never blacklisted in Israel the way Wagner's was.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Horton, Julian. Bruckner's Symphonies: Analysis, Reception and Cultural Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0521081856
  • Jackson, Timothy, and Paul Hawkshaw (eds.). Bruckner Studies. Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0521046060
  • Kavanugh, Patrick. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. ISBN 978-0310208068
  • Redlich, Hans Ferdinand. Bruckner and Mahler. Octagon Books, 1970. ISBN 978-0374910471

External links

All links retrieved July 31, 2023.


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