Bruckner: Mass in E Minor

The next concert of Highgate Choral Society takes place on Saturday, 14 March 2020 at All Hallows’ Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP. It starts at 7 pm. At the centre of the programme is Anton Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor. We will also perform one of Bruckner’s motets (Ecce Sacerdos Magnus) as well as Fauré’s well known Cantique de Jean Racine and a new work by our conductor Ronald Corp (Nothing Can Be Beautiful Which is Not True). Members of the New London Orchestra will play Mozart’s Serenade No. 11 in E flat Major. The following blog post is about Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor.

1. Anton Bruckner was born on 4 September 1824 in Ansfelden, near Linz (Upper Austria). He was the eldest son. His father was a school master and the organist at the local church. The organ was Anton Bruckner’s first love. He started with organ lessons when he was four years old. His favourite place was on the organ bench next to his father. His mother had a good voice and sang in the local church choir. When Bruckner was ten years old he started to deputise for his father. In 1835 his family sent him to live with his godfather Johann Baptist Weiss, a school teacher and organist at Hörsching (about 10 km from Ansfelden). Weiss was a composer of several sacred works and taught Bruckner musical theory and organ playing. During this time Bruckner wrote his first compositions. These were sacred choral works and works for organ. At the end of 1836 his father became seriously ill and Bruckner went back to Ansfelden to take over some of his father’s duties. After his father’s death in 1837, his mother decided that it would be best to bring her son to St. Florian, a monastery close to Ansfelden, where he was accepted as chorister. His general and his musical education continued there. St Florian had an impressive organ which was a great attraction to Bruckner early on.

In 1840 Anton Bruckner decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and qualify as a teacher. He passed the entry exam in Linz for the teacher-training college. One year later he passed his final exam and became an assistant teacher. During the following years he worked as an assistant teacher in different places. At the same time he continued his musical studies. He did not have much time for composition and if he composed it was only graduals and simple congregational mass movements. In 1845 he passed his second teaching examination and became a teacher at his old school at St. Florian. His reputation as an organist, in particular for his improvisations, grew quickly. Bruckner wrote at that time his first notable works like his Requiem in D minor. Also a four part setting of the Ave Maria was composed for St. Florian. In 1856 he was appointed as organist at Linz Cathedral. In this job he became involved in many musical activities. Nevertheless, he had the feeling that he still did not know enough about musical theory and composition. Therefore he started a correspondence course with Simon Sechter. For the next six years, he did not compose anything and was eager to widen his knowledge in harmony and counterpoint. He concluded his studies with Sechter in 1861 and started to study form and orchestration with Otto Kitzler. Otto Kitzler was cellist and conductor at the municipal theatre in Linz. He introduced Bruckner also to the music of Richard Wagner whom Bruckner soon admired passionately.

Anton Bruckner worked in Linz for twelve years. He composed much of his sacred music during this time, including some of his most treasured motets and all three major Masses (Mass No. 1 in D Minor in 1864, Mass No. 2 in E Minor in 1866 and Mass No. 3 in F Minor in 1868). While he worked in Linz, he also composed his Symphony No. 1 which was first performed on 9 May 1868. In 1867 Bruckner was looking for new challenges. He applied in Vienna at the Hofkapelle (Court Chapel) and the University. He also applied for the post of a conductor in Salzburg at the Dommusikverein (Cathedral Music Association). All these applications were unsuccessful.

In 1868, Bruckner finally went to Vienna. After the death of his old teacher Sechter, he was offered a position at the Vienna conservatory as successor of Sechter to teach harmony, counterpoint and organ playing. Even so he had applied to different positions and he was uncertain whether he should accept this professorship. Finally his friends were able to convince him and he moved to Vienna. Bruckner wrote all his further symphonies in Vienna and worked and lived there for the rest of his life.

Anton Bruckner died on 11 October 1896. He is buried in the crypt under the organ at St. Florian’s monastery. So the place which he first saw as student and to which he returned as newly qualified teacher, became his final resting place.

2. Anton Bruckner wrote his Mass No. 2 in E Minor when he was working as the organist in Linz. The bishop of Linz, Franz-Josef Rudigier became an important friend and supporter of Bruckner and he commissioned quite a number of works over the years. Rudigier had ambitious ideas for Linz. In 1855 he started with plans to construct a new cathedral. Just one year earlier in 1854 Pope Pius IX had declared in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Rudigier therefore decided to dedicate the new cathedral to the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. The first stone of the Cathedral was laid on 1 May 1862 and for that occasion Bruckner composed  a Festive Cantata Preiset den Herrn(“Praise the Lord”).

In 1866 Rudigier approached Bruckner for a new work to celebrate the completion of the construction of the cathedral’s Votive Chapel. Bruckner worked quickly. He started composing the Mass in E Minor in August 1866 and finished the work in November 1866. However the construction works took longer than expected and the première of the mass took place three years later on 29 September 1869. It was reported that Bruckner himself rehearsed with the choir and held 28 rehearsals (including six rehearsals with the orchestra). The performance was a great success and Bruckner was invited to the official celebration and dinner with the Bishop and his guests. Bishop Rudigier gave Bruckner an extra fee of 200 gulden and even promised him a burial place in the crypt of the new cathedral (which did not happen in the end). Later Bruckner described this day in a letter to the Linz chorus master Johann Baptist Burgstaller, as one of the most glorious days of his life.

3. Anton Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor is a work for eight part mixed choir and fifteen wind instrument (two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and three trombones). Bruckner does not use any soloists or strings and in the original version, there was also no organ part.

There were practical reasons for this unusual instrumentation. The premère took place in the open air by the construction site for the new cathedral, because the building had neither a roof nor an organ at the time of the performance. It also seems that the chapel was too small for the choir. At the première the brass orchestra was a military wind band which were obviously used to playing outside.

It is suggested that Bruckner did not only accommodate these practical reasons in his choice of forces. Around this time, there were discussions about a church music reform in the Catholic Church, the so-called “Cecilian Movement”. Franz Xaver Witt, a German priest and composer of sacred music founded the Cäcilienverein (Cecilian Association) in 1867 / 1868. The aim of this association was to restore the musical style of Palestrina. However it would be fair to say that it had probably more to do with the 19th century perception of Palestrina than with Palestrina himself. Witt presumably looked at Palestrina because of the composer’s perceived importance during the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563). The Council was prompted by the Reformation and also discussed the future of church music. Historically it was thought that Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli persuaded the Council that it was not necessary to ban polyphonic music as long as certain rules were adhered to. It is now suggested that this story is not true, but it is likely that Palestrina appeared to Witt as the saviour of Catholic Church music and that he looked to his model again to save and reform church music in the 19th century. At that time Palestrina’s music was associated with purity even austerity through long notes (and a slow performance) with no chromaticism, no instruments and no secular influences. The prime examples were probably works like Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, his Missa Brevis, his music for Holy Week and motets like Sicus Cervus, to name just a few. This 19th century image of Palestrina presumably did not take into consideration Palestrina’s polychoral works (with instruments) which were written for performances outside of Rome. I also cannot imagine that the Movement looked at Palestrina’s motets in great detail. Many of them are much more subjective than the masses and have dance like rhythms (in particular where there are changes between double and triple time). Palestrina also wrote a full set of motets which set quite sensual texts from the Song of Songs. This music is certainly not “austere”.

It is not entirely clear how much Bruckner tried to accommodate the expectations of the Cecilian Movement, but it is remarkable that he decided against soloists in the way that Mozart used them in his mass settings and where soloists often sang parts of the mass in an almost opera aria-like fashion. Bruckner did not write the mass for voices only, but certainly the first movement (Kyrie) and the fourth movement (Sanctus) start with voices only and instruments are used sparingly.

4. Anton Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor has six movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Bruckner sets the traditional Latin text of the mass and the whole setting is based on old church music traditions, in particular Palestrina and Gregorian chant. Bruckner combines the simplicity of expression and serene power of the music of the Italian Renaissance with his typical late Romantic harmonies and textures.

a) The Kyrie traditionally consists of three parts (Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy. Bruckner sets the whole movement for only limited instruments. The movement starts soft with only women’s voices. As the movement progresses Bruckner adds additional voices and only in the middle of the Christe Eleison section does the full choir finally sing together. In this movement Bruckner weaves the voices contrapuntally with each other. The second Kyrie Eleison section starts exactly as the first one, but towards the end of the section all voice parts come in together in fortissimo (very loud) and the text is set in blocks of rich chords.

b) The Gloria is the celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God. Bruckner did not set the first words of the GloriaGloria in excelsis Deo“, but asked for the traditional intonation of this text to be sung. Bruckner’s setting of the Gloria is generally much simpler than the previous movement. It occasionally splits into eight parts, but much of it set for only four voice parts. It is a movement of great contrasts where Bruckner sets the text much more in blocks, from very soft (pianissimo) to very loud (fortissimo) passages and he uses the whole spectrum of volume. Also the tempo in the movement varies considerably with the beginning and the end of the movement being fast, whereas the middle section where he sets “qui tollis peccata mundi” is slow and pleading. Bruckner ends the movement with a virtuoso fugue of the word Amen for four voice parts.

c) The Credo sets the Nicene Creed (the summary of the Christian belief to music). Again Bruckner asks for the traditional intonation of “Credo in unum Deo“. The Credo is similar in character as the Gloria. The first section is simple and mainly for four voice parts. Bruckner sets some of the sections in unison with all voices singing the same melody. The whole movement is characterised by word painting with the music becoming very quiet and almost stopping when he sets the words “passus, et sepultus est” (“suffered and died”). In the next section “et resurrexit tertia die” (“And on the third day he rose again”) the music is loud, fast and the melodic lines are rising. Bruckner also uses rising scales when, a little bit later, he sets the words “Et ascendit in coelum” (“And he ascended into heaven”). Towards the end of the movement the music gets faster and it ends in a loud and long glorious chordal setting of the word Amen.

d) The Sanctus traditionally consists of four parts: Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus / Benedictus is sung in the mass after the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels. Bruckner set the Sanctus (including Osanna) and the Benedictus (including Osanna) in two separate movements. In the Sanctus movement he uses a theme from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis. The movement has two parts. Like the Kyrie , this movement starts softly with the upper voices polyphonically in independent lines. As the movement continues it gets louder. This movement is again for eight parts and Bruckner uses very limited instrumentation in the first part. The second part starts with the words “Pleni sunt coeli” and goes on until the end. The voices are set in blocks of chords and declaim the text. The Benedictus movement is simpler. It is for most of the movement for five voice parts (the sopranos are split). It starts soft and lyrical and ends with a glorious wall of sound setting “in excelsis, hosanna, in excelsis” (“Hosanna in the highest’”).

e) Traditionally, the Agnus Dei consists of three sections, as the Kyrie. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (“Dona nobis pacem”). The movement is again for eight parts. The E minor key brightens as the movement progresses to E major. For the last part (Dona nobis pacem) Bruckner uses a motive from the Kyrie movement in the woodwind section and thus gives the work unity. The whole movement is an impressive and intense plea for peace

5. Anton Bruckner was a perfectionist and revised many of his works multiple times. He often decided to revise works because he felt that he could improve them. At other times the impulse for a revision was external. This applies in particular to his symphonies where the revision was often in answer to criticism and Bruckner revised his work and hoped for better chances to get it performed or printed. Bruckner also revised his Mass in E Minor several times (in 1866, 1869, 1876 and 1882). In one of the first revisions he added an organ part. The substantially revised version of the Mass in E Minor (1882) was first performed on 4 October 1885 in the Old Cathedral in Linz, at the celebration of the centenary of the Diocese of Linz. Nowadays the 1882 version of the mass is usually performed. At the concert we will be performing this version in the form published in 1896, three years before it was first performed in a concert in Vienna.

6. Bishop Rudigier’s construction of a new Cathedral was a monumental undertaking and would take more than sixty years until Bishop Johannes Maria Gföllner could consecrate the new Cathedral on 1 May 1924. The sacred works which Bruckner wrote at the beginning of his career were in a sense the foundation stone of his work. His three major masses (Mass in D Minor in 1864, Mass in E Minor in 1866 and Mass in F Minor in 1868) are sometimes called “symphonies with liturgical text“, but such a view neglects the spiritual meaning his masses must have had for him given his deep Catholic faith.

I want to finish this note with a quote by Leopold Nowak about the relationship of Bruckner’s symphonies and his masses which I like. Novak was the principal editor of the post-war Complete Edition of Bruckner’s work.

“Während Bischof Rudigier den Grundstein zu einem Dom legte, begann Bruckner ebenfalls einen Dom zu errichten, einen musikalischen Dom: seine neun Symphonien, zu denen die drei Messen die gigantische Eingangspforte bilden.”

“Even as Bishop Rudigier was laying the foundation stone for a new cathedral, Bruckner too was beginning to raise a cathedral in music – his nine symphonies, fronted by the gigantic portal of his three masses.”

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