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Anton Bruckner and his Fourth Symphony, the “Romantic”

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Anton Bruckner (September 4, 1824–October 11, 1896) was an Austrian composer known for his symphonies, masses, and motets. Bruckner was born in Ansfelden, then a village, now a suburb of Linz, Austria, on September 4, 1824. The ancestors of Bruckner’s family were farmers and craftsmen. Bruckner’s grandfather had gained the schoolmaster position in Ansfelden in 1776; this position was inherited by Bruckner’s father, Anton Bruckner senior in 1823. Music belonged to the school curriculum, and Bruckner’s father was his first music teacher. Bruckner learned to play the organ early as a child. He entered school when he was six, proved to be a hard-working student, and was promoted to upper class early. While studying, Bruckner also helped his father in teaching the other children. After Bruckner received his confirmation in 1833, Bruckner’s father sent him to another school in Hörsching. The schoolmaster, Johann Baptist Weiß, was a music enthusiast and respected organist. Here, Bruckner completed his school education and learned to play the organ excellently. He also wrote his first composition, Vier Präludien in Es-Dur für Orgel for the organ. When his father became ill, Anton returned to Ansfelden to help him in his work.

Bruckner’s father died in 1837, when Bruckner was 13 years old. The teacher’s position and house were given to a successor, and Bruckner was sent to the Augustinian monastery in St. Florian to become a choirboy. In addition to choir practice, his education included violin and organ lessons. Bruckner was in awe of the monastery’s great organ, which was built during the late baroque era and rebuilt in 1837. Despite his musical abilities, Bruckner’s mother sent her son to a teacher seminar in Linz. After completing the seminar with an excellent grade, he was sent as a teacher’s assistant to a school in Windhaag. Prelate Michael Arneth noticed Bruckner’s bad situation in Windhaag and awarded him a teacher’s assistant position in St. Florian, sending him to Kronstorf an der Enns for two years. Compared to the few works he wrote in Windhaag, the Kronstorf compositions from 1843–1845 show a significantly improved artistic ability. Among the Kronstorf works is the vocal piece Asperges (WAB 4).

After the Kronstorf period, Bruckner returned to St Florian in 1845, where, for the next 10 years, he would work as a teacher and an organist. In May 1845, Bruckner passed an examination, which allowed him to begin work as an assistant teacher in one of the village schools of St. Florian. He continued to improve his education by taking further courses, passing an examination giving him the permission to also teach in higher education institutes, receiving the grade “very good” in all disciplines. In 1848 he was appointed an organist in St. Florian and in 1851 this was made a regular position. In 1855, Bruckner, aspiring to become a student of the famous Vienna music theorist Simon Sechter, showed the master his Missa solemnis (WAB 29), written a year earlier, and was accepted. The education, which included skills in music theory and counterpoint among others, took place mostly via correspondence, but also included long in-person sessions in Vienna. Sechter’s teaching would have a profound influence on Bruckner. Later, when Bruckner began teaching music himself, he would base his curriculum on Sechter’s book Die Grundsätze der musikalischen Komposition (Leipzig 1853/54).

In 1861, Bruckner studied further with Otto Kitzler, who was nine years younger than him and who introduced him to the music of Richard Wagner, which Bruckner studied extensively from 1863 onwards. Bruckner considered the earliest orchestral works, the three orchestral pieces, the March in D minor, and the Overture in G minor, which he composed in 1862-1863, to be mere school exercises, done under the supervision of Otto Kitzler. He continued his studies to the age of 40. Broad fame and acceptance did not come until he was over 60. A devout Catholic, Bruckner had already made the acquaintance of Franz Liszt who, like Bruckner, had a strong, Catholic religious faith and who first and foremost was a harmonic innovator, initiating the new German school together with Wagner. Soon after Bruckner had ended his studies under Sechter and Kitzler, he wrote his first mature work, the Mass in D Minor. In 1868, after Sechter had died, Bruckner hesitantly accepted Sechter’s post as a teacher of music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, during which time he concentrated most of his energy on writing symphonies. These symphonies, however, were poorly received, at times considered “wild” and “nonsensical”. He later accepted a post at the Vienna University in 1875, where he tried to make music theory a part of the curriculum.

In addition to his symphonies, Bruckner wrote masses, motets and other sacred choral works, and a few chamber works, including a string quintet. Unlike his romantic symphonies, some of Bruckner’s choral works are often conservative and contrapuntal in style; however, the Te Deum, Helgoland, Psalm 150 and at least one Mass demonstrate innovative and radical uses of chromaticism. Bruckner was a renowned organist in his day, impressing audiences in France in 1869, and England in 1871, giving six recitals on a new Henry Willis organ at Royal Albert Hall in London and five more at the Crystal Palace. Though he wrote no major works for the organ, his improvisation sessions sometimes yielded ideas for the symphonies. He taught organ performance at the Conservatory; among his students were Hans Rott and Franz Schmidt. Gustav Mahler, who called Bruckner his “forerunner”, attended the conservatory at this time. Bruckner was a lifelong bachelor who made numerous unsuccessful marriage proposals. One such was the daughter of a friend, called Louise; in his grief he is believed to have written the cantata “Entsagen” (Renunciation). In July 1886, the Emperor decorated him with the Order of Franz Joseph. Bruckner died in Vienna in 1896 at the age of 72. He is buried in the crypt of St. Florian monastery church, right below his favorite organ.

Bruckner’s nine symphonies are all in four movements, though he was unable to complete the finale of the Ninth). He also wrote an early Study Symphony in F Major which is occasionally listed as Symphony No. 00. The Symphony No. 2 in C minor of 1872 was revised in 1873, 1876, 1877 and 1892. It is sometimes called the Symphony of Pauses for its dramatic use of whole-orchestra rests, which accentuate the form of the piece. Bruckner’s first great success was his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, more commonly known as the Romantic Symphony, the only epithet applied to a symphony by the composer himself. The final accomplishment of Bruckner’s life was to be his Symphony No. 9 in D minor which he started in August 1887, and which he dedicated “To God the Beloved.” The first three movements were completed by the end of 1894, the Adagio alone taking 18 months to complete. Bruckner suggested using his Te Deum as a Finale, which would complete the homage to Beethoven’s Ninth symphony (also in D minor).

Bruckner was a devoutly religious man, and composed numerous sacred works. He wrote a Te Deum, settings of five Psalms (including Psalm 150 in the 1890s), about forty motets (among them three settings of both Christus factus est pro nobis and Ave Maria), and at least seven Masses. His Requiem in D minor of 1849 is the earliest work Bruckner himself considered worthy of preservation. As a young man Bruckner sang in men’s choirs and wrote music for them. Bruckner’s secular choral music was mostly written for choral societies. The Overture in G minor of 1862 (revised in 1863) is occasionally included in recordings of the symphonies. A String Quartet in C minor Bruckner composed in 1862 was discovered decades after Bruckner’s death. The later String Quintet in F Major of 1879, contemporaneous with the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, has been frequently performed. Bruckner also wrote Lancer-Quadrille (c. 1850) and a few other small works for piano. Most of this music was written for teaching purposes. Bruckner never wrote an opera, though he thought about writing an opera called Astra based on a novel by Gertrud Bollé-Hellmund.

The following works by Bruckner are contained in my collection:

Symphony No. 2 in cm.
Symphony No. 4 in EbM, “Romantic.”
Symphony No. 9 in dm, “Dem Lieben Gott.”

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