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Anton Bruckner: Anton Bruckner (b. Ansfelden, 4 Sept 1824; d. Vienna, 11 Oct 1896).
Rustic, conscientious, cautious, in some ways naive, Anton Bruckner was well into his thirties before his imagination took full wing, and to the end of his life he remained retiring, reticent, a man of simple tastes, unsure of himself in the intellectual company of Vienna, and something of an enigma. In a sense, his attitude to life and music came from his upbringing. He was born in Upper Austria to a family of schoolmasters, the duties of which included playing the organ in church and teaching music. After his father's death (1837) he was educated as a chorister in the enclosed surroundings of St Florian monastery, where he was taught violin, piano, organ and some rudimentary theory at the Volksschule. Further studies at Linz and elsewhere led to a post as teacher at St Florian and eventually (1848) as organist there. He had already written some organ preludes and a mass, but his duties at St Florian, which became a burden to him, prevented him from developing very fast as a composer. In 1856, he was appointed organist at Linz, a great event in his life as it relieved him of his schoolmasterly duties, and allowed him to devote all his time to music. While at Linz he travelled to Vienna regularly to study counterpoint more fully under the eminent teacher Simon Sechter. Then he went to Otto Kitzler, Kapellmeister at Linz, for help with orchestration, so even when well into his thirties, Anton Bruckner still had to gain confidence in his own abilities. His start was both sceptical and tentative. The first mature works, his Mass in D minor and the first symphony, date from this period.
Kitzler's performances of Wagner at Linz turned Anton Bruckner into an ardent Wagnerian. He attended the first performance of Tristan at Munich in 1865, when he met the composer, and in 1868 he gave the first public performance of the final scene of Meistersinger, with the composer's blessing, conducting the Linz Choral Society in 1868. At about the same time two of his most important early works, the Mass in E minor and the Mass in F minor were written, even though he had had a nervous breakdown through overwork and depression before the F minor was begun. Indeed it was composed against the advice of his doctors, partly as an act of thanks to God and partly as a commission for it had arrived from the Chapel Royal of the Hofburg in Vienna, no less. It was completed shortly before Anton Bruckner moved to the capital, but not performed until 1872.
Through the influence of Johann Herbeck, the court conductor in Vienna, Anton Bruckner had been appointed teacher of counterpoint and organ at the Conservatory there in 1868, becoming professor in 1871. He made several pilgrimages to Bayreuth at this time, where he was befriended by Wagner to whom Anton Bruckner dedicated his third symphony - at the instigation of Wagner who told his fellow-composer: 'The work gives me uncommonly great pleasure.' As an organist Anton Bruckner visited France and England, where his extraordinary powers of improvisation enthralled his audiences.
In Vienna, he was much lauded by apostles of Wagner, but reviled by many critics, including Hanslick, who was championing Brahms at the time. Anton Bruckner, who never felt entirely himself in the sophisticated milieu of the capital, was hurt by the often-hostile reception of his symphonies. The first performance of the third at Vienna in 1877 was a fiasco. The Vienna Philharmonic, who had at first rejected it, eventually agreed reluctantly to perform it at the behest of a member of parliament. As a result the performance, under Anton Bruckner's direction, was slovenly. There was a good deal of cat-calling from the audience, and by the end only a few adherents of his cause remained to applaud. Hanslick gave it a scathing review. From this point, Anton Bruckner agreed to the revisions of his friends and advocates, such as the conductor Frank Schalk. Simple, shy and humble, Anton Bruckner allowed drastic alterations. Even so, performances of his succeeding symphonies were hard to come by. When the fourth was given at Vienna under Richter in 1881, the public liked it but Hanslick, typically, wrote: 'We are very happy at the success of the work, but we fail to understand it.' The fifth symphony of 1876 had to wait until 1894 for its premiere, the sixth until after the composer's death for a cornplete performance.
The seventh marked a turning of the tide - but not in Vienna. Given under Nikisch's direction at Leipzig in 1884, it was widely acclaimed, and the applause lasted a quarter of an hour. Nikisch wrote: 'Since Beethoven there has been nothing that could even approach it . . .', thus swimming against the prevalent Brahmsian tide. Vienna, Hanslick apart, also acclaimed it. The eighth, in 1892, was also a success, but the ninth was left incomplete, lacking a finale, at the composer's death because Anton Bruckner in his last years was so busy making revisions to his earlier works. These years also saw the completion of the important Te Deum and of Psalm 150.
In 1891, Anton Bruckner resigned his post at the Conservatory, which gave him that year an honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy. His last years were spent in rooms at the Belvedere Palace, granted him by the emperor. In spite of increasing weariness he continued to work on the ninth symphony right up to the day of his death. Shy to the point of awkwardness and consequently not easy to get on with, he led an unhappy and withdrawn private life, but was consoled by his unceasing work on his symphonies and choral works.
When he died, Anton Bruckner was still little known outside German-speaking countries except as an organist, and it was many years until his true stature was realised, for most of the symphonies, even the first performance of the ninth in 1903, were given in unauthentic editions, which often distorted Anton Bruckner's musical image by the pompous reorchestrations of his well-meaning friends. The Anton Bruckner Society began to come to his rescue in the 1930s, and under the editorship of Robert Haas the unadulterated scores at last became available, showing that Anton Bruckner's original orchestration was clearer and more individual than the accretions had suggested. In the early days, Anton Bruckner was often misconstrued as a Wagnerian symphonist or a successor of Beethoven, and adversely criticised as such. In fact his music resembles Wagner's only in its long time-scale, and as Robert Simpson has pointed out: 'His peculiar kind of grandeur depends on the apt placing of mass and void', not on an unbroken skein of constantly transformed themes as found in Wagner's music-dramas. Indeed, Anton Bruckner's symphonies present an utterly personal world of expression, and one very different from Wagner's, in spite of some superficial resemblances in thematic material. They are so original in form that any attempt to relate them to Beethoven's is also fruitless and beside the point. Huge masses of material are presented in apparent isolation. The 'voids' are followed by unexpected developments, which seem to be reaching for a climax only to fall away into another void, or into some sudden build-up of a persistent motif. Continuity is not of the essence, but tonal tensions are, and the final effect of Anton Bruckner's structures is a new kind of, and wholly unique, symmetry. In non-musical terms, his symphonies seem related closely to his unshakeable and all-pervading Roman Catholic faith and to his awe before his natural surroundings, while his Scherzo movements almost all reflect the rough dances and folktunes of his native heath. All the elements are held within an organisation that, in spite of the occasional vagaries, has great formal strength. Numbers four and seven have become, by tradition, the most easily assimilated of the set, but numbers six, eight and nine (what we have of it) are arguably Anton Bruckner's most noble edifices.
The symphonies, alike in structure and instrumentation, reflect Anton Bruckner's long hours spent before choirs and in the organ loft. His choral music, naturally enough, is even more closely related to those activities. It draws strongly on the music of the 16th and 17th centuries - the influence can be heard most obviously in the beautiful E minor Mass and the Motets for small choirs - fusing the idioms and spirit of the late Renaissance with 19th-century techniques. The larger works, in particular the F minor Mass and the Te Deum, call ideally for church or cathedral acoustics, where the grandeur of concept is much enhanced. When the F minor Mass was first given in Vienna's Augustinerkirche under Anton Bruckner in 1872, a friend ran up to the composer at the end of the final rehearsal, calling out, 'I know only two Masses - this one and the Solemnis of Beethoven.' The comparison is wholly apt. Anton Bruckner himself regarded the Te Deum as his 'finest work' and 'the pride of my life' and dedicated it to God 'in gratitude', as he wryly put it, 'because my persecutors have not yet managed to finish me off'. The numerous liturgical works of his early days are less important, but the string quintet of 1879, too seldom performed, is among his most personal works.
Anton Bruckner is anything but typical of his age. Literature apparently meant nothing to him, nor had he any of the independence of mind of his romantic contemporaries. He had a subservient attitude to colleagues, particularly to the 'dearly beloved Master' - Wagner. He was na'fvely pious, right up to his old age, but with the piety went certain psychopathic compulsions and a proclivity for 'pretty little girls' in their early teens. His simplicity may indeed have hid a complex sub-conscious, so that the easy categorising of earlier generations need to be taken with a degree of scepticism. Whatever the man, the music now remains unassailable in its splendour and originality.
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