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Movement 3d: Et resurrexit [3'25]
The quality which most powerfully characterizes Bruckner’s music is its religious mysticism. Not only the sacred choral works but also the symphonies which form the bulk of his output display a religiosity which is not grafted on but deeply ingrained. The son and grandson of humble village schoolmasters, brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, his faith was sincere and unquestioning, and the inscription he placed at the head of the Mass in D minor (‘Omnia ad majorem Dei gloriam’—‘All to the greater glory of God’) was a heartfelt expression of his dedication to the Almighty.
Including the early Requiem, Bruckner completed seven Masses, culminating in the great settings of the 1860s—the D minor, E minor and F minor. The D minor and F minor Masses are natural successors to the classical settings of Haydn and Mozart, conceived symphonically and with the orchestra allotted a prominent role. It was from Haydn and Mozart that Bruckner learned the cyclic principle in which the final Agnus Dei recalls material from the earlier movements. From his beloved Schubert he acquired lyricism and lush harmony, while his innate sense of the monumental and his grounding in the counterpoint of J S Bach equipped him perfectly to write music on the grandest scale. Liszt and Wagner, also, were influences, the one chiefly in matters of thematic development, the other in melodic and harmonic innovations and the size and use of the orchestra. There is no fundamental difference between the form and texture of Bruckner’s symphonies and that of the more substantial of his choral works, and there are similarities of thematic contour and cross-quotations between the two. It was not until the age of forty, when he wrote the D minor Mass, that Bruckner showed conclusive signs of artistic maturity. Asked why it had taken him so long to achieve such a bold, personal style, he replied, ‘I didn’t dare before’. It had taken an introduction to the music of Wagner to release his individuality.
From 1861 Bruckner had studied under Otto Kitzler, a German cellist and conductor, gaining a thorough grounding in the counterpoint of Palestrina and for the first time hearing some Liszt and Wagner. Kitzler’s production of Tannhäuser bowled him over, and when he visited Munich for the premiere of Tristan und Isolde and met Wagner in person, his joy was complete. Then, in 1867, tragedy struck. Bruckner had long suffered from extended bouts of depression, combined with an almost pathological self-doubt and an irresistible impulse to accumulate strings of unnecessary qualifications. He developed the clinical condition of numeromania, a compulsive urge to count objects of all descriptions for no apparent reason. He was admitted to a sanatorium at Bad Kreuzen where he underwent a course of treatment lasting several months. It was in thanksgiving for his restoration of health that he set to work on the Mass No 3 in F minor which occupied him for exactly a year from September 1867.
Like the Mass in D minor of four years earlier, it calls for soprano, contralto, tenor and bass soloists, mixed chorus, organ and a large orchestra, and it caused horror among the Cecilians for whom he had written his second Mass, that in E minor. But the F minor is his biggest and greatest Mass, classical in form but injected with a new vitality and a profound religious mysticism, setting the familiar text with total commitment.
The Mass begins quietly with a descending four-note figure which dominates the Kyrie and reappears as a unifying motif in other parts of the work; the reticence of this humble plea for divine mercy does not, however, preclude climactic points and moments of fervour. The ‘Christe eleison’ which follows employs two main ideas—a falling octave and a more lyrical phrase entrusted to the soprano soloist; the soarings of the solo violin recall the Benedictus of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
The Gloria and Credo form the central core of the Mass. Close in spirit to the Te Deum and Psalm 150, they proclaim a triumphant C major, though not, of course, without modulatory excursions to other keys and transient changes of mood dictated by the text. Both were conceived in the general terms of sonata form, with contrasting material, development and reprise; and both finish with massive fugues. The opening themes are rooted in Gregorian chant, as is the melody in the Sanctus at the words ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’.
The shortest movement is the Sanctus, similar in mood to the ‘Christe eleison’ of the Kyrie and making use of the falling octave. The ‘Hosanna’ is repeated at the close of the ensuing Benedictus, whose second melody, introduced by the bass soloist, is quoted in the Adagio of the second symphony and may well have influenced Mahler when he was working on his fourth. The Agnus Dei draws freely on earlier material, recalling the main ideas in the Kyrie and the fugue subject from the Gloria which now carries the words ‘dona nobis pacem’. The final phrase of the Credo theme appears in augmentation and in the last two bars a single oboe, accompanied by pianissimo strings over a discreet rumble on a kettledrum, plays a major-key version of the motif with which the whole work began.
Bruckner completed the Mass in 1868 but it took several revisions before, in 1881, it reached its ‘authentic’ form. Even then he was not entirely satisfied. With the help of a pupil, Joseph Schalk, he revised it further between 1890 and 1893.
The setting of Psalm 150 was Bruckner’s last sacred choral work, written in 1892 four years before the composer’s death. It shares not only the key (C major) but also the mood of exaltation of the 1884 Te Deum, and is scored for soprano solo, mixed chorus and orchestra, though the soloist’s contribution runs to no more than eleven bars. Like the F minor Mass and the Te Deum it embodies material based on plainsong, audacious chromaticism, and striding octaves, and it ends with an elaborate fugue and a ringing ‘Hallelujah!’.
Wadham Sutton © 1992