Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDS44071/3 - Bruckner: Masses
Photograph by Derek Forss.
(Originally issued on CDA66177, 66599, 66650)

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 1996
Total duration: 188 minutes 27 seconds

'If the power of music were to be assessed by its ability to send shivers down your spine, then this piece [Te Deum], and this particular recording of it, would score 12 on a scale of 10 every time' (Cross Rhythms)

'For any listeners who missed out these individual issues the first time out, this compendium will fill an important gap. Under-performed and highly worthy music is awarded knowing performances' (The American Organist)


This set was reissued to mark 100 years since the death of Anton Bruckner. Of the E minor Mass The Sunday Times commented ‘One of the most beautiful recordings of a choral masterpiece I have ever heard’; the F minor was welcomed as ‘Quite magnificent’ by Gramophone and the D minor and Te Deum recordings were described quite simply as ‘Stunning’ by Gramophone.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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. He once remarked, ‘When God finally calls me and asks “What have you done with the talent I gave you, my lad?”, I will present to him the score of my Te Deum and I hope He will judge me mercifully’. Yet his self-doubt, especially in his earlier years, is legendary. He would spend endless time and energy writing a full-scale symphony yet a few words of criticism, or a well-intentioned suggestion from a friend or pupil, would cause him to revise it, sometimes substantially. The third symphony, for example, went through three versions, the last two of which were published in his lifetime and reconstructed in scholarly editions in the 1950s. The sacred music, which some commentators claim he revised less, was by no means immune. The great F minor Mass of 1867/8 was revamped at least four times, and it was the 1881 version that was later prepared and edited by Haas (1944) and Nowak (1960).

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.

Parallels can be drawn between the mature Masses of the 1860s and the joyful C major Te Deum which was one of Bruckner’s favourites among his compositions. He had begun work on a Te Deum in May 1881, almost contemporaneously with the sketches for his seventh symphony, but it was not until September 1883 that he gave it his full attention. The Te Deum calls for soprano, contralto, tenor and bass soloists, four-part choir, organ and orchestra, though the organ is optional. The choral writing is mostly homophonic—chords rather than counterpoint—which makes the eventual launching into the vast, final double fugue (‘In te, Domine, speravi’) the more telling. The string opening appears again in the F minor Mass and the ninth symphony, and the theme of the ‘non confundar’ is integral to the seventh symphony’s Adagio.

There are thematic interconnections between the five movements of the Te Deum. The two outer sections (‘Te Deum laudamus’ and ‘In te, Domine, speravi’) are in a triumphant C major, the central ‘Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis’ equally joyous in D minor. In second and fourth place are sandwiched the ‘Te ergo, quaesumus’ and ‘Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine’, both in F minor and both employing not only the vocal soloists but also a solo violin, much in the manner of the F minor Mass’s ‘Christe eleison’.

Bruckner completed the Te Deum in March 1884 and it was first performed, accompanied by two pianos, on 2 May 1885. Hans Richter conducted the first performance with orchestra in Vienna on 10 January 1886. Even the normally vicious Hanslick, who never forgave Bruckner’s espousal of Wagner, was uncharacteristically polite.

The forces required for the Mass No 1 in D minor are soprano, contralto, tenor and bass soloists, four-part chorus, organ and orchestra. The work begins with a gentle chromatic phrase, mostly on the strings, over a pedal point which anchors it firmly in the stated key. The chromatic inflexions continue into the first choral entry, lending an atmosphere of awe to the plea for God’s mercy and leading to a rising scale, one of several ideas which recur to give unity to the work as a whole. This scale reappears, ascending or descending, in four of the subsequent movements—the Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. After a similarly chromatic ‘Christe eleison’, the second Kyrie features the striding octaves so often encountered in Bruckner’s music.

In common with the short, wind-accompanied E minor Mass, but unlike the great Mass in F minor, the opening phrases of the Gloria and Credo are set aside for the traditional plainsong intonation. Both movements are bold affirmations of faith, and both are symphonic and on a massive scale. The Gloria moves from D major to A flat for the phrase ‘agnus Dei, Filius Patris’, though it is a measure of Bruckner’s tonal fluidity that he retains the original key signature. The chorus sings ‘miserere nobis’ to a melody which appears also in the third and ninth symphonies, while the lofty final fugue, to the single word ‘Amen’, is a climactic point.

The Credo, the most purely symphonic of all the movements, is also in D major and displays the same range of expression, the same fusion of the dramatic and the contemplative, as the preceding Gloria. The first choral entry is a confident phrase containing powerful octaves reminiscent of the second Kyrie. The music here is more chord-based than contrapuntal, but at ‘et incarnatus est’ the soloists introduce an imitative phrase in F sharp major. Soon a lengthy orchestral interlude over one of Bruckner’s typical pedal points ushers in the ‘Et resurrexit’, and near the close of the section the words ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’ inspire a flowing new idea.

The brief Sanctus makes prominent use of the unifying scales and octaves. In accordance with custom, the ‘Hosanna’ is repeated note-for-note at the close of the Benedictus, which starts in a chromatically-inflected G major but finds its way, at one point, to the remote key of C sharp. The thematic linking of the outer movements is a conspicuous feature of Bruckner’s symphonies, but it was an organizational idea carried forward from the Masses. The Agnus Dei begins with a descending scale on the strings and a choral phrase clearly modelled on the first Kyrie. At the words ‘dona nobis pacem’ Bruckner recalls the ‘et vitam’ from the Credo and later the Gloria’s crowning fugue subject.

The composer himself conducted the premiere of the D minor Mass in Linz Cathedral on 20 November 1864, and its favourable reception ensured its repeat at the Redoutensaal, also in Linz, on 18 December. After the November performance the critic in the Linzer Abendbote pronounced it ‘the best work of its type to be created for a long time’.

The two Aequale, for three trombones, are the earliest music in this set, belonging to 1847 when Bruckner was twenty-three. The second of the two pieces lacks a bass part, which has been supplied by Hans Bauernfeind. The unpretentious and serious harmonies could have been devised for a funeral or memorial service, and need the kind of spacious acoustic we have on these recordings.

The fine motet, Libera me, for choir with three trombones, was written in 1854. Although this was before his long period of study with Simon Sechter, Bruckner was no beginner; he was thirty, with plenty of experience of church music behind him. As early as 1849 he had produced the beautiful and individual little Requiem (recorded on Hyperion CDA66245), and his talents had already been recognized in his own environment. This Libera me is simple and clear; it contains no elaborate counterpoint, but its part-writing is excellent, as is the calculation of sonorities. It has the solemn dignity befitting a funeral piece, and its middle section expresses the fear of judgement with considerable power and economy.

The Mass No 2 in E minor, with wind accompaniment, was written largely as a sop to the Cecilians, an austere group within the Roman Catholic Church who objected to complexity in liturgical music and deplored the involvement of an orchestra (would they really have accepted the wind instruments?). The work’s concern with slow, floating counterpoint, while referring to Palestrina, yet anticipates the deliberation of Bruckner’s own later processes, and the work conveys a sublimity inaccessible to its companions in D minor and F minor, admirable though they are. This can be felt at once in the opening Kyrie, largely unaccompanied except for the intermittent use of horns and trombones. Long suspensions and clear harmony create a sense of space. In the central section, ‘Christe eleison’, there is more movement and a climax; then the Kyrie returns, this time to make its own climax before fading into vaulted heights.

The Gloria and Credo, on the other hand, are essentially classical allegros, with contrasts of tempo and style dictated by the text. For the most part Bruckner is revelling in the athletic energy familiar from his great predecessors Haydn and Beethoven, but with textures simpler and more spare and rhythms blunter and more naïve. Both movements are in C major and contain central contrasts, the Gloria having a quiet section on ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’ with typical horn phrases, and the Credo a simple but profound treatment of ‘et incarnatus est’ and ‘Crucifixus’, a stream of perfectly formed, dignified melody of great beauty. The Gloria ends with a short but trenchant chromatic fugato on ‘Amen’, and the Credo (whose main theme anticipates strikingly the sturdy power of the scherzo of the eighth symphony of more than twenty years later) reaches its apex in a broad and mighty cadence.

It is in the Sanctus that Palestrina’s influence (in the form of a quotation from the Missa brevis of 1570) is clearest. A two-part canon is enveloped in eight-part counterpoint as a great crescendo is built. The whole movement lasts only a few minutes but has a power of suggestion out of all proportion to its dimensions; such a slow crescendo as this begins some of Bruckner’s greatest symphonic movements, and the tribute to Palestrina is also a glance to the future, not only Bruckner’s own, but also to such things as the magnificent opening pages of Sibelius’s seventh symphony.

The gentle and subtle Benedictus is in full sonata form, its development deeply modulated and its coda a bright burst on ‘Hosanna in excelsis’. The final Agnus Dei delivers the customary threefold prayer, each time as a crescendo, the last quietened to make way for the hushed ‘dona nobis pacem’, perhaps the most beautiful music in the whole work, which is without doubt the deepest and most concentrated of Bruckner’s Masses.

From 1861 Bruckner had studied under Otter 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 coeli 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!’.

Hyperion Records Ltd ©

   English   Français   Deutsch