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In feeling, the expressively reticent opening of the Requiem, with its softly shifting syncopations in the strings, may well remind us of such a beginning as that of Haydn’s Symphony No 26 in D minor (‘Lamentatione’); this style is a tradition that must have been still alive in Bruckner’s time in Linz, but he is already able to make individual use of it, and we can sense in it not merely reflections of the past—it already faintly anticipates one or two of his own symphonic passages in the two earlier D minor symphonies, for instance, Nos ‘0’ and 3. Other rather amusing evidence of archaic practices in Bruckner’s earlier time is his use of the continuo throughout this Requiem; the basses are carefully figured throughout. But whatever we observe, we cannot escape the solemn beauty of this music, which already has the authentic atmosphere of natural genius. Against the subtly floating rhythms of the strings, the choral writing is direct and plain; the effect is gripping enough to make one wonder why the work has been so neglected. In the best parts of it we find Bruckner’s true nature, which dominated all his finest work in the future, and defines his separation from the romantic movement. The orchestra consists only of strings and trombones, a horn replacing one of the trombones in the Benedictus, so an austere sound is maintained throughout the work.
There are boldnesses in the use of tonality; the polyphonic Quam olim Abrahae is put strikingly in the key of F minor; simple textures are used with clear imagination, as in the juxtaposition of naive solos and plain choral responses with sensitively expressive string figuration in the Agnus Dei. This music needs no close analysis, which would defeat its guileless intent, and it does not unfailingly uphold its best levels. But as a whole it is a touching and very personal little work, speaking of things in the composer’s heart, and of greater things to come. Hans-Hubert Schönzeler once suggested that it would go finely together in the same concert with the Ninth Symphony—the beginning and the end of the real Bruckner. Being of moderate difficulty and not needing a large orchestra, it would moreover be ideal material for good amateur choral societies. Its appeal will not fade, and it is time it found a modest but privileged place in the general repertoire.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1987