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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Mass in E minor & motets

King's College Choir Cambridge, Sir Stephen Cleobury (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: King's College, Cambridge
Recording details: June 2019
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: October 2020
Total duration: 57 minutes 6 seconds

Bruckner’s E minor Mass and a selection of his profoundly beautiful motets were selected by Sir Stephen Cleobury as his last album at King’s, recorded only a few months before his death. Perhaps the deepest and most spiritual of Bruckner’s Masses, the E minor is unusual in its scoring for choir, wind and brass.

Shades of the past in Bruckner’s sacred music
‘A modern-day Palestrina’. This was the verdict of Max Auer, author of a 1927 study of Bruckner’s church music and founding president of the International Bruckner Society. Many of the composer’s contemporaries saw his sacred music as steeped in earlier traditions; they noted—and, on occasion, mocked—his intense piety, his unswerving devotion to the Catholic Church. But can we reasonably view the creator of nine stylistically progressive symphonies, the musician who worshipped at the shrine of Wagner, as a reincarnation of the paradigmatic composer of Renaissance church music?

Much of Bruckner’s life was spent in the service of the church. In fact, he claimed to have grown up on church music. His earliest surviving work, written before he entered his teens, was a setting of Pange lingua; the last motet, Vexilla regis, was composed in 1892, not long before his death. The half-century that divides these two pieces was filled with a long sequence of sacred compositions including at least eight masses, two requiems and forty shorter works, almost all based on liturgical texts.

Bruckner’s career as composer of sacred works played out against a revival of interest in early music. In Catholic lands this found a focus in Cecilianism, a reform movement whose goal was to restore the dignity of church services after a period of perceived enfeeblement. As the leading Cecilian, Franz Xaver Witt, put it in an 1865 tract, this goal would be achieved only by a return to Gregorian chant and by emulating the counterpoint of Renaissance masters, Palestrina above all. Like the Nazarene school of painters, the Cecilians sought to restore a lost connection between art and religion. The objectives of Witt, and of the Cecilian Society he helped found in 1869, were soon recognised by Pope Pius IX: in a breve entitled ‘Multum ad movendos animos’, issued in 1870 during the First Vatican Council, the church authorities effectively took charge of sacred music.

Bruckner—like Liszt, who anticipated many of the Cecilians’ ideas—was not unsympathetic to the cause. However, he—like Liszt—struggled with the fundamental conundrum at the heart of Cecilianism: how to reconcile an artist’s need for renewal with the Cecilians’ negation of historical development. Bruckner’s compositions for the church reveal this tension. Many respect Witt’s ideals: melodic lines frequently allude to plainchant, and the counterpoint is clearly informed by Palestrina (though recent scholarship has tended to view Bruckner’s studies with the great theorist Simon Sechter and his exposure to Venetian polychoral music in Sankt Florian Monastery as more significant). On occasion, Bruckner was willing, when circumstances required, to write in a highly circumscribed quasi-Cecilian style—one purged of all accidentals and most forms of dissonance.

Bruckner enjoyed close friendships with some of the major players in the Cecilian movement—most notably, Ignaz Traumihler, dedicatee of four works and a hard-liner in matters of style. He was even awarded an honorary diploma by the Cecilian Society of Linz. Yet, in an unguarded moment, Bruckner is supposed to have labelled Cecilianism ‘an illness’. He also reputedly told the Archbishop of Prague: ‘Palestrina—that makes me happy! … But the Cecilians are nothing! Nothing! Nothing!’ For their part, the Cecilians were wary of great composers. They rejected Liszt’s Missa choralis (1865), despite its unusually chaste style, and when Witt included Bruckner’s 1868 setting of Pange lingua in one of his publications, he edited out a dissonance, without permission, and to the understandable exasperation of the composer. At times it seemed as though something of a police state prevailed in Cecilian circles: in some 3,300 reviews published between 1870 and 1906 in the Fliegende Blätter für katholische Kirchen-Musik, the verdict of the Cecilian Society on virtually every new piece of German and Austrian sacred music was promulgated. Churches were expected to take note.

It is hard at first to draw a clear line between Ecce sacerdos magnus and Palestrina. The motet begins with an uncompromising open fifth and, throughout, there are violent harmonic shifts, often of a tertiary nature. Dynamics range widely and rapidly, creating moments of high drama—most memorably when the trebles rise to a top B flat, a twice-repeated gesture that gives Ecce sacerdos a rondo-like structure. The scoring, too—eight-part choir, three trombones and organ—is unusually opulent for a motet, though it almost certainly reflects the text, a responsory associated with the entrance of a bishop. However, the instrumental parts, as in many Cecilian compositions, tend to reinforce rather than complement the voices. And there are other hints of reformist practices: the ‘Gloria Patri’, for example, starts with a fragment of Gregorian chant presented by all voices in rhythmically fixed form. Like Virga Jesse, Ecce sacerdos was written in 1885 to mark the centenary of the diocese of Linz. However, the premiere took place in 1912, shortly after the motet’s first publication.

The Mass in E minor, by way of contrast, shows the most sustained engagement with Cecilian principles in Bruckner’s longer compositions. It was commissioned by Franz Joseph Rudigier, Bishop of Linz, to mark the completion of the Votive Chapel of the city’s New Cathedral. Bruckner had a strong attachment to Linz. He served as Organist of the Old Cathedral from 1855 to 1868, and he was deeply committed to the building project, having written a festal cantata, Preiset den Herrn, to mark the laying of the foundation-stone in 1862. Rudigier was impressed enough by Bruckner’s Mass to award the composer an honorarium of 200 Gulden and a burial place in the new building. The latter, however, proved worthless: the dedication of the cathedral, the largest in Austria, did not take place until 1924, almost three decades after Bruckner’s death.

The E minor Mass was composed in 1866 and premiered in September 1869. The first performance took place on the square outside Linz Cathedral, circumstances that explain the scoring for eight-part choir and an ensemble of fifteen wind instruments: oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones. This combination suggests the genre known as Militärmesse, and for the premiere Bruckner used instrumentalists from one of Linz’s military bands as well as three vocal ensembles. The new work appears to have taxed the singers. One member of the Frohsinn male-voice choir, of which Bruckner was director, reported that it took them weeks to learn the Mass: ‘during the dog-days of August the men and their female counterparts patiently endured what must have been more than twenty rehearsals in the muggy hall, with Bruckner conducting in his shirt-sleeves’. Their efforts were clearly rewarded: years later, Bruckner recalled the day of the premiere as ‘the most magnificent of my entire life’. Characteristically, he continued work on the score for some fifteen years, and a second version was performed in October 1885 in Linz’s Old Cathedral to mark the centenary of the bishopric. This too was revised before publication, which took place in 1896, the year of Bruckner’s death.

The various movements of the E minor Mass are differentiated in style. The Kyrie lies at one extreme; largely a cappella, and with optional brass interventions presumably intended to support the choir’s tuning, it comes closest to Cecilian ideals. The more vigorous sections of the Gloria and Credo, with their distinctly non-vocal arpeggios, repeated chords and swirling counterpoints, look back to the quasi-operatic orchestral masses of the Viennese Classical tradition, one of the genres repudiated by die-hard Cecilians. The Agnus Dei lies somewhere in the middle: it reuses material from the Kyrie, but presents it in more Romantic attire. Most remarkable is the Sanctus, which references Palestrina’s Missa brevis, first published in 1570. In both works, the opening of the movement is built on a pattern of falling thirds and descending scales. However, the greater number of parts in Bruckner’s setting allows him a spectacular series of overlapping entries that could never have been imagined by his Renaissance predecessor. A modern-day Palestrina at work?

As with the Mass in E Minor, Tota pulchra es was dedicated to Rudigier and, like Locus iste, it was first performed in the Votive Chapel of Linz’s New Cathedral. The premiere, in June 1878, marked the 25th anniversary of Rudigier’s enthronement as Bishop. The distribution of resources—four-part choir and organ plus a solo tenor voice—is curious though not atypical of its age. As with many Cecilian-inspired works, large sections are performed a cappella. Apart from offering some support to the solo tenor, the organ serves largely to gild material otherwise found in the choir. The motet starts modestly with the Gregorian intonation known as the Kreuzmotiv (cross-motif), to which the choir responds with the same material in harmony. The process is repeated. At the words ‘Tu gloria Jerusalem’ the scale of the motet becomes clear: full organ enters with a sequence of root-position chords suggestive of Liszt in clerical vein, and Bruckner continues with a characteristic chain of suspensions. The main elements of the setting are now clear, but the composer retains some surprises—not least, a remarkable slide into D flat at the mention of Mary’s mercy. Some writers claim the motet is in Phyrgian mode; others see it as an example of Aeolian mode. Bruckner certainly liked to draw on church modes—as he put it in a lecture, ‘they have something mystical about them’—but the truth is that Tota pulchra es uses several modes and, in addition, advanced chromatic harmony. The final cadence is, in fact, an amalgam of tonal and modal; moreover, it is an exact transposition of the final cadences of the E minor Mass’s Kyrie and of the motet Christus factus est.

Virga Jesse, for four-part unaccompanied choir, was composed in September 1885 at the end of a summer vacation spent in Sankt Florian. It was written to mark the centenary of the Linz diocese and was a present for Ignaz Traumihler, director of the monastery’s choir. Originally programmed for performance in Linz alongside the E minor Mass (with which it shares tonality), the motet was premiered in Vienna. The performance took place on 8 December 1885, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception—a fitting date as it was Pius IX’s 1854 decision to raise the Immaculate Conception to the status of dogma that inspired Rudigier’s plans for a new cathedral in Linz. As one might expect, the motet’s text is Marian. However, it is also appropriate to the Advent season during which the Feast of the Immaculate Conception falls. Like the almost contemporary Christus factus est, Virga Jesse captures the essence of Bruckner’s style within the briefest of spaces. With its incomplete triads, suspensions and references to both the Phyrgian mode and the Dresden Amen, the first phrase seems rooted in early music. However, the opening is restated immediately in the mediant, a quintessentially nineteenth-century progression. Bruckner packs many more harmonic derailments into the motet’s remaining seventy bars. Miraculously, the return to the home key, for an extended major-mode meditation on ‘Alleluia’, is entirely persuasive.

Like the E minor Mass, Locus iste was composed to mark the opening of the Votive Chapel of Linz’s New Cathedral; indeed, the text is part of the proper for a Kirchweih (a mass of ‘church dedication’). And, like the E minor Mass, Locus iste exemplifies the composer’s uncertain relationship with the Cecilians. The motet has extended passages of simple diatonic writing that, in terms of resources, seem not very different from the music of the reformers. However, it has an emotive power that far transcends the Cecilians’ bloodless compositions. Locus iste derives much of its effect from sequential patterns that nod towards Wagnerian practice. The first two phrases, for example, are repeated immediately one tone higher—an anticipation of the more radical opening of Virga Jesse. Later, sequential repetitions, both rising and falling, are used to more obviously dramatic effect. As with much of Bruckner’s music, silence too plays a vital role: the final phrase of the motet is preceded by a five-beat pause that, to be fully effective, requires an acoustic such as that of Linz Cathedral.

The setting of Ave Maria heard here is the second of two for choir. (A third version for solo voice and piano, organ or harmonium also survives.) Bruckner uses the form of the Ave Maria that was approved by Pius V in 1568: two extracts from St Luke’s Gospel combined with a prayer. Unusually, however, he draws attention to ‘Jesus’, a word not included by all composers, presenting it in three increasingly powerful statements that suggest the growing presence of Christ in Mary’s womb. With the exception of the trebles, all the vocal parts subdivide, sometimes more than once. It is not clear why the top part alone remains undivided. Was this a reflection of the make-up of the choir that gave the first performance in 1861 in Linz’s Old Cathedral? (During the nineteenth century many Austrian churches restricted the participation of women in services, leading to a general shortage of female voices.) Or did Bruckner intend the unassuming treble part to represent Mary herself? Initially, the music is homophonic, with typically Brucknerian blocks of sound surely inspired by Venetian cori spezzati (divided choirs). It is only at the start of the prayer section (‘Sancta Maria’) that the composer moves into imitative mode, with hints of a canon on the words ‘ora pro nobis’. The motet ends with a simple Amen, set in the traditional way as a plagal cadence.

Bruckner wrote three settings of Christus factus est, a text associated with Maundy Thursday. The version heard here is for four-part a cappella choir in Bruckner’s favourite key, D minor. The motet was premiered in the Chapel of Vienna’s Hofburg in 1884, and it was dedicated to the priest Oddo Loidol, a former pupil to whom Bruckner also dedicated Locus iste. In the space of only eighty bars Bruckner offers a conspectus of his style. ‘Obediens’ uses a long chain of suspensions reminiscent of Cecilian-inspired Os iusti. The penultimate statement of ‘Quod est super’—there are eight in total—features a canon at the seventh, suggesting Bruckner’s counterpoint studies with Sechter. The harmonisation of ‘Propter quod’ appears to allude to Wagner’s Parsifal which opens, like this passage, in A flat major; here Bruckner, like the recently deceased Wagner, combines the Kreuzmotiv with a statement of the Dresden Amen. The motet’s devastating climax is reached by rising chromaticism resolved after a terrifying pause by a sequence of adamantine chords—surely the passage in Bruckner’s motets that comes closest to Wagner’s mature style.

For many, Bruckner’s oeuvre is made up of nine fixed stars, the numbered symphonies, orbited by lesser bodies. One could, however, argue that sacred works such as those presented here take us to the heart of Bruckner, man and musician. Many of the pieces were commissioned; most are Gebrauchsmusik, in the sense that they served specific liturgical purposes. However, all reflect the composer’s deep commitment to his faith. Bruckner planned to dedicate his final, unfinished symphony to his ‘dear God’. The same dedication could stand at the head of any of the pieces heard on this album, the final recording of Sir Stephen Cleobury, another faithful servant of the church, whose legacy is a lasting ornament to King’s College, Cambridge.

Martin Ennis © 2020

It was during my schooldays that the music of Bruckner and Mahler began gradually to be received with the attention that had long been its due here in the UK. I think I may have heard the Bruckner Mass in E minor at the Three Choirs Festival at around the time I was studying Mahler’s first symphony as an A-level set work. I certainly heard it during my time as a student in Cambridge when David Willcocks conducted it with the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS). George Guest, under whom I was then Organ Student at St John’s College, had by then also introduced the motets of Bruckner into his repertoire. To experience these in the context of Gregorian chant, as we did then, made a real appreciation of them and their own source of inspiration possible, and I am forever grateful for this.

It has, therefore, been an enormous pleasure to record the E minor Mass and a number of the motets for this disc. The presence of the organ and three trombones in the chapel made the inclusion of Ecce sacerdos magnus a must.

Apart from the grandeur, nobility and expressivity of the music here, there is a resounding authenticity about the creative process that made these works pass through a composer who was a deeply devout catholic, and for whom there were virtually no complications on that front for us to take into account. This is not to criticise others, for we are the fortunate inheritors of a huge corpus of sacred and liturgical music from all eras. It is, for me, however, the directness of the connection here between text and conviction about the text that speaks so movingly.

Stephen Cleobury © 2019

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