Anton Bruckner (4 September 1824 – 11 October 1896) was an Austrian composer known primarily for his symphonies, masses, and motets. His symphonies are often considered emblematic of the final stage of Austro-German Romanticism because of their rich harmonic language, complex polyphony, and considerable length. Bruckner's compositions helped to define contemporary musical radicalism, owing to their dissonances, unprepared modulations, and roving harmonies.
Unlike other radicals, such as Wagner or Hugo Wolf who fit the enfant terrible mold, Bruckner showed extreme humility before other musicians, Wagner in particular. This apparent dichotomy between Bruckner the man and Bruckner the composer hampers efforts to describe his life in a way that gives a straightforward context for his music.
His works, the symphonies in particular, have detractors, most notably the influential Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick, and other supporters of Brahms, who point to their large size, use of repetition, and Bruckner's propensity to revise many of his works, often with the assistance of colleagues, and his apparent indecision about which versions he preferred.
In 1868, after Sechter had died, Bruckner hesitantly accepted Sechter's post as a teacher of music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, during which time he concentrated most of his energy on writing symphonies. These symphonies, however, were poorly received, at times considered "wild" and "nonsensical". He later accepted a post at the Vienna University in 1875, where he tried to make music theory a part of the curriculum. Overall, he was unhappy in Vienna, which was musically dominated by the critic Eduard Hanslick. At the time there was a feud between advocates of the music of Wagner and Brahms; by aligning himself with Wagner, however, Bruckner made an unintentional enemy out of Hanslick. However, he was not without supporters; Deutsche Zeitung's music critic Theodor Helm, and famous conductors such as Arthur Nikisch and Franz Schalk constantly tried to bring his music to the public, and for this purpose proposed 'improvements' for making Bruckner's music more acceptable to the public. While Bruckner allowed these changes, he also made sure in his will to bequeath his original scores to the Vienna National Library, confident of their musical validity. Another proof of Bruckner's confidence in his artistic ability is that he often started work on a new symphony just a few days after finishing another.
In addition to his symphonies, Bruckner wrote masses, motets and other sacred choral works, and a few chamber works, including a string quintet. Unlike his romantic symphonies, Bruckner's choral works are often conservative and contrapuntal in style.
Biographers generally characterize Bruckner as a very simple man, and numerous anecdotes abound as to his dogged pursuit of his chosen craft and his humble acceptance of the fame that eventually came his way. Once, after a rehearsal of his Fourth Symphony, the well-meaning Bruckner tipped the conductor Hans Richter: "When the symphony was over," Richter related, "Bruckner came to me, his face beaming with enthusiasm and joy. I felt him press a coin into my hand. 'Take this' he said, 'and drink a glass of beer to my health.'" Richter, of course, accepted the coin, a Maria Theresa thaler, and wore it on his watch-chain ever after.
Bruckner was a renowned organist in his day, impressing audiences in France in 1869, and England in 1871, giving six recitals on a new Henry Willis organ at Royal Albert Hall in London and five more at the Crystal Palace. Though he wrote no major works for the organ, his improvisation sessions sometimes yielded ideas for the Symphonies. He taught organ performance at the Conservatory; among his students were Hans Rott and Franz Schmidt. Gustav Mahler, who called Bruckner his "forerunner", attended the conservatory at this time (Walter n.d.).
In July 1886, the emperor decorated him with the Order of Franz-Josef.
Bruckner died in Vienna in 1896, of natural causes. He is buried in the crypt of St. Florian monastery church, right below his favorite organ.
Anton Bruckner Private University for Music, Drama, and Dance, an institution of higher education in Linz, close to his native Ansfelden, was named after him in 1932 ("Bruckner Conservatory Linz" until 2004). The Bruckner Orchester Linz was also named in his honor.
The revision issue has generated controversy. A common explanation for the multiple versions is that Bruckner was willing to revise his work on the basis of harsh, uninformed criticism from his colleagues. This explanation was given enormous cachet when it was championed by Bruckner scholar Robert Haas, who was the chief editor of the first critical editions of Bruckner's works published by the International Bruckner Society; it continues to be found in the majority of program notes and biographical sketches concerning Bruckner. It was however sharply criticized by scholars such as Haas's successor Leopold Nowak, Benjamin Korstvedt and conductor Leon Botstein who argue that Haas' explanation is at best idle speculation, at worst a shady justification of Haas' own editorial decisions.
Bruckner's Symphonies are all in four movements (though he was unable to complete the finale of the Ninth), starting with a modified sonata allegro form, a slow movement, a scherzo in 3/4 time, and a modified sonata allegro form finale. (In the Eighth, Ninth, and one version of the Second, the slow movements and scherzi are reversed. The Fourth features a scherzo in which the outer sections are in 2/4 meter, not the customary 3/4.) They are scored for a fairly standard orchestra of woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two or three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings. The later symphonies increase this complement, but not by much. Notable is the use of Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies. With the exception of Symphony No. 4, none of Bruckner's Symphonies has subtitles, and most of the nicknames were not thought up by the composer. Bruckner's works are trademarked with powerful codas and grand finales, as well as the frequent use of unison passages and orchestral tutti. His style of orchestral writing was criticized by his Viennese contemporaries, but by the middle of the 20th century musicologists recognized that Bruckner's orchestration was modeled after the sound of his primary instrument, the pipe organ.
Otto Kitzler, Bruckner's last composition teacher, set him three final tasks as the climax of his studies: a choral work, an overture, and a symphony. The latter, completed in 1863, was then Bruckner's Study Symphony in F minor. Bruckner later rejected this work, but he did not destroy it. While it certainly reminds one of earlier composers such as Robert Schumann, it undeniably also bears the hallmarks of the later Bruckner style. Kitzler simply commented that the work was "not very inspired". It was first performed in 1924 and not published until 1973 and is usually listed as Symphony No. 00.
Bruckner's Symphony No. 1 in C minor (sometimes called by Bruckner "das kecke Beserl", roughly translated as "the saucy maid) was completed in 1866, but the original text of this symphony was not reconstructed until 1998. Instead, it is commonly known in two versions, the so-called Linz Version which is based mainly on rhythmical revisions made in 1877, and the completely revised Vienna Version of 1891, which begins to reveal his mature style, e.g. Symphony No. 8.
Next was the so-called Symphony No. 0 in D minor of 1869, a very charming work which was so harshly criticized that Bruckner retracted it completely, and it was not performed at all during his lifetime, hence his choice for the number of the symphony.
The Symphony No. 2 in C minor was revised in 1873, 1876, 1877 and 1892. It is sometimes called the Symphony of Pauses for its dramatic use of whole-orchestra rests, which accentuate the form of the piece. In the Carragan edition of the 1872 version, the Scherzo is placed second and the Adagio third. It is in the same key as No. 1.
Bruckner presented his Symphony No. 3 in D minor, written in 1873, to Wagner along with the Second, asking which of them he might dedicate to him. Wagner chose the Third, and Bruckner sent him a fair copy soon later, which is why the original version of the Wagner Symphony is preserved so well despite revisions in 1874, 1876, 1877 and 1888/1889. One thing that helped Wagner choose which Symphony to accept the dedication was that the 3rd contains quotations from Wagner's music dramas, such as Die Walküre and Lohengrin. These quotations were taken out in revised versions.
Bruckner's first great success was his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, more commonly known as the Romantic Symphony, the only epithet applied to a symphony by the composer himself. The 1874 version has been seldom played and success came only after major revisions in 1878, including a completely new scherzo and finale, and again in 1880/1881, once again with a completely rewritten finale. This version was premiered in 1881 (under the conductor Hans Richter). Bruckner made more minor revisions of this symphony in 1886-1888.
Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 in B flat major crowns his most productive era of symphony-writing, finished at the beginning of 1876. The original version seems unrecoverable and we know only the thoroughly revised version of 1878. Many consider this symphony to be Bruckner's lifetime masterpiece in the area of counterpoint. For example, the Finale is a combined fugue and sonata form movement: the first theme (characterized by the downward leap of an octave) appears in the exposition as a four-part fugue in the strings and the concluding theme of the exposition is presented first as a chorale in the brass, then as a four part fugue in the development, and culminating in a double fugue with the first theme at the recapitulation; additionally, the coda combines not only these two themes but also the main theme of the first movement. Bruckner never heard it played by an orchestra.
Symphony No. 6 in A major, written in 1879-1881, is an oft-neglected work; whereas the Bruckner rhythm (two quarters plus a quarter triplet or vice versa) is an important part of his previous symphonies, it pervades this work, particularly in the first movement, making it particularly difficult to perform.
Symphony No. 7 in E major was the most beloved of Bruckner's symphonies with audiences of the time, and is still popular. It was written 1881-1883 and revised in 1885. During the time that Bruckner began work on this Symphony, he was aware that Wagner's death was imminent, and so the Adagio is slow mournful music for Wagner, and for the first time in Bruckner's oeuvre, the Wagner tuba is included in the orchestra.
Bruckner began composition of his Symphony No. 8 in C minor in 1884. In 1887 Bruckner sent the work to Hermann Levi, the conductor who had led his Seventh to great success. Levi, who had said Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was the greatest symphony written after Beethoven, believed that the Eighth was a confusing jumble. Bruckner was devastated by Levi's assessment. Bruckner revised the work, sometimes with the aid of Franz Schalk, and completed this new version in 1890.
The final accomplishment of Bruckner's life was to be his Symphony No. 9 in D minor which he started in August 1887, and which he dedicated "To God the Beloved." The first three movements were completed by the end of 1894, the Adagio alone taking 18 months to complete. Work was delayed by the composer's poor health and by his compulsion to revise his early symphonies, and by the time of his death in 1896 he had not finished the last movement. The first three movements remained unperformed until their premiere in Vienna (in Ferdinand Löwe's version) on 11 February 1903.
Bruckner suggested using his Te Deum as a Finale, which would complete the homage to Beethoven's Ninth symphony (also in D minor). The problem was that the Te Deum is in C major, while the 9th Symphony is D minor, and, although Bruckner began sketching a transition from the Adagio key of E major to the triumphant key of C major, he did not pursue the idea. There have been several attempts to complete these sketches and prepare them for performance, as well as completions of his later sketches for an instrumental Finale, but only the first three movements of the Symphony are usually performed.
As a young man Bruckner sang in men's choirs and wrote music for them. This music is rarely played. Biographer Derek Watson characterizes the pieces for men's choir as being "of little concern to the non-German listener". Of thirty such pieces, Helgoland is the only secular vocal work Bruckner thought worthy enough to bequeath to the Vienna National Library.
The Overture in G minor is occasionally included in recordings of the Symphonies, and it is one of the works Bruckner wrote during his apprentice with Otto Kitzler. At that time he also wrote a March in D minor and three short orchestral pieces. These works already show hints of Bruckner's emerging style.
A String Quartet in C minor was discovered decades after Bruckner's death, but is only of interest as a student composition. The later String Quintet in F major, contemporaneous with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, has been frequently performed.
There is an orchestral Symphonic Prelude that is sometimes attributed to Bruckner and sometimes to Mahler. It was discovered in the Vienna National Library in 1974 in a piano duet transcription and later orchestrated by Albrecht Gürsching, who did not know the original orchestral score (published by Doblinger, Vienna). It is likely the work of one of Bruckner's students.
Bruckner's Two Aequale for three trombones is a solemn, brief work.
He also wrote Lancer-Quadrille for piano. Among his most unusual and evocative compositions is the choral Abendzauber (1878) for tenor, yodelers and four alpine horns. It was never performed in Bruckner's lifetime.
Bruckner never wrote an opera, and as much as he was a fan of Wagner's music dramas, he was uninterested in drama. In 1893 he thought about writing an opera called Astra based on a novel by Gertrud Bollé-Hellmund. Although he attended performances of Wagner's operas, he was much more interested in the music than the plot. After seeing Wagner's Götterdämmerung, he asked: "Tell me, why did they burn the woman at the end? Nor did Bruckner ever write an oratorio.
The Nazis approved of Bruckner and Hitler even consecrated a bust of Bruckner in a widely photographed ceremony in 1937 at Regensburg's Walhalla temple. Bruckner was among the most popular composers in Nazi Germany and the Adagio from his 7th Symphony was broadcast by the German radio (Deutscher Reichsrundfunk) upon announcing the news of Hitler's death on 1 May 1945. This didn't hurt his standing in the media though, and several movies and TV productions in Europe and the United States have used excerpts from Bruckner's music ever since the 1950s. Nor did the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra ever ban Bruckner's music as they have Wagner's, even recording with Zubin Mehta the Eighth Symphony.
In part because they both wrote long symphonies, and in part because of Bruno Walter's essay, Bruckner and Mahler were often mentioned together in the 20th Century.
Among the conductors most associated with the works of Bruckner are (in chronological order of birth):
Bruckner's symphonic works, much maligned in Vienna in his lifetime, now have an important place in the tradition and musical repertoire of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Because of the long duration and vast orchestral canvas of much of his music, Bruckner's popularity has greatly benefited from the introduction of long-playing media and from improvements in recording technology.