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At the same time that the “serious” music world in Germany was being revolutionized, radicalized, and torn apart by the New German School, pitting Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner against Mendelssohn, Brahms, and their conservative supporters, the Roman Catholic Church was experiencing its own musical cataclysm, called the Cecilian movement. Bruckner’s music cannot be understood without considering the latter movement as carefully as the former. Named for Saint Cecilia, patroness of music, the Cecilian movement was based in Regensburg, Germany, home of a world-renowned school for church musicians, and to a cathedral choir devoted to polyphony and chant. By 1800, Gregorian chant had all but disappeared from Catholic masses, replaced by music described as “entertaining” and “operatic,” augmented by generous use of orchestral instruments, in addition to the organ. Many musicians and clergy identified such music as unduly profane, seductive, achieving its aims through “effect rather than piety.” They organized themselves into the Cecilian movement in 1868, and promoted a renewed interest in chant as well as in the polyphony of such 16th century composers as Palestrina, Lassus, and Victoria. Many advocated ridding church music of instruments entirely (based upon their erroneous belief that 16th century polyphony, labeled a cappella, had been performed without accompaniment). Along with restoring archaic musical expression, they sought restoration of what they deemed to be traditional religious feeling, and of the authority of the church, both of which they felt had waned during the 18th century.
As a boy, and again as a young man, Bruckner was murtured, then employed, in the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian. Ignaz Traumihler, music director at St. Florian at the time, subscribed to the Cecilian movement, and greatly influenced the youthful Bruckner. The latter dedicated his motet, Os justi, composed in 1879, to Traumihler, and wrote to him, "I should be very pleased if you found pleasure in the piece. It is written entirely without any sharps or flats, and without the chord of the seventh, and without any 6-4 chords, and also without any chordal combinations of four and five simultaneous notes." Bruckner composed the entire motet in the ancient Lydian church mode, which to later ears sounds a lot like F Major, but without any B flats, and managed to achieve striking harmonic effects without, as he writes, using a single sharp or flat note. ABA' in structure, the work features similar, homophonic, music in the two A sections, and polyphony in the B section, and concludes with a plainchant Alleluia. Bruckner’s skillful infusion of Romantic feeling into a spare, archaic choral language is unique; he seems bent on demonstrating here his gratitude and loyalty to Traumihler and St. Florian, but not to the Cecilian movement. The motet was published in 1886 in a collection entitled Four Graduals, which together rank as some of the most radical and original liturgical settings in the 19th century, and actually distance the composer, in many respects, from the ideals of the Cecilians.
Bruckner’s Mass in E minor, first composed and performed in 1866, and then revised in 1882, is also discussed in terms of Cecilian influence. Its unusual orchestral accompaniment—fifteen mixed woodwind and brass instruments, and no strings-- is seen by some as the composer’s bow to the Cecilians: much of the Mass is polyphonic and a cappella, adhering in large part to the dictates of the conservatives, with the instruments serving as colorful punctuation and augmentation, rather than as structural underpinning. Bruckner even quotes Palestrina’s Missa Brevis in the Sanctus, in homage to the Renaissance master. The Bishop of Linz, Franz Joseph Rudiger, for whom the Mass was composed-- sympathetic to the Cecilians, and a great admirer of Palestrina-- was reported to have been deeply impressed by the Mass, and Bruckner himself recalled its premier as “the most glorious day of my life,” a phenomenal and unanimous success. Nonetheless, some critics pointed out what they viewed as his “extremely, elaborately wrought chromaticism,” and condemned the work as “indecently alluring.” As a result, it was not performed at St. Peter’s, in Rome, until 1952.