Half Simpleton, Half God

Gustav Mahler described Anton Bruckner as "half simpleton, half God."  Prior to this winter, Chorale has known Bruckner only through a handful of short, a cappella church motets, which are fairly conservative and accessible; now however, we are grappling with one of his major works, his Mass No. 2 in E minor, meeting the simpleton god head-on. Originally composed in 1866 (and revised thereafter; Chorale presents the 1882 version), the Mass stands as one of Bruckner’s “early mature” works; the quintessential late bloomer, Bruckner (1824-1896) did not hit his compositional stride until his late thirties, and composed the bulk of the work on which his fame rests, in his later years. He was primarily a symphonist, and those radical, enormous, groundbreaking works upon which his fame rests were products of the seventies, eighties, and nineties.  His group of three masses, composed 1864-1868, can be seen as precursors of these symphonies, familiar liturgical forms through which he explored the structural, melodic, and harmonic ideas which inform the later works.

Bruckner lived and thrived during a period in Western music history during which composers came increasingly to be regarded as demigods.  Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner—composers whose radical harmonic and structural ideas shaped music into the twentieth century-- enjoyed a degree of fame, even in their own lifetimes, which “serious” composers can only dream of today; and their egotism, self-promotion, disdain for their peers, manipulation of the public, are legendary.  Bruckner, though their worthy musical heir and peer, behaved, and presumably felt, much differently.  He came from a modest but respectable background:  his father and grandfather were both school teachers, and young Anton himself expected to take up the same profession. He demonstrated musical talent, but no one considered him a genius. His father died when he was only thirteen years old, and young Anton was sent to the Augustinian Monastery in St. Florian, where he sang in the choir and studied both organ and violin, before taking up teaching and organist positions.  He learned to be deeply pious, as well as deeply self-effacing and self-doubting, traits which remained with him throughout his life.   He composed some small pieces, but seems to have felt content, or at least settled, in his life as a school teacher.  He accepted poor treatment from his superiors, as though he deserved it.

Finally, however, some inner fire sprung him from his chosen life.  When he was thirty-one (pretty ancient, compared with the composers mentioned above), Bruckner finally began to study composition seriously, by mail, with a theorist at the Vienna Conservatory.  At this point, the Buckner we now celebrate began to find form and expression. He met Liszt, was introduced to the music of Wagner, and began to compose in his own, mature style—a style considered “wild and nonsensical” by many of his contemporaries, but which he doggedly pursued and perfected throughout the rest of his life and career.

Bruckner’s major works exist in several different versions.  Partly, he was dissatisfied, himself, and constantly sought to improve what he had composed; partly, he was urged by supporters to smooth out the “wild and nonsensical” qualities of which he was accused, to make the works more acceptable to the listening public and to the critics.  On the one hand, self-effacing Bruckner was eager to oblige and try to “improve” his works; on the other, he seems to have believed in the validity of his own genius, and to have held, fundamentally, to his own vision.  He did not destroy his original scores after he had revised them, but left them in his will to the Vienna National Library, confident of their musical validity. During the later twentieth century a veritable cottage industry sprang to life, collecting, comparing, and editing his scores in a (vain) attempt to come up with definitive versions, a task which continues in our own day.

From Wikipedia:  Biographers generally characterize Bruckner as a "simple" provincial man, and many biographers have complained that there is huge discrepancy between Bruckner's life and his work. For example, Karl Grebe said: "his life doesn't tell anything about his work, and his work doesn't tell anything about his life, that's the uncomfortable fact any biography must start from." Numerous anecdotes abound as to Bruckner's 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 in 1881, 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, and wore it on his watch-chain ever after.

I have always been wild about Bruckner’s music; my enthusiasm has never waned, despite the difficulties I encounter with it. I have no doubt Chorale is going to love working on this Mass, and that our love and admiration will inform our performance of it.