Religious Bruckner

Wilhelm Furtwängler:  “In the history of European art, Bruckner is one of those very rare geniuses endowed with the power of giving expression to the supernatural and of rendering the divine present in our human world.” (‘Bruckner ist in der Geschichte der Europäischen Kunst eins der ganz seltenen Genies, denen es vergönnt ist, dem Übernatürlichen Ausdruck zu verleihen, und das Göttliche in unserer Menschenwelt gegenwärtig zu machen.’)  Chicago Chorale is not a religious organization, and, with the exception of our annual Advent Vespers presentations, does not prepare music to be performed as part of worship services; but much of the music we perform, by such composers as Bruckner, Bach, Palestrina, Rautavaara, Pärt, is understandable primarily within the context of the religious observances for which it was composed.

For choral singers and conductors, questions of “historically informed performance practice” inevitably lead to consideration of the circumstances in which music was intended to be performed—the visual and acoustic spaces, with their rehearsal and performance conditions; the expectations of the listeners; the age, sex, and training of the performers; but also the goal of the musical performance.  Very little great choral music is composed to be performed in concert halls, and to be greeted by applause or, even more, standing ovation.

Choral music, historically, functioned to strengthen the religious faith, understanding, and commitment of the listener.  Popular Christianity changed radically during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and so did choral music:  largely, it was replaced, relative to the day to day efforts of important composers, by operas and lieder in the vocal music realm, and instrumental music, especially large orchestral works (as instruments evolved into the miraculous, flexible machines we know today).   To my ears, most nineteenth century religious choral music—even by such great composers as Brahms—sounds dutiful and unconvinced; it seems to know its time has passed, that it has been eclipsed. Almost, it becomes sentimental, backward-looking; or, as in such mighty works as Verdi’s Requiem, theatrical, operatic, and secular.

Bruckner stands as a freak in the middle of this.  Though clearly influenced by the harmonic and procedural advances of Liszt and Wagner, he adapts them to his own purposes; even his symphonies have been called “masses without words,” so supernatural and other-worldly did they seem in their own time, and do they seem, today.  I don’t know that his upbringing was different from that of other young people of his time and station, making him more personally devout; somehow, though, the dawning discovery of his genius was not paralleled by a loss of commitment to his faith, a loss of belief.  The one became a complete, perfect mode of expression for the other; and whatever the circumstances of his life, his various quirks and neuroses, his religious vision shone pure and intact right through to the end of his life.  At least in his music, he prayed without ceasing.   As the preface to the most recent edition of his Mass in E minor states, “In retrospect, the E minor Mass, in its expressive modernity, towers like an isolated mountain peak far above the sacred vocal music of the nineteenth century.”