Anton Bruckner | Biography


Anton Bruckner is an exceptional figure. Hugely influenced by the music of Richard Wagner, he idolised the operatic revolutionary to the point of obsession. But he also had deep roots in the church music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Palestrina. The intense, dark sensuality of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde left a deep imprint on his harmonic style. Yet his symphonies have been described as ‘cathedrals in sound’, reflecting their spacious architectural qualities and mood of religious devotion. It took Bruckner a long time to settle on composing as a career. Almost all of his works that are performed regularly today were written after he turned 40. His first surviving composition, a setting of the hymn Pange lingua, was written when he was 11. As a child, he was encouraged by his cousin, the organist and church composer Johann Baptist Weiss, who would play Haydn, Mozart and Schubert from memory. Then, when Bruckner was 12, his father died after a long battle with tuberculosis. His mother took him to the nearby monastery of St Florian, where he was given board and education, with a thorough grounding in music. The prior, Michael Arneth, was a benign fatherly presence until his death in 1854, when Bruckner was 30. St Florian became a spiritual home and Bruckner returned regularly, notably in times of crisis. His mature scores show an obsession with musical proportion that may well have been influenced by this tranquil Baroque building. Bruckner would continue to seek father figures in his life. Well into his sixties he addressed the conductor Hermann Levi as ‘My father in art’ (‘Mein künstlerischer Vater’), though Levi was 15 years his junior. At first, Bruckner followed his own father into teaching. But the call of music eventually proved stronger. His outstanding talent secured him the post of organist at Linz Cathedral in 1856. In later years he achieved international fame as a organist, especially as an improviser, even when his compositions were still little known. Around the time of the Linz appointment, Bruckner undertook an exceptionally rigorous training in harmony and counterpoint with Simon Sechter. A famous Viennese pedagogue, Sechter had once taught Schubert, another composer whom Bruckner revered.  Only at the age of 39 did Bruckner at last pronounce himself free to compose as he wished. His horizons quickly broadened. He encountered the music of Wagner, and Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Ninth Symphony, and was overwhelmed by their scope and expressive power. His first major full-length work, the Mass in D minor (known as ‘no. 1’, though it is actually his fourth setting of the Mass text) was a success at its Linz premiere in 1864. However, when a critic suggested that the symphony might be Bruckner’s true métier, the devoutly religious composer took this as a sign of vocation. He began his official Symphony no. 1 the following year. But, as so often in Bruckner’s career, creative expansion and success were followed by severe mental crisis. His obsessional tendencies, manageable when he was relatively stable, became alarming. At one point in 1866 he was found desperately trying to count the leaves on a tree. When his sister visited him in the Linz sanatorium, Bruckner had to be forcefully restrained from counting the sequins on her dress. In 1867 he began his Mass in F minor (no. 3); he told a friend that in writing it he had composed his way back to health. The following year Bruckner was offered Sechter’s professorship at the Vienna Conservatory, and he moved to the Austrian capital. In Vienna he found a few champions, notably the conductor Johann Herbeck, but the city’s musical establishment was otherwise indifferent or actively hostile. Bruckner’s devotion to the arch-modernist Wagner did him no favours with the largely conservative musical press. It also earned him the lifelong enmity of the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, who championed Bruckner’s rival in the concert hall, Johannes Brahms. After the catastrophic premiere of the Third Symphony in 1877 the Viennese critics, led by Hanslick, were savage, and Bruckner’s music was not heard again in Vienna for nearly half a decade. Bruckner is often described as lacking confidence, and there are several stories of him humbly accepting criticism from colleagues, and even pupils. Yet he continued in his symphonic vocation, despite frequent humiliation and acute loneliness. He longed for, but never found love. At a deeper level, it seems, his sense of direction was rock-solid. For many listeners it is that strong sense of underlying purpose, despite the sometimes anguished emotions expressed, that makes his music so valuable. With time, the originality and strength of Bruckner’s music began to be recognised. The conductor Hans Richter became an important advocate in Vienna. The tide began to turn in earnest with the premiere of the Seventh Symphony in 1884, in the relatively progressive city of Leipzig. Subsequent performances of the choral-orchestral Te Deum (1884) and the Eighth Symphony (1890) in Vienna divided the critics. Nevertheless, it was clear that Bruckner now had a strong following in the city, while his reputation continued to grow abroad. Hugely encouraged, Bruckner began work on what was to be his most ambitious project: his Ninth Symphony, to be dedicated ‘to dear God’. Conceived on a massive scale, it was to culminate in an orchestral ‘Hymn of Praise’. But as Bruckner’s health began to fail his obsessional traits pressed in again. Bruckner increasingly distracted himself with revisions of earlier scores. Some friends felt too that his religious devotion had degenerated into mania. When Bruckner died in 1896, he had in fact completed three of the symphony’s four movements. Much of the finale was also in performable form. But the crucial ‘Hymn of Praise’ was missing. Many scholars now believe that Bruckner was working on the final pages when he died, and that they were stolen by souvenir-hunters. This raises the tantalising possibility they may still exist, somewhere. Fortunately, the three complete movements are very satisfying as they stand. The Adagio third movement is glorious, and Bruckner referred to it as his ‘farewell to life’ (‘Abschied vom Leben’).