Bruckner was one of the most notable composers in the second half of the 19th century, celebrated for his majestic symphonies and sacred compositions. He is famous for his large-scale harmonies and forms. Although his music is largely influenced by Wagnerian orchestration and harmonic structure, he is firmly rooted in the traditions of his predecessors Schubert and Beethoven.
Bruckner was born in the farming community of Ansfelden in 1824, the eldest son of the local schoolmaster and music director of the village church. Bruckner was known to have begun musical activities at a very young age and at 11, he was sent to study with a cousin, who was an organist in the larger nearby village of Hörsching, which included thoroughbass, keyboard studies and an introduction to the orchestral and choral scores of Haydn. After the death of his father, he was sent to be a choir boy at St. Florian for three years, where his Catholicism was reinforced and where he was also exposed to a vast array of Austrian composers such as Mozart, Haydn and Schubert.
Bruckner initially embarked on a career similar to his father’s. He attended a teacher-training course in Linz and in autumn 1841, set out for his first position as a school teacher in the remote village of Windhaag. The only surviving work from this period is his Mass in C for alto solo, horns and organ. In 1855, Bruckner started to study composition and counterpoint with Simon Sechter and Otto Kizler and continued his studies until the age of 40, a period in which he composed his March in D minor and Overture in G minor. After his studies, he wrote his first mature work, the Mass in D minor.
The first major work after his studies with Kitzler was for a competition sponsored by theOberösterreichisches Sängerfest in Linz: his Germanenzug, a cantata for male voices and brasswinds, which won him second prize. It was his first published work, however it is now all but forgotten. It was Bruckner’s Mass in D minor, Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Mass in E minor and Mass in F minor that brought him more praise and attention, conducting many of these works in public in Linz and Vienna.
After his teacher Sechter had died, he accepted the role as Sechter’s successor as music theory teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, a position he kept until his retirement. Alongside this, he accepted a post at Vienna University, lecturing in harmony and counterpoint and teaching piano at St. Anna’s teacher-training institute. He was also organist at the Hofkapelle.
Bruckner was generally unhappy in Vienna where the music scene was dominated by the music critic Eduard Hanslick. Bruckner and Hanslick started out as friends, but when Bruckner started to express his admiration for Wagner, Hanslick and his followers turned against him. Members of the press who were great admirers of Brahms, made reference to ‘uncontrolled Wagnerism and decadence of Bruckner’s music of the future’.
In 1878, Bruckner began his mature String Quartet, which was to be followed by a remarkable series of works in close succession: Sixth Symphony (1879 – 1881), Seventh Symphony (1881 – 1883) and the Eighth Symphony (1884 – 1887) and his Te Deum. Wagner’s death occurred during the time in which Bruckner was composing the Adagio of the Seventh Symphony. The closing bars of this adagio is a lament, with a magnificent outcry of Wagner tubas.
It was in the 1880s that Bruckner found fame and success, by now in his 60s. His Seventh Symphony had a hugely successful premiere in Leipzig in 1884. Bruckner became a cultural hero in the realm of the Academic Wagner Society. Young Wagnerites including Mahler became strong supporters of Bruckner. His supporters were strong advocates of the performance and promotion of his music, resulting in more of Bruckner’s music being printed. On the strength of this growing reputation, Bruckner received many honours: he was appointed a member of the Order of Franz Joseph an received honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna.
Bruckner’s symphonies are notable for their large-scale harmony and form. Bruckner asserted that ‘a true artist can work out his own form and then stick to it’, a quote that makes note of his assimilation of form in Beethoven’s late compositions and the fact that he went beyond it. The ideal of the classical sonata had been dynamic, created by both harmonic motion and logical motivic transformation. The slow movements of Bruckner’s symphonies show great variety in form. The Adagio of the Seventh Symphony is what made a name for Bruckner, after all. He embellished the returning segments of the rondo in a way later described by Schonberg as ‘developing variation’.
Bruckner’s final years were very productive, in which he focused on the Ninth Symphony, his last motet Vexilla regis, as well as Das deutsche Lied, Psalm andHelgoland. He was reported to be trying to complete his Ninth Symphony until the day he died.