Franz Schubert noted in 1825 that he never would force himself to devotion and never compose hymns or prayers, unless devotion would overwhelm him in a natural way. For Anton Bruckner this was an every-day experience. He was a pious Catholic, imbued with an unwavering faith.
The devil – if he exists – must have had a hard time to tempt Bruckner. Not that he wouldn’t have tried. An unwavering faith Bruckner had, but this was the result of a conscious effort, of a life-long struggle. Religious questions tormented him and edified him at the same time. This tension – that must be the true expression of faith. Believing despite metaphysical misgivings.
Upholding the tradition
In 1864 Bruckner wrote Mass No. 1 in D minor, WAB 26. A beautiful composition, much applauded by contemporaries and probably more often performed in concert halls than in churches. Bruckner was a traditionalist, unlike Schubert. He stuck closely to the Catholic liturgy and while Richard Wagner’s colourful and highly dramatic musical language inspired certain parts of the mass, Bruckner did not intend to put forward his personal talent. His goal was to move the audience, the church-goers, to foster the expression of their faith during mass, to inspire them to trust in ultimate salvation and to give those spiritual consolation who were in need.
An impressive Kyrie
I find Bruckner’s Kyrie really, really impressive. It has a somewhat gloomy start suggesting mankind’s miserable existence. But then – Kyrie eleison! Lord, have mercy on us! A progressing figure for the strings underlines the earnestness of the prayer and the elevation that the believer experiences by humbly prostrating himself before God and asking for his indulgence. The Gloria partly takes up this theme, but the choir voices are dominant – man expressing his adulation of God as the source of all that is good, just and true.
Three days of waiting
The Credo, by far the longest section, is very nice, but there is nothing outstanding about it. But perhaps this was part of Bruckner’s plan. The creed should not be an excuse for human pride. The believer beliefs in the supremacy of God. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” The only human the creed mentions is Pontius Pilate – as the source of the Christ’s suffering. However I would like to highlight a theme for the winds towards the middle of the section linking the burial of the Christ to the resurrection: It serves to build tension and to illustrate the time of uncertainty of the Christ’s followers, those three days when they were caught between despair, fear, disbelief and a faint, diffuse hope that the world would not end.
Splendor and suffering
The final section – the Agnus Dei – opens with a slow, descent of two octaves by the strings. According to the musicologist Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen, Bruckner meant to signify the immeasurable distance between God’s celestial splendor and Christ’s suffering. The Agnus Dei is the most emotional part of Bruckner’s mass. It is extraordinary just as its subject: Christ’s sacrifice – the path to follow to reach deliverance of all sins, no matter what the price. It requires from the believer the famous leap of faith – to surrender to God unconditionally. “Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth. (Psalms 31:5).
Bruckner’s Mass No 1 in G minor has been recorded by the Chamber Choir of Europe and the Württemberg Philharmonic.
© Charles Thibo