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.
“It remains a psychological mystery how the most gentle and peace-loving of all men […] becomes an anarchist while he is composing, throwing over board logic, clarity of development, formal unity and tonality. His music changes its shape like an unwieldy, glowing column of smoke.” This is the harsh judgement of Eduard Hanslick, a Viennese music critic, over Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor. Hanslick himself did not exactly have a reputation as a gentle critic. His measuring stick was the Vienna School, i.e. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Anyone daring to deviate from that line would face instant and complete annihilation in the press.
“Never again have I been that daring and perky”, Anton Bruckner confided many years after he had written and rewritten what today is called Symphony No. 1 in C minor (WAB 101). The first movement starts on a few calm bars, but then the eight bars long main theme forcefully breaks free and this fervent, powerful element characterizes very much the entire work. The finale too is pushed forward by a radiant and majestic theme. Nevertheless the piece also has several song-like, melodious parts, a slow, solemn second movement, and a furious tutti at the end of the third movement – elements that would define all of Bruckner’s later symphonies.
Music like a thunderstorm. Violent. Majestic. Music like a prayer. Full of consolation and devotion. Anton Bruckner’s last word. “I don’t want to start writing the 9th [symphony], I don’t have the courage – Beethoven concluded his life with his Ninth”, the composer apparently said with apprehension. While he composed the first three of four planned movements, he realized that recurrent phases of illness proved him right. This symphony in D minor would be his legacy as a composer. And what a legacy it is!