The Surprising Life and Music of Catholic Composer Anton Bruckner

Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, a devout Catholic, was something of an odd man, but the beauty of his innovative and monumental sacred music deserves to be unpacked and considered by Catholics today.

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Artists and musicians have always had a reputation for irregular living and an inability to balance the different areas of their lives and creative work. While many encouraging exceptions exist, including devout Catholic artists, actors, and musicians, these exceptions often still prove the rule.

The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), though a devout Catholic, was not one of these exceptions. Though he was something of an odd man, the beauty of his innovative and monumental sacred music deserves to be unpacked and considered by Catholics today.

Born in the village of Ansfelden in upper Austria (less than 30 miles from my own birthplace!), Anton’s ancestors were farmers and craftsmen. The eldest of eleven children, he began playing the organ as a young child, initially taught music by his father, who was the village school teacher. 

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When Anton was 13, his father died, and he was sent to the monastery of Sankt Florian where he continued his education as a choirboy for several years. After a stint as an underpaid teacher in his late teenage years, Bruckner was able to continue his musical career, eventually becoming organist at Sankt Florian in 1848 and assistant teacher in the local village. He also studied “long-distance” with the Viennese music theorist and composer Simon Sechter. However, it was only in the early 1860s that Bruckner, already in his late 30s, began to compose in a serious way.

In 1868, Bruckner moved to Vienna to take up a post at the Vienna Conservatory, but he was unhappy in the city, trying to navigate its various musical factions and critics. A lifelong bachelor, Bruckner often piously pursued the possibility of marriage with girls much younger than himself, hoping that their spiritual innocence and purity would be proportional to their youth. This, together with his various memento mori and unusual humility and hesitance about his compositions, often led to him being labeled an eccentric, both in his lifetime and after. It seems that he suffered from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Unlike composers such as Wagner, Bruckner was humble before his fellow musicians rather than egotistical. He frequently revised his compositions (leading to endless trouble when it comes to preparing critical performing editions today). His insecurity and his relationship with his colleagues remain matters of debate.

Bruckner’s piety is inscribed on his musical corpus. An intensely private man, his internal life seemed melancholy and unremarkable. Thus, we must look largely to his music to tell us about what moved him. There we find a grandeur, a romanticism, a love of drama, and a loftiness of conception that inspires a feeling of wonder and transcendence in many listeners.

“Os Justi”

This beautiful text is used in several places in the liturgy for Doctors and Confessors: 

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks what is just.
The law of his God is in his heart:
and his feet do not falter.

Bruckner alternates between a homophonic setting of the text, where all the voices move and pronounce the words together, and a more polyphonic texture where the voices move independently of each other. 

On the word “meditate”—meditabitur—the soprano line leaps in a breathtaking fourth to a high A. When the “tongue speaks,” the lines softly meander in delightful shorter notes before climaxing on “what is just” and then coming together and pausing on “the law of his God.” Bruckner then repeats some of the music of meditabitur, fading to a sustained F minor chord to illustrate the feet that do not falter.

I recommend listening to the Tenebrae Choir’s masterful rendition of this piece.

“Ecce Sacerdos Magnus”

Setting a text often sung for the entrance of a bishop or cardinal to a ceremony, this piece manifests Bruckner’s capability for composing majesty and grandeur. At times (for example, on the words “Therefore by an oath”) it might remind you of a movie soundtrack. Scored for eight voices, organ, and three trombones, the majesty of brass and pipes combine to honor the “princes of the church”:

Behold a great priest who in his days pleased God:
Therefore by an oath the Lord made him to increase among his people.
To him He gave the blessing of all nations, and confirmed His covenant upon his head.
Therefore by an oath the Lord made him to increase among his people.

The piece has been described by Keith William Kinder as “a work of almost barbaric intensity.” One of the ways this intensity is achieved is by the fact that Bruckner alternates quiet and gentle passages with the blaring brass, giving each a higher contrast. 

Again, I suggest the Tenebrae Choir’s recording.

“Tota Pulchra Es”

One feature of Bruckner’s sacred music is the inclusion of semi-chant solo lines. His setting of the Marian antiphon Tota Pulchra covers a wide range of musical moods: opening and alternating with a chant-like tenor line, the motet blossoms in smooth polyphonic passages reminiscent of Renaissance music. This is hardly surprising, since Bruckner was involved in the so-called “Cecilian movement,” which emphasized the restoration of older forms of church music. And yet he also incorporates the bombast of the pipe organ and modern harmonies. Here is a sensitive performance.

When Pope Benedict said in The Ratzinger Report that “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb,” I don’t think he meant that all great Catholic art had to be created only by saints, but rather, that Christianity inspires both personal sanctity and artistic glories unlike what can be found in any other civilization. 

Bruckner is an example of a musical genius whose personal life was neither sinful nor very happy and balanced. This should not hinder our appreciation of his music; as I have said of another composer, imperfect and wounded instruments can still create edifying and timeless art that glorifies God. Praise God that this is possible and that we can enjoy the fruits of artists like Anton Bruckner.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles explaining great works of music “in a nutshell.” 


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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