Mountains of Faith

Picture fin de siecle Vienna in the 1890s, a cosmopolitan capital of empire that was about to shake the world with its new ideas. Sigmund Freud was already in practice. Walter Gropius would soon launch his revolutionary architecture. Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were splashing their canvases with images of angst. Gustav Mahler was directing the famous Vienna Opera and writing what were thought to be incomprehensible symphonies. At the conservatory, however, was a man teaching master classes in composition who represented the end of the era these men would forever change.

After years of neglect and then vilification, Anton Bruckner (b. 1824) was finally a famous composer. But his fame left him unchanged. He was first and last a person of deep and abiding faith. In the middle of teaching class, at the sound of the Angelus, he would stop and drop to his knees. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the lush artistic world of Vienna at the time doing the same.

Bruckner on his knees at the Angelus is the defining image of a man whose faith imbued his artistic vision as it has few artists in musical history. Faith is supposed to be able to move mountains. If mountains can be thought of in terms of sound, Anton Bruckner’s faith moved them. His monumental compositions are a musical Alps, and in listening to them, as when viewing the Alps, one can only look up in awe. The spirit in which he wrote all his works was signified by what he said of his magnificent Te Deum: “When God finally calls me and asks, ‘What have you done with the talent I gave you, my lad?’ I will present to him the score of my Te Deum and I hope he will judge me mercifully.”

One of the great Bruckner conductors of recent times, Eugen Jochum, speaking of whatever local Austrian influences may have shaped Bruckner’s music, said, “Behind that, however, as the background to all his music, lie a piety and a mystical personal relationship to God known otherwise in European music only to Bach.”

However, Bruckner is a difficult composer and, in a way, an acquired taste. His main body of work consists of nine symphonies and three Masses. Brahms called the symphonies “boa-constrictors.” Bruckner wrote them with such a sense of vastness and in a time scale so extended and at times seemingly suspended, that the listener needs very large ears to take it all in. They are almost impossible to grasp on first hearing. The symphonies can seem like elephantine meanderings that make Mahler sound like a model of concision. Mahler gives you more to fix your attention on in the moment, in case you miss the big picture. Not so Bruckner. If your attention flags, you are lost. These features made Bruckner’s symphonies very controversial. To one person who informed him that his symphonies were too long, Bruckner retorted, “No sir, you are too short.” Most of us are.

This year is the centenary of Bruckner’s death in 1896. In commemoration, Deutsche Grammophon has reissued Eugen Jochum’s magnificent recordings of Bruckner’s three Masses, made over the space of a decade (1963-1972) with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra. The remastering job has been superbly handled, leaving this set of two mid-priced CDs (44 7409-2) at least a match for the far more recent Hyperion recordings with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra conducted by the able Matthew Best. (The full-price Hyperion recordings, the only other integral set of the Masses, are available separately: Mass in D minor, paired with the Te Deum, CDA66650; Mass in E minor, coupled with two motets, CDA66177; and Mass in F minor, with Psalm 150, CDA 66599.)

The Masses, along with the Te Deum and other religious works, are not only the compositions most directly inspired by Bruckner’s faith, they are also the most approachable. The text of the Mass reined in Bruckner’s expansive tendencies, and their intended liturgical use placed limits on their size. The Masses were written at the beginning of Bruckner’s maturity, between 1864 and 1868, when he was in his forties and just starting to write his symphonies. (Bruckner was a late bloomer.) Perhaps for this reason, they are in a more conventional style than his later works: This is not to say that they are not highly original or anything less than monumental—simply that they are more immediately accessible than the symphonic behemoths.

In a short article one could not possibly catalogue the individual beauties of these Masses, so some general remarks are in order. First of all, the Masses were conceived symphonically and are extraordinarily rich. Stylistically, Bruckner drew upon Shubertian lyricism, Bachian counterpoint, and Wagnerian harmony. Each Mass has a sense of wholeness due, in part, to the cyclic use of motifs that Bruckner brings together in the concluding “Angus Dei.”

Each Mass is extraordinarily expressive of the text. One would think that Bruckner, writing some movements in full sonata form, would have to slight the individual meanings of words to keep things musically coherent. But even at its most symphonic, the music rises out of the rich meaning of the Mass. The meaning of the words is never swept away, but carried aloft and forward, placing these works among the greatest word settings every written.

At the head of the score of the Mass in D minor Bruckner wrote the dedication: “O.A.M.D.G.”—Omnia ad majorem Dei gloriam. The piece begins with a plaintive, searching Kyrie, continues with an optimistic, celebratory Gloria, a powerful Credo with a gentle, beautifully serene Incarnatus est, and a Sanctus with an extraordinarily wide range of expression. This the first mature work in which Bruckner’s full powers are on display.

The Mass in E minor has a sublime purity. Unlike the other two Masses, it utilizes winds only, instead of full orchestra. Hearkening back to plainchant and Renaissance polyphony, it was written to appeal to the Cecilian movement that strove for a kind of Palestrinian simplicity in Church music. Yet, if this was Bruckner’s idea of simplicity, it shows how very rich his richness was. It is also the most joyous music Bruckner wrote. In Bruckner there is often elemental power and mystical exaltation, but rarely joy. This Mass has one of the most beautiful Kyries every written. The joy in the Gloria is palpable, almost rollicking, especially beginning at the Rex coelestis. In the Credo, the Et resurrexit expresses joy over the event rather than depicting its power. The tolling qui tollis peccata mundi in the Agnus Dei is very affecting.

The F minor Mass is a volcanic eruption of faith, truly heaven-storming, an undisputed masterpiece, and rightly known as the greatest Mass since Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. One example: I know of no other Credo that depicts the Resurrection more powerfully: the Et ressurexit is Christ rising in sound. It is overwhelming. The same motif returns at the Et expecto, making it musically as clear as can be that it is in Christ’s resurrection we are to share.

Both Jochum and Best are brilliant in the three Masses and should leave any listener in ecstasy. Close comparison does reveal some significant differences. In general Best urges the music on with faster tempos. Best is quicker, fresher, and vocally brighter. The Hyperion recording perspective favors the chorus and leaves orchestral details a bit in the background. The sheer beauty of the singing is staggering. The DG sound perspective is better balanced and, surprisingly, given the age of the recordings, reveals far more orchestral detail and impact. Two examples illustrate the differences between Jochum and Best. In the Kyrie of the E minor Mass, Jochum’s slower approach conveys more of a sense of rising from out of the P, depths. Jochum goes for the gravitas, Best the choral crispness. The layering-in of the solo voices at the beginning of the Kyrie is very beautiful with Best; with Jochum, it is otherworldly. At the Et ressurexit in the Credo of the F minor Mass, Best’s faster tempo may be exciting, but it undercuts the magisterial drama that a slower buildup gives it and that Jochum achieves.

Bruckner was a strange and somewhat tortured man. From his bold and confident music one would never suspect the lacerating self-doubt to which he was subject at the slightest criticism and that led him to revise his works endlessly. Yet, if ever a man wrote music transcending his own peculiarities and sorrows, it was Bruckner. One can only wonder and exclaim: how noble this man’s soul must have been and how on fire with faith to have poured forth these cathedrals of sound. If, after the last several decades of liturgical dumbing-down, you have forgotten the true glory and power of the Mass, listen to these masterpieces and wonder at what God hath wrought.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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