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Bruckner, Joseph Anton

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the cultural history of biblical texts, themes, characters, images, and the Bible itself in the literary, visual, and musical arts.

Bruckner, Joseph Anton

Joseph Anton Bruckner (b. Ansfelden, Austria, 4 September 1824; d. Vienna, Austria, 11 October 1896) was a nineteenth-century composer and organist best known for his contributions to the symphonic literature in addition to several major religious works.

Anton Bruckner was a devout Catholic whose sacred music offerings are among the most significant of the nineteenth century; they include orchestral masses, psalm settings, motets, and various liturgical pieces. With exceptions, much of Bruckner’s sacred music output predated his later focus on orchestral composition, though the spiritual in Bruckner’s symphonic music is never absent and is often represented with direct allusions to his own sacred works. Bruckner’s mature approach to orchestration reflects his predilection for organ-like sonorities that create a vast musical space.

Bruckner’s first decade was spent in his hometown of Ansfelden, near Linz, Austria. He was the son of a schoolteacher his father, Anton (1791–1837), also served as organist and music director for the local church. Bruckner displayed an aptitude for music as a boy, though at the time it was more of an avocational pursuit. In 1835 Bruckner moved to nearby Hörsching to study with Johann Baptist Weiss, a cousin who was also an organist. It is believed that Bruckner’s earliest extant composition, the hymn Pange lingua (WAB 31), may date from this time.

When Bruckner’s father died in 1837, Bruckner was admitted as a choirboy at St. Florian, an Augustinian monastery, at the urging of his widowed mother. St. Florian broadened Bruckner’s musical awareness; the music performed there was often sacred, written by local composers and relatively recent luminaries such as Joseph Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. In addition to Bruckner’s work at St. Florian as a chorister, he also studied violin and organ. These studies expanded to include theory and piano when he traveled to Linz for training as a schoolteacher, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The years 1841 to 1842 saw the young Bruckner in his first teaching position in the village of Windhaag, where he would make his first essay at a mass for small forces. In 1843 Bruckner returned to the St. Florian region with a new position at Kronstorf. His educational impulses showed no sign of slacking; while teaching in Kronstorf he studied organ and theory with Leopold von Zenetti (1805–1892) in nearby Enns. Several works likely date from this period, including two masses and other sacred choral works. In 1845 Bruckner returned to St. Florian itself for a period of 10 years, pursuing music and teaching in equal measure. Important works in Bruckner’s development began to emerge during this period, including the Requiem (WAB 39, composed in 1849 after the death of his friend Franz Sailer).

The Early Works.

Like many composers who preceded and followed him, Bruckner’s early works were composed for the modest forces available to him, dictated by necessity. The years in Windhaag and Kronstorf yielded what might be considered proto-masses, at least three of which survive from between 1842 and 1844, including the earliest “Windhaager” Mass (WAB 25, ca. 1842). Several of the masses from this time are not full settings; the F-major mass (WAB 9, 1844) is a mass for Maundy Thursday featuring the gradual Christus factus est (which Bruckner set separately on multiple future occasions), and the “Kronstorfer” Mass (WAB 146, ca. 1844) is incomplete. Plainsong influenced the musical material of the masses and other sacred works, and by the time of the “Kronstorfer” Mass Bruckner would begin a common practice of inscribing a dedication to God on his manuscripts (A.m.D.g—Ad majorem Dei gloriam).

During the 1840s (and beyond) Bruckner composed numerous smaller-scale sacred choral works; examples include seven settings of Tantum ergo (between 1844 and 1846; Bruckner set the text), drawn from the Pange lingua of Thomas Aquinas, and three settings of the antiphon Asperges me. Bruckner was also actively composing secular cantatas and choral works during this time. Of particular significance in Bruckner’s early output is his Requiem (WAB 39, 1849), which, though indebted to Mozart’s Requiem, gives hints of the Bruckner to come. Bruckner is known to have started two other Requiem masses, but one is lost (WAB 133, 1845) and the other is fragmentary (WAB 141, 1875). Outside of the context of the Requiem mass Bruckner also set texts such as the Libera me Domine on several occasions; one setting dates from the same month in 1854 when Bruckner composed Vor Arneths Grab (WAB 53)—written for the funeral of Michael Arneth, head of the St. Florian monastery; Arneth had given Bruckner many life-changing opportunities. Another notable work to follow from Arneth’s death was the Missa solemnis in B-flat minor (WAB 29, 1854), written to honor the succession of the next prior.

The period from 1852 to 1854 yielded further important sacred works. These include a Magnificat setting (WAB 24, 1852) and three psalms. Bruckner, as a practicing Roman Catholic, was not using the New Revised Standard Edition of the Bible, but rather the Vulgate. As a result Bruckner employed the Vulgate numeration of the psalms. The psalm settings become increasingly sophisticated, eventually employing larger forces. The psalms Bruckner set at this time include Psalm 22 (WAB 34, ca. 1852), Psalm 114 (116 in NRSE, WAB 36, 1852), and the cantata-like Psalm 146 (WAB 37, ca. 1854). These works, beyond their religious significance for Bruckner, are evidence of his increasing capacity for contrapuntal invention.


Despite the benefits of life at St. Florian, paths of advancement were nevertheless limited there, and Bruckner wished to find a better situation for himself. In 1855 Bruckner auditioned for and was awarded the organist position at the cathedral in Linz. The post validated Bruckner’s considerable skills as an organist. His responsibilities in Linz involved service work at the cathedral and parish churches, an occupation that kept him busy. Not much music was written during this time, for the extraordinary reason that Bruckner decided to forgo composing new music in order to focus on his compositional technique. Bruckner’s odyssey lasted some six years; beginning in 1855, Bruckner worked closely on theory and counterpoint with Simon Sechter (1788–1867), at first via correspondence and increasingly in person in Vienna. Bruckner’s exercises with Sechter display the seriousness with which he undertook his studies, and Bruckner’s subsequent music shows a new level of mastery in his art. Sechter endorsed Bruckner’s abilities in 1861—Bruckner had and would continue to seek such official recognition of his abilities throughout his life. In Bruckner’s quest for legitimacy he submitted himself for examination by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, where he impressed Johann Herbeck (not yet elevated to Johann Ritter von Herbeck) with his improvisational abilities on the organ; Herbeck would prove to be a significant ally to Bruckner.

It is thought that with the exception of certain composers such as Mendelssohn, Bruckner’s awareness of and exposure to current or recent music was not great until he began his next round of studies, this time with the conductor and cellist Otto Kitzler. Most importantly, Kitzler unveiled the musical dominion of Wagner to Bruckner. Under Kitzler’s guidance Bruckner began to produce more nonreligious instrumental works, including a “study” symphony and a string quartet. Bruckner’s creative star began to shine more brightly in the mid-1860s as he produced works that marked his maturity and demonstrated his developing command of larger forms; these include the three numbered masses and his Symphony no. 1 (WAB 101, 1865–1866, distinct from his “study” symphony and the “nullte” Symphony no. 0, which Bruckner wrote after the symphony he designated as no. “1,” but later withdrew). Bruckner’s professional contacts expanded significantly during this period as well; he met Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz and attended important performances of all three composers. Despite his artistic successes, Bruckner’s intensive creative activity, abetted perhaps by personal disappointments, led to a psychological breakdown in 1867 that would confine him to a sanatorium for a month. His luck was to change for the better in 1868.

Major Works, 1861–1868.

Bruckner’s compositional output from the period between 1855 and 1861 dropped to just a few small pieces as he devoted himself entirely to his studies with Sechter. Starting in 1861 we see the emergence of a series of major sacred works as well as the nascent instrumental music for which Bruckner would ultimately become best known. Among the first pieces composed after the period of silence was the seven-part choral Ave Maria (WAB 6, 1861), which shows the influence of Sechter and Palestrina, as well as Bruckner’s unique mastery of the idiom. Am Grabe (WAB 2, 1861) was the first piece Bruckner composed for his choir in Linz, the Liedertafel Frohsinn. These were followed in 1863 by the Psalm 112 (WAB 35) and a transitional secular work in which the brass writing anticipates Bruckner’s orchestral music—the Germanenzug (WAB 70, 1863–1864). Another excellent example of Bruckner’s sacred choral writing during this period is his offertory Inveni David (WAB 19, 1868).

Between 1864 and 1868 Bruckner wrote his three great masses, which he saw fit to number. The D-minor Mass no. 1 (WAB 26) is scored for four soloists, SATB choir, orchestra, and organ; it was revised three times, in 1876, 1881, and 1882. The Mass no. 2 in E minor (WAB 27, 1866) is unique in conception, as it was originally intended for outdoor performance and is scored for SSAATTBB choir, winds, and brass; it was revised in 1876 and 1882. The F-minor Mass no. 3 (WAB 28, 1868) features four soloists, SATB choir, orchestra, and organ; it too was revised in 1876, 1877, 1881, and the 1890s. The first and third masses are symphonic on the order of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and the orchestra plays an important role in the musical argument. These major sacred works would serve Bruckner well as source material for quotations, especially in the early symphonies and the Ninth (many moments in Bruckner’s smaller-scale sacred works are also referenced in the symphonies—for instance, the late Virga jesse floruit, WAB 52, and Vexilla regis prodeunt, WAB 51, have material reminiscent of music from the seventh and ninth symphonies).

One perspective on the reform of Catholic music that arises at this stage in Bruckner’s career (especially with respect to liturgical music) is that of the Cecilian movement. The movement’s general goals for sacred music were purity of musical language and intelligibility of words; Gregorian chant was privileged, and they sought to minimize instrumentation—just organ accompaniment or a cappella writing in liturgical contexts was ideal. Although for a time Bruckner’s music was seen as subscribing to the Cecilian doctrine, the increasing distinction of his music in terms of harmonic and orchestrational content gradually left him and other Catholic reform composers like Liszt out of the Cecilian fold. For instance, a later setting of Aquinas’s Pange lingua (WAB 33, 1868) by Bruckner was modified by the Cecilian Franz Xavier Witt to purify it of its violate dissonances without Bruckner’s permission—proving their differing priorities.

In the midst of his creation of masses, Bruckner composed what he would call his Symphony no. 1 (WAB 101, 1865–1866), a work that, like so many of the others, he would revise repeatedly in the ensuing years; in this case in 1877, 1884, 1889, and 1890 to 1891. Bruckner had reached compositional maturity at the time of his transition from a sacred to an instrumental focus; he would continue to compose sacred music for the rest of his life, however, and what Bruckner considered to be his greatest work (the Te Deum) still lay in the future after the accomplishment of the three masses.


After the death of his former teacher Simon Sechter in 1867, Herbeck persuaded Bruckner to teach harmony, counterpoint, and organ at the Vienna Conservatory, where he started his new position in 1868. Bruckner taught there until his retirement as well as at other area institutions such as the University of Vienna. As an organist in the Hofkapelle, Bruckner had the opportunity to develop his improvisational skills for most of the remainder of his life.

Toward the end of 1871 Bruckner recommenced work on new orchestral pieces, completing what would become his symphonies nos. 2–5 by 1876. While Bruckner managed to get performances of the second and third symphonies, his work ran afoul of the conservative cabal in Vienna led by the critic Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904). The latter part of the 1870s was spent revising his earlier works (sowing seeds of confusion for later generations to come), but Bruckner returned to composing new works in late 1878. By 1884 he had completed the sixth and seventh symphonies (Wagner died while Bruckner was working on the massive Adagio, leading to its conception as an elegy for Wagner), the string quintet (WAB 112/113, Bruckner’s only mature chamber work), and his Te Deum (WAB 45, 1881–1884). The Symphony no. 8 was completed in its first version by 1887.

Maintaining his allegiance to Wagner, Bruckner was present in Bayreuth when Liszt died there in 1886; although Liszt’s music was not performed, Bruckner improvised on material from Parsifal—a perceptive gesture, perhaps, given Wagner’s incorporation of some of Liszt’s musical ideas in Parsifal. With the support of conductors like Arthur Nikisch (1855–1922), Hermann Levi (1839–1900), and Hans Richter (1843–1916), Bruckner began to score some critical successes, especially with his Symphony no. 7. After receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1891—the fulfillment of a lifelong desire—Bruckner continued to compose a handful of religious and secular works. His preoccupation, however, was with his final symphony, the Ninth, of which he completed all but the finale. During his last years Bruckner suffered from poor health, and he died in 1896. He was laid to rest beneath the organ at St. Florian, and at the ceremony Bruckner’s former student Josef Gruber improvised on themes from Parsifal, just as Bruckner had done at Liszt’s funeral a decade before.

Late Works.

Bruckner’s symphonic works dominate his compositional achievements after he moved to Vienna. The revisions that Bruckner performed on his symphonies have long been controversial, especially as the authoritative versions for several of them became obscured through the intercession of Bruckner’s followers. In brief, their sequence of composition was: Symphony no. 0 in D minor (WAB 100, “Nullte,” 1869); Symphony no. 2 in C minor (WAB 102, 1871–1872)—rev. 1873, 1876, 1877, and 1892; Symphony no. 3 in D minor (WAB 103, 1872–1873)—rev. 1874, 1876, 1877–1879, 1887, and 1889; Symphony no. 4 in E-flat major (WAB 104, 1874)—rev. 1878–1880, 1881, 1886, and 1888; Symphony no. 5 in B-flat major (WAB 105, 1875–1876)—rev. 1877–1878; Symphony no. 6 in A major (WAB 106, 1879–1881); Symphony no. 7 in E major (WAB 107, 1881–1883); Symphony no. 8 in C minor (WAB 108, 1884–1887)—rev. 1887–1890; and lastly the Symphony no. 9 in D minor (WAB 109, 1887–1894, first three movements; the finale was worked on in 1895–1896 but was not completed). In Perspectives on Anton Bruckner¸ John A. Phillips offers an account of the various theories concerning Bruckner’s consideration of the Te Deum as a substitute finale (or otherwise integrated with some existing material) for the Symphony no. 9 in the event (which was unfortunately the case) that he died before completing the symphony. Such a notion offers one of the more compelling conflations of the sacred and symphonic in Bruckner’s late music.

The most significant sacred works from the latter part of Bruckner’s life include the Psalm 150 (WAB 38, 1892) and the Te Deum (WAB 45, 1881–1884). Bruckner wrote a number of other motets and secular works during the last 20 years of his life. To mention a few, there are multiple settings of the gradual Christus factus est (WAB 10 and 11, 1873 and 1884); the antiphon Tota pulchra es (WAB 46, 1878); the gradual Os justi (WAB 30, 1879); the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (WAB 50, ca. 1884); and the Fortunatus hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt (WAB 51, 1892). Bruckner’s final completed work, not counting the independent movements of the Symphony no. 9, was the secular Helgoland (WAB 71, 1893) for male chorus and orchestra.

Note on Resources.

Recently scholars have been exploring the lesser-known sacred works of Bruckner and analyzing the relationships between his sacred and instrumental output. Many sources are in German, but scholarship in English has been increasing, including the continued contributions of Paul Hawkshaw, Crawford Howie, and Timothy Jackson. One of the seminal works in Bruckner studies is the work of Bruckner’s first biographer, August Göllerich (1859–1923; Göllerich also studied with Liszt and gave an account of Liszt’s master classes), whose book Anton Bruckner, ein Lebens- und Schaffensbild was completed by Max Auer and, together with Auer’s other writings, provided an important foundation for later work.


  • Gault, Dermot. The New Bruckner: Compositional Development and the Dynamics of Revision. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Hawkshaw, Paul, and Timothy L. Jackson. “Bruckner, Anton.” Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40030.
  • Horton, Julian. Bruckner’s Symphonies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Howie, Crawford. Anton Bruckner: A Documentary Biography. 2 vols. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 2002.
  • Howie, Crawford, Paul Hawkshaw, and Timothy Jackson, eds. Perspectives on Anton Bruckner. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2001.
  • Jackson, Timothy L., and Paul Hawkshaw, eds. Bruckner Studies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Kinder, Keith William. The Wind and Wind-Chorus Music of Anton Bruckner. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000.
  • Riedel, Friedrich Wilhelm, ed. Anton Bruckner: Tradition und Fortschritt in der Kirchenmusik des 19. Jahrhunderts. Kirchenmusikalische Studien 7. Sinzig, Germany: Studio, Verlag Schewe, 2001.
  • Watson, Derek. Bruckner. 2d ed. Edited by Stanley Sadie. Master Musicians Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Williamson, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

David Plylar

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