Mass No. 3 in F minor

By Benjamin M. Korstvedt, Clark University

Written for the concert Bruckner’s Journey, performed on Jan 10, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The 1860s was a decisive decade for Anton Bruckner. In 1860, the year he turned thirty-six, he was working in Linz as Cathedral Organist, nearing the end of a six-year correspondence course in harmony and counterpoint with the Viennese theorist Simon Sechter, during which time Bruckner did not compose any significant original music. By 1870 he was Professor of Harmony, Counterpoint, and Organ at the Vienna Conservatory (succeeding Sechter who died in 1867), had begun his long period of service as the Hofkapelle organist, and was just beginning his difficult and ultimately triumphant career as a pioneering composer of modern symphonies in Vienna. In the intervening decade he spent two years studying form and instrumentation with the Linz cellist and Kapellmeister Otto Kitzler, made the deeply significant discovery of Wagner’s music, composed his three great Masses, as well as three early symphonies and a number of smaller choral works, made a tour to Paris and Nancy as organ virtuoso, and spent three months in 1867 undergoing a cold-water cure at Bad Kreuzen during the passage of a profound existential crisis.

The two works on tonight’s program were composed during this decade; the initial version of the First Symphony was completed in 1866 and the F-minor Mass was begun in 1867, shortly after Bruckner’s departure from Bad Kreuzen and the news of Sechter’s death, and completed in August of the following year, just before Bruckner permanently relocated to Vienna. These compositions stand at the opposite ends of their respective genres. The First Symphony was Bruckner’s first mature symphonic work, preceded only by the F-minor “Study Symphony” of 1863. (The “Nullte” Symphony in D minor was not composed until 1869). And while it may not be entirely characteristic of Bruckner’s later style, it is the first work in which we feel the presence of his distinctive symphonic voice. Bruckner himself was always fond of this symphony: he nicknamed it “die kecke Beserl” (an almost untranslatable phrase that has been rendered variously as the “impudent urchin” or the “saucy young thing”) and late in his life identified it as his boldest symphony. The F-minor Mass, the last of Bruckner’s five complete Mass settings, achieves an even greater depth of expressive and musical elaboration than do the great D-minor and E-minor Masses. A number of modern commentators have suggested that because of its performance demands, its often dramatic rhetoric, and its elaborate structure, the F-minor Mass is more suited to the concert hall than the church, but it is worth noting that Bruckner performed the work no fewer than eight times in sacred settings before it was first heard in a concert hall in 1893.

The First Symphony, which is in the four-movement scheme Bruckner favored, was begun not long after Bruckner first attended a performance of a Wagner opera (Tannhäuser in Linz in 1862), and it seems that the impact of this experience helped inspire Bruckner’s decision to shift his musical career away from sacred music and toward the secular work of the symphony. Bruckner’s Wagnerian encounter seems to have left an audible trace in this symphony. Near the end of the exposition of the first movement, following the regular third theme, a new, grandiose theme is intoned boldly and quite unexpectedly by the trombones, beneath the accompaniment of a very distinctive 32nd-note figuration in the strings. This theme is immediately restated in a slightly varied guise to open the development section, but then is never heard again. This music, which is unmistakable with the trombones playing a big tune beneath the swirling patterns of the upper strings, strongly evokes Wagner’s setting of the Pilgrims’s Chorus in Tannhäuser, albeit filtered by Bruckner’s own symphonic imagination. This Wagnerian calling card does not seem to have been lost on early observers. In 1865, Bruckner brought the three completed movements of the symphony with him when he traveled to Munich for the first performance of Tristan und Isolde. While there, he showed them to Hans von Bülow. Bruckner reported that Bülow was delighted by the symphony’s “beautiful ideas” but horrified by the boldness with which Bruckner developed them. As he read through the score, Bruckner recalled, Bülow “often shouted, ‘what mastery,’ followed by, ‘how dare you do that?’ At a trombone passage [surely the one in question] Bülow shouted wildly, ‘Ha, this is dramatic.'” Bruckner replied, “Yes, just so.”

Other musical highlights of the symphony include the sturdy treading march of the C-minor opening theme, the simple lyricism of the first movement’s second theme, the bursting energy of the Scherzo, and the telling use of horns and timpani throughout the symphony. The slow movement is the first of Bruckner’s great Adagios; it deploys a very effective chromatic idiom and reaches a memorably aching climax shortly before its end. The Finale opens with a loud assertive theme (Bruckner once glossed it as “Here I am!”) and unfolds into an expansively energetic movement culminating in a large and dynamic C-major coda.

The F-minor Mass is a grand work scored for four vocal soloists, chorus, full orchestra and (optionally) organ set in the standard six-movement scheme: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The Kyrie is a movement of grave beauty that moves from the quietly reverential opening pages through the more impassioned “Christe” with solo contributions from soprano, bass and violin to a concluding “Kyrie” that finally dies away to a near whisper.

The Gloria and Credo are both expansive movements that encompass humanely reflective passages–notably the “Qui tollis” in the Gloria and the “Et incarnatus” in the Credo–within a structure framed by powerful, declarative passages. The Gloria ends with a dazzlingly intense double fugue on “Amen” that glorifies God by reveling in a sublime complexity of counterpoint and chromaticism. The Credo, which lasts close to twenty minutes in performance, is structured symphonically: about two thirds of the way through, the music that opened the movement is recapitulated and the music of the “et ressurexit” is pointedly recalled a few pages later on the text “et expecto ressurectionem.” The central crucifixion and resurrection passage of the Credo is treated as epic drama, beginning with a poignant exchange between solo bass and chorus (“Crucifixus etiam pro nobis”) that leads to the lamenting fall of the unaccompanied chorus on the words “passus.” Following a hushed silence, a sudden and uncannily illuminated E-major crescendo quickly surges to the cry of “et resurrexit.” Like the Gloria, the Credo concludes with an intricately magnificent double fugue.

The three subsequent movements are less imposing. The Benedictus, with its hushed introduction and its lyrical interplay between the soloists and chorus, contains some of the most romantic music Bruckner ever composed. The Agnus Dei returns to the deep F-minor mood that began the Kyrie, especially effective are its implorations of “miserere” and the turn to the tonic major for the final prayer, “Dona nobis pacem.”

Like many of Bruckner’s works, this symphony and this mass occupied his attention intermittently over many years. The First Symphony was lightly revised in 1868 and 1877 and more thoroughly reworked in 1890-91, as Bruckner readied to dedicate the symphony to the University of Vienna in gratitude for the honorary doctorate they granted him in 1891. The work was first published in 1893 in this so-called “Vienna version,” in which the orchestration is strengthened in several passages, some motivic profiling is clarified, and periodic structures are regularized, especially in the second half of the Finale. It is this version we shall hear tonight. Critical opinion may now favor the slightly brusquer and fresher “Linz version,” but by the end of the 1880s, with some twenty years of symphonic experience behind him, Bruckner was firmly decided that this youthful work needed to be revisited. In December 1889 the Vienna Philharmonic had decided to perform the First and had actually begun rehearsals when Bruckner concluded that the score could not be performed in its original state or, as he said, “the Beserl must first be tidied up!” He withdrew the symphony, even though this move threatened to cost him a fair sum in lost copying fees. Hermann Levi, another conductor who championed Bruckner, declared, “The First Symphony is wonderful… Please, don’t change it too much. It is just fine the way it is, even the instrumentation.” Bruckner, firm in his judgment, amended the score as he saw fit. The changes are not blatant, but neither are they insignificant.

The history of the F-minor Mass also reflects the often-uneasy reception of Bruckner’s music by its early interpreters. After two preparatory rehearsals in the winter of 1868/69, the conductor Johann Herbeck set the work aside as “too long and unsingable.” Again in 1872 he found it unmanageable and Bruckner was left to prepare and conduct the Mass’s highly successful premiere in that year. Having heard the work, Herbeck was convinced; he declared, “I know only two Masses–this one and Beethoven’s Solemnis!” Bruckner made modifications and adjustments to the F-minor Mass several times in the 1870s and 1880s, always in association with performances. He continued to tinker with the score into the 1890s. It was finally published in 1894 in an infamous edition, which is now almost never seen nor heard, that contains numerous alterations, primarily involving the enrichment of the woodwind writing, some curtailment of the trombones’ role, the enlargement of the horn complement from two to four instruments, and the recasting of much of the brass writing. Many of these revisions were made not by Bruckner, but by Joseph Schalk apparently without the composer’s prior consent nor even his awareness. This revised version was first heard in the Mass’s concert-hall premiere conducted by Schalk in 1893. In today’s concert we hear Nowak’s edition of the Mass, which reflects the score as it stood in the early 1880s.