Anton Bruckner, Psalm 150
By Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard College
Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
The celebrated violinist Fritz Kreisler, who as a boy studied theory with Bruckner in Vienna, remarked that the composer was a “combination of genius and simpleton. He had two coordinates—music and religion. Beyond that he knew almost nothing.” Beginning in the composer’s own time, such an assessment is fairly typical of Bruckner’s biographical image and has proved difficult to dispel. Given his intense faith and remarkable musical gifts it is hardly surprising that he wrote a large quantity of religious music, although its chronology is more curious. (Chronology is a difficult topic generally with respect to Bruckner because of the many revisions and versions of his works.)
Most of Bruckner’s sacred works, including the three large-scale masses, date from the early part of his compositional career, which for him began at quite an advanced age. In various respects his monumental symphonies—with their rich organ sonorities, chorales, and gothic grandeur—might also be considered religious. They are certainly spiritual statements and in some instances literally quote from his earlier masses. Once Bruckner began writing them he largely withdrew from composing explicitly religious music.
There are two particularly noteworthy exceptions: Te Deum (1881-84), a work closely allied to the Seventh Symphony, and Psalm 150, Bruckner’s last sacred composition, which dates from 1892, while he was working on his final Ninth Symphony. Bruckner had set various psalms over the course of his career before finally turning to the last of the Book of Psalms, No. 150. It is one of the most musical, enjoining everyone to praise God with music and dance. The text invokes a veritable temple orchestra of percussion, wind, and string instruments.
Richard Heuberger, a composer, writer, and conductor active in Vienna, commissioned Bruckner to write a hymn or cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra that was intended for the opening concert of a music festival in May 1892. (Although Bruckner did not know it, it appears that Brahms had been approached first.) In the end the work was only premiered on November 13, 1892 in Vienna’s Musikverein with Wilhelm Gericke conducting. It earned mixed praise from the powerful Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who concluded that “Bruckner’s new composition does not lack for outward effect, but it cannot be compared in its artistic substance to his Te Deum.”
Bruckner was much drawn to the “special ceremoniousness” of this psalm. The brief, tightly constructed composition opens with a loud, festive exclamation of “Halleluja!” for full orchestra and chorus, music that will return near the end before an elaborate closing fugue. Bruckner warned the conductor that “the final fugue is hard to sing.” Its theme bears a great similarity to the fugue subject of the finale of his Fifth Symphony.