Anton Bruckner was an Austrian composer and teacher, as well as an internationally renowned organ virtuoso during his lifetime. His compositional catalogue includes works for organ, piano, and chamber ensemble (including a string quintet), large vocal pieces with instruments, choral works both sacred and secular, and nine symphonies for which, along with his sacred compositions, he is best known today. His symphonies, notably, synthesize the Classical-era formal traditions of Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, albeit with an innovative slant, and the harmonic and orchestration techniques of Richard Wagner, one of his musical idols. His music in general is also shaped by his devout Catholic faith.
Born in Ansfelden, near Linz, on September 4, 1824, Bruckner was involved in his village’s musical activities from a young age and was sent by his parents to his cousin Johann Baptist Weiss for studies in violin, piano, and composition. Following the death of his father in 1837, he was admitted as a chorister at the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian, where for three years, alongside singing and his regular schooling, studied violin and organ and played piano for chamber concerts there. After working as a teacher in various villages from 1841, he returned to St. Florian in 1845, where he was employed for the next decade as assistant schoolteacher and singing instructor; in 1850, he became the monastery’s provisory organist. Amidst his busy schedule, he found time to compose, at this time mostly choral music and secular cantatas.
In 1855, Bruckner became the Dom-und-Stadtpfarrkirchen organist in Linz; he also embarked on an unusually dedicated period to the rigorous study of harmony and counterpoint with Viennese theorist Simon Sechter until 1861, during which he abstained from composing. From 1861 to 1863, he studied form and orchestration with Otto Kitzler, who introduced Bruckner to Wagner’s music dramas. He subsequently completed several substantial works, including his First Symphony in 1866.
Bruckner moved to Vienna in 1868 to teach at the city’s conservatory, where he remained on faculty until he retired in 1891. He also worked as an organist at the Hofkapelle, and garnered an international reputation as a virtuoso, with tours to Nancy and Paris in 1869 and London in 1871. As a composer, he focused on writing symphonies, completing Nos. 2 to 5 between 1871 and 1876. The premiere of his Third Symphony (dedicated to Wagner) was disastrous, having been caught up in the musical-political debate in which the conservative Viennese public and critical establishment viewed Bruckner’s music as “decadent” in its association with Wagner. Thereafter, he began the practice of revising his scores. By the mid-1880s, however, Bruckner found champions of his work in the young composers and musicians who were involved in groups such as the Viennese Academic Wagner Society, of which Gustav Mahler was a member. Performances of his Seventh Symphony, as well as the Third (including at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House) brought Bruckner renown as a composer. Suffering ill health in his final years, he died on October 11, 1896, while still working on the finale of his Ninth Symphony.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley