Corydon Singers, Matthew Best, Conductor. Hyperion CDA 66067.
Anything further from a rock concert could hardly be imagined – than a Motet by Bruckner. Whereas a rock concert is all energy, noise, intense rhythm and movement, a Bruckner Motet (which is a choral setting of a religious text) is quiet, contemplative, devout — soaring soprano notes losing themselves in the high ceiling of the cathedral…. Bruckner knew the resources of a choir – in particular the long, long sustained notes which can rise and fall in intensity, and the huge contrast which is possible between soft, barely audible singing, and fortíssimo. He also demands a lot in terms of range, making the basses often sing very low, and the sopranos high. While most of the motets are written for unaccompanied choir in four parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor Bass) he may divide each line in two separate parts, and put in some instrumental support. But if you want to escape from the rigours of this world for a while, and live some moments in the contemplation of the Almighty, listen to Bruckner’s Motets – they are just the thing.
Anton Bruckner was born in September 1824, and died in October 1896. That means his lifespan was after Beethoven (who died in 1827) but was roughly the same as both Brahms and Wagner. He was born in Ansfelden, a little village in Upper Austria, into a musical and deeply pious family of Roman Catholics. His father was a schoolmaster-organist who gave Anton beginning keyboard and violin lessons, while his mother was a singer in the local church choir. After his father died in 1837, Bruckner was sent to St. Florian, the nearby Baroque monastery, to be a chorister and to continue his musical and other studies. At the age of twenty-one, having spent a year in Linz and four years teaching and playing the organ in provincial villages, he returned to St. Florian as assistant organist.
Bruckner had lessons in theory and composition and started composing fairly early in life, but he felt the need for more instruction in counterpoint and became a most diligent student of Simon Sechter, visiting him every fortnight in Vienna – and thus would have had a thorough grounding in the music of the great classical composers. In 1855, at the age of thirty-one, Bruckner became a full-time musician, when he accepted the post of cathedral organist in Linz. But after attending the Linz premiere of Wagner’s Tannhäuser early in 1863, new vistas were opened for him by Wagner’s boldness, and he began to compose the remarkable series of symphonies that were to become his most enduring contribution to music. Bruckner learned from Wagner – whom he met several times, and who admired his work – to paint vast musical canvases with great harmonic daring, and to employ increasingly large and powerful orchestral forces for his works.
This does not mean, however, that his works were always well appreciated: although his sacred music was well received, his symphonies were often in his time met with incomprehension and hostile criticism.
In 1868, Bruckner was appointed professor of composition at the Vienna Conservatory and organist to the imperial chapel. At last his talents and efforts were recognized, and he lived in the city for the remaining 28 years of his life.
For an insight into Bruckner’s personality, we are indebted to Bruno Walter, who as a young conductor in Vienna was in close contact with people who knew him intimately –
“No feature in Bruckner’s personal make-up reflected the greatness and sublimity of his music….. Bruckner was a retiring, awkward, childishly naive being, whose almost primitive ingenuousness and simplicity was mixed with a generous portion of rustic cunning. He spoke the unrefined Upper-Austrian dialect of the provincial and remained the countryman in appearance, clothing, speech, and carriage till the end, even though he lived in Vienna, a world-metropolis, for decades. His conversation never betrayed reading, whether literature or poetry, nor any interest in scientific matters. The broad domains of the intellectual did not attract him. Unless music was the topic he turned his conversation to the narrow vicissitudes and happenings of everyday existence. Nevertheless his personality must have been attractive, for almost all reports agree upon the peculiar fascination exerted by his naivete, piety, homely simplicity, and modesty, bordering at times on servility, as borne out by many of his letters. I explain this attractive power of his strange personality to myself as due to the radiance of his lofty, godly soul, the splendor of his musical genius glimmering through his unpretending homeliness. If his presence could hardly be felt as “interesting”, it was heartwarming, yes, uplifting”.
There are many recordings of Bruckner’s Motets. The one which drew my attention to this music is by the Corydon Singers – an English chamber choir – conducted by Matthew Best. This has 11 Motets, all beautifully sung. They were written throughout Bruckner’s life, from 1861 to 1892.
The first one is the gradual Locus iste, which was written in 1869, to celebrate the dedication of the votive chapel of the cathedral at Linz. Locus iste a Deo factus est / inaestimabile sacramentum / irreprehensibilis est – which translates to This place was made by God / a priceless mystery / it is beyond reproach. The first phrase is set with simplicity and purity, before the basses sing inaestimabile…. in a rising phrase which is taken upwards twice by the whole choir, to a spine-tingling fortissimo. Then the music falls to pianissimo for the irreprehensibilis est, before repeating the opening bars, and after a silence, finishing very quietly…. a little gem of a piece of music.
Os justi is an eight-part setting for mixed chorus of a text derived from Psalm 36, verses 30 and 31: “The mouth of the just shall meditate wisdom, and his tongue shall speak judgment. The law of his God is in his heart, and his steps shall not be supplanted. Alleluia.” The work was composed in 1879, and subsequently published in 1886.
Well, to hear this music, you can order the CD, or you can listen to excerpts on the Good Listening website, or even better, you can hear it live at the next concert of the SCM, which is on Monday 11th August in Christ Church (8pm). The program is all Bruckner, and includes his Requiem Mass in D minor as well as seven of the Motets. So…..
So here are 6 Motets, as sung by the Camara Choir of the SCM in Rio de Janeiro, on 11th August 2008. Conductor: Ruy Wanderley. Organ: Inês Rufino.
1. Offertorium: Afferentur regi virgines (1861)
2. Pange lingua (1863)
3. Graduale: Locus iste (1869)
4. Graduale (Lydisch): Os justi (1879)
5. Virga Jesse (1885)
6. Vexilla regis (1892)