Unexpected Alliances Music of Bruckner and Stravinsky
By Thomas May
“One hopes to worship God with a little art if one has any,” Stravinsky once quipped. For all the revolutionary impact of his early ballets, Stravinsky’s guiding aesthetic credo actually shares something essential with Bach and other composers from even earlier in the Western tradition who perceived themselves as craftsmen “for the greater glory of God.” As he later said of his Mass setting from 1948, Stravinsky aimed to write “very cold music, absolutely cold, that will appeal directly to the spirit,” bypassing the “heart” — which is to say what he considered the self-indulgent subjectivity of Romanticism, as represented above all by Wagner’s legacy.
Although Anton Bruckner is often seen as writing in the shadow of Wagner, his own creative stance — in his secular symphonies and sacred music alike — has more in common with the composer of the Symphony of Psalms than might at first be assumed. The pairing on tonight’s program makes this connection especially apparent. Bruckner’s discovery of Wagner (which he had first made only a few years before writing his Mass in E minor) cast a powerful spell, to be sure, yet his actual sound world typically projects an austerity far removed from Wagner’s sensual, all-encompassing fabric. Like Stravinsky in his Symphony, Bruckner’s Mass reaches beyond classical tradition to reclaim elements from the past and incorporate them within a contemporary language. Most significantly perhaps, both composers channel a sincere spirituality — the devout Roman Catholicism to which the Austrian composer adhered throughout his life and, for Stravinsky, the Russian Orthodox faith he had returned to in 1926 — yet both transcend doctrinal complacency and narrow-mindedness.
Mass in E minor
Bruckner’s better-known symphonies implicitly carry on the kind of spiritual contemplation found in his sacred music — a further indication of the universal character of this “God-intoxicated” composer’s art. Quotations from his Masses are threaded into several of his symphonies, including his Ninth, which he dedicated to “the dear Lord.” (Stravinsky, otherwise not at all a fan, found the Adagio from the Ninth to be “one of the most truly inspired of all works in symphonic form.”) It was soon after completing the earliest version of his first officially numbered symphony, in 1866, that Bruckner composed the Mass No. 2 in E minor, which he revised in 1882.
Unlike his two other mature Masses, which were also written in the 1860s, the Mass No. 2 swerves away from the classical Mass tradition developed by Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert. There are no solo vocal parts and, even more unusually, the orchestra is reduced to a band of woodwind and brass. The result is a curious mix that at times evokes the Renaissance — though the Renaissance as filtered through the adventurous harmony of the late 19th century. The Mass was commissioned for the dedication of the Votive Chapel attached to the neo-Gothic New Cathedral in Linz. (Just begun, it would become the largest of Austria’s churches.) Bruckner, who at the time served as organist at the city’s grand Old Cathedral, likely chose his unusual orchestration from practical necessity, since the new building was still under construction and the dedication ceremony, delayed until 1869, took place in the open air.
In fact, Bruckner uses the wind band with great restraint, calling for optional accompaniment, for example, in most of the Kyrie. Extended a cappella passages set to surprising harmonic shifts make this Mass especially challenging for its singers. Beginning with plaintive calm, for women’s voices alone, the Kyrie soon swells to tremendous force, then repeats the process with men’s voices. Bruckner pays homage to Renaissance style polyphony, weaving together a maximum of eight separate parts for the Christe and the return of the Kyrie. The renewed emphasis on the choral art and reference to the past (particularly Palestrina) has been associated with the aims of the contemporary Cecilian movement (see page 9).
At the same time, the slower middle sections of both the Gloria and, above all, the Credo seem to depart from the straightforward directness the Cecilians called for. Here Bruckner — a composer not usually associated with “programs” — reveals a remarkable talent for dramatic word painting, particularly in his setting of the few lines that recount the human experience of Jesus. The thrilling antiphonal blocks of sound for “et resurrexit” give way in the final sections to apocalypse . Curiously, the outer parts of the Credo stand out as the only sections of the Mass that Bruckner sets in triple meter.
Bruckner’s intensive six-year study of counterpoint in his 30s had its payoff, as we hear in the lively double fugue concluding the Gloria.
But along with dense baroque counterpoint, the E minor Mass reveals the influence of earlier contrapuntal styles: the eight-part canon beginning the Sanctus actually quotes a theme from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, building in a carefully planned crescendo to the exclamation “Dominus Deus Sabaoth,” which Bruckner surrounds with a halo of forceful brass. In his classic overview of the composer, Robert Simpson calls the Sanctus “perhaps the finest single movement in the whole of Bruckner’s early maturity.”
The Benedictus, set as a separate movement, synthesizes the ancient text with sonata form, elaborating astonishing harmonic sequences in the development, while the Agnus Dei finds its way to a radiant resolution of its searching character. Here, in the final measures, Bruckner creates overarching unity by recalling the Kyrie. For all its deliberate archaism as well as concision, Simpson writes, aspects of the Mass (especially the Sanctus) point ahead to the mature style he later evolved, with its vastly expanded time scale in which musical processes unfold.
Os justi meditabitur sapientiam (“The Mouth of the Righteous”)
We don’t tend to think of Bruckner as a miniaturist, but some of his most grippingly beautiful music can be found in the short choral pieces and motets he set to sacred texts. As do his mighty symphonies, these compositions lift us out of the ordinary, mundane flow of time by inspiring — albeit with far simpler means — a sense of reverberant spaciousness, of sanctuary beyond the horizon. Like the Mass in E minor, Os justi (for mixed a cappella chorus, and again in eight parts) was in fact associated in the composer’s mind with a particular sacred space: this time not in Linz, but with the marvelous baroque Augustinian monastery Church of St. Florian (not far from Linz in Upper Austria), where Bruckner also served as organist and where he was later buried. Setting verses from Psalm 36, he wrote Os justi for Ignaz Traumihler, St. Florian’s chorus master and a friend. This kind of motet is known as a “gradual,” meaning a hymn usually taken from the Psalms that is sung during the Mass liturgy after the epistle.
Bruckner composed Os justi in 1879 (around the time of the Sixth Symphony), when he had already been based in Vienna for over a decade. But its musical language looks back to some of the Cecilianist ideals with which the E minor Mass is routinely linked. Traumihler was in fact a leading figure in that movement, though Bruckner ultimately found its aesthetic restrictions too limiting. In this context, it’s interesting to note that he drew attention to the motet’s ultra-simple (in a sense, “minimalist”) harmonic language in a letter to Traumihler: “It is written without sharps and flats, without the chord of the seventh, without the six-four chord, and without chordal combinations of four and five simultaneous notes.” Instead, the piece unfolds in the archaic Lydian mode, one of the old modes from Gregorian chant (F to F using only white keys on the piano). Despite avoiding modulation, notes biographer Derek Watson, “this motet is profoundly emotional in effect, the contrapuntal main section being introduced by a homophonic passage including antiphonal responses between the male and female voices of the choir.”
Symphony of Psalms
The interplay of stark economy and sacred texts in the Symphony of Psalms (composed in 1930 on a commission for the Boston Symphony) must have astonished audiences who saw Stravinsky’s neoclassical reappropriation of musical styles from the past, as in the ballet Pulcinella, merely as a witty game — even if most of the music for which he was known up to that point was connected in some way with the theater. Biographer Stephen Walsh suggests that the worldwide Depression — which forced a rude awakening from the giddy exuberance of the 1920s — may have left its mark on the work’s genesis and points to a wave of spiritually themed works by several contemporaries around this time.
“This symphony, composed to the glory of GOD, is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its existence,” wrote Stravinsky on the title page. This seemingly casual intermingling of sacred and secular intentions is the first of numerous indications that nothing is to be taken for granted with the Symphony of Psalms. Despite his allusion to the genre of symphony, the three-movement work is a far cry from classical archetypes. The idea of an epic choral symphony as pioneered by Beethoven in his Ninth actually finds its virtual antithesis in Stravinsky’s compact structure. The Symphony unfolds in three movements, connected without breaks, each of which becomes longer than the preceding movement.
The unusual orchestration also signals his difference from the standard repertory. What’s omitted is as important as what Stravinsky uses: the absence of clarinets and upper strings and expansion of upper and lower woodwinds, as well as brass, make for a unique and sometimes chilly clarity. Gone is the traditional warm blend of orchestra and voices. In fact, the writing emphasizes a sense of division between the chorus and instrumental ensemble. But the loss of comfortable sonic illusions engenders an austere beauty.
Stravinsky’s use of Latin from the Vulgate translation of the Psalms has a distancing effect well-suited to this sound world. (His setting of Jean Cocteau’s text for Oedipus Rex as translated into Latin had explored this powerful distancing effect a few years before the Symphony.) Acerbic chords of E minor — the tonality of Bruckner’s second Mass — alternate with jerky, quasi-baroque toccata patterns in the instrumental prelude that sets the first movement in motion. Against hints of an ongoing march, the chorus, singing verses from Psalm 38 (in the Vulgate numbering), pleas for divine assistance. As Leonard Bernstein aptly notes, “It’s a prayer with teeth in it, a prayer made of steel.” Their prayer, expressing humanity lost and wandering in the wilderness, intensifies before coming to rest on a solidly resonant G major chord.
But in the second movement the sense of wandering continues, in the form of a fugue on two themes. The first theme is instrumental, while the second, given to the chorus, works downward from sopranos to basses. Stravinsky describes this movement, which sets verses from Psalm 39, as an “overt use of musical symbolism” in three stages which represent the image of “waiting for the Lord” as “an upside-down pyramid of fugues.” The architecture, Stravinsky observes, builds from the instrumental to the “next and higher stage” in the “human fugue.” The climactic outburst in the final minute (the “third stage,” corresponding to the psalmist’s “new song” of praise and thanksgiving ) “unites the two fugues.” It’s fascinating, incidentally, to compare the composer’s geometrical imagery with the architectural metaphor of a “sonic cathedral” that is so typically associated with Bruckner’s music.
To the words of praise from Psalm 150, the third movement presents this “new song” as yet another surprise in the Symphony. Once again, Stravinsky defies expectations. He avoids the kind of music conventionally associated with rejoicing through his depiction of gentle awe and his use of contrasting tempos. The distant serenity of the slow opening chorus yields to a faster passage which is based on an obsessively repeated rhythmic figure (in fact the first music Stravinsky conceived for the piece). There’s also a curious passing echo of The Rite of Spring.
Added to all this are hints of a circus atmosphere — another example of the work’s striking juxtapositions of material. The slow music returns, followed by an agitated passage Stravinsky wrote was intended to depict Elijah ascending to heaven with his horses and chariot. The final hymn’s “calm of praise,” he adds, “must be thought of as issuing from the skies.” The chorus rotates around three simple notes as Stravinsky sweeps away all contradictions with a final, lingering chord of C major. Pristine yet somehow sounding completely novel and newly minted, this is the last of Stravinsky’s awe-inspiring surprises in one of his greatest achievements.
Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
The Cecilian Movement
Stravinsky has been called the Picasso of music because he seemed to make a style of changing styles, yet a unifying thread to his work is a vehement reaction against the excessive egoism of Romanticism. Even before he was born, the Roman Catholic Cecilian movement, named after the patron saint of music, took shape as an effort to combat what was perceived as the increasing worldliness of sacred music — a tendency the classical masters themselves were accused of inspiring. In contrast to the symphonic complexity found in Mass settings by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, the Cecilianists wanted to revive earlier chant and the voice-centered polyphony of the Renaissance as represented by such icons as Palestrina.
With its evocation of Palestrina and prominent use of a cappella passages, Bruckner’s Mass in E minor is often described as taking inspiration from the reformist aims of the Cecilianists, with whom he had several close associations. At the same time, as musicologist Paul Hawkshaw observes, Bruckner “could never empathize with the anti-modernist sentiment” of the movement, which became increasingly doctrinaire. The Cecilianists in turn were critical of the majority of his sacred music, making an exception for this work. Hawkshaw instead finds in the Mass’s “consciously retrospective elements” a “musical analogue to the neo-Gothic aesthetic” of the New Cathedral in Linz for which the work was specifically commissioned.