Mass No.2 in E minor, WAB 27
Born: September 4, 1824 in Ansfelden, Austria
Died: October 11, 1896 in Vienna, Austria
Instrumentation: Eight-part mixed chorus and wind instruments
Duration: 40 minutes
Composed: 1882 (second version)
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) is one of the most enigmatic of composers – self-effacing and diffident in his personal and professional life, a compulsive student of music who continued studying and collecting diplomas until he was forty, an internationally renowned organ virtuoso with legendary improvisational skills, and the composer of some of the most complex and richly textured music ever written.
He was born in a small village in northern Austria near Linz, the son of a schoolmaster who also served as the church organist and who gave Bruckner his early musical training. Following the death of his father, the 13-year old Bruckner was enrolled in the choir school of the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian, where he studied voice, organ and violin. Despite his interest in music, Bruckner chose teaching as a career and eventually secured a position at St. Florian’s. While he was able to polish his organ skills and begin his first serious compositions, he began to chafe at the limited prospects at the monastery. Still, when a position as organist at the cathedral in Linz opened up in 1855, he was reluctant to apply and only auditioned at the insistence of friends.
While in Linz, Bruckner began private studies in harmony and counterpoint with Simon Sechter, then a professor at the Vienna Conservatory, carrying on most of the studies by correspondence. After six years, Sechter awarded him a certificate of completion of studies, but Bruckner petitioned the Conservatory to be allowed to stand for an examination, during which he displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of music and improvised a fugue at the organ. Hofkapellmeister and conductor Johann Herbeck, one of the examiners, remarked that Bruckner should have examined them instead. Not satisfied with his diploma from the Conservatory, Bruckner undertook a further two years of private study in orchestration. It was only in 1863, at the end of this long, self-imposed tutelage, that Bruckner deemed himself ready to compose in earnest and began numbering his compositions. One of the fruits of this new compositional assurance was the Mass in E-minor.
The Mass No. 2 in E-minor was commissioned in 1866 by the Archbishop of Linz for the dedication of the Votive Chapel of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Bruckner completed the work in the space of two months, but the completion of the chapel was repeatedly delayed and the Mass was not premiered until September, 1869, with Bruckner conducting the performance. While the premiere was a great success, Bruckner could not resist tinkering with the Mass and produced a total of four revisions to “tighten up the structure.” Today’s performance uses the final version of 1886.
The Mass is set for chorus, winds and brass; there are no soloists and the orchestra lacks the usual strings, timpani and organ. There may have been a practical reason for this unusual combination of forces. The Mass was performed outdoors so the use of what is essentially a wind band would make sense. But it is also likely that Bruckner was trying to accommodate some of the precepts of the Cecilian movement, which attempted to reform liturgical music. The musical mass form had become increasingly dissociated from the underlying liturgy, and with an orchestra and soloists and mass parts divided into a series of arias, duets, trios, quartets and choruses, it seemed to the Cecilians more theater than worship. Their ideal was a mass set in the a cappella, polyphonic style of the Renaissance master Palestrina. Bruckner may have been accommodating in this instance, but his other two Linz masses were massive works set for full orchestra and soloists.
The influence of Palestrina is immediately apparent from the a cappella, polyphonic opening of the Kyrie, which Bruckner sets antiphonally for four-part women’s and men’s choirs. The Kyrie represents a sort of microcosm of the full work, composed of individual blocks of music, each with its own dynamic and character, and displaying an extreme range of dynamics from the quietest a cappella music to massive walls of sound. The openings of the Gloria and Credo are not set but rather are meant to be intoned, as in a liturgical mass. The music here is much more homophonic and is accompanied throughout, except for the beautiful “et incarnatus est” of the Credo. The sole fugue of the Mass is the “Amen” of the Gloria. Unusual in a fugue, the subject and countersubject have similar rhythms and contours, disguising the usual compositional legerdemain of juxtaposing the themes and developing them by presenting them upside down or backwards. Bruckner returns to Palestrina-like polyphony more explicitly in the Sanctus, where the thematic material is actually taken from the Sanctus of Palestrina’s Missa Brevis in F, the only example of a non-original theme in Bruckner’s music. Throughout the Mass, Bruckner displays a technical mastery of counterpoint and complex, eight-part vocal writing, an expansive and idiosyncratic harmonic freedom, and a wonderful lyricism which has made the Mass in E-minor one of his most frequently performed choral works.
Used by permission of Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia – copyright 2012