Bruckner’s Hymnal

William Carragan
Contributing Editor, Anton Bruckner Collected Edition, Vienna

Vice-President, Bruckner Society of America

A paper delivered at the Fourth Bruckner Journal Readers’ Conference, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, England, on June 25, 2005. Revised 2006, 2010, 2013, 2018, 2022.

The image of Bruckner the organist and church musician, immortalized by Otto Böhler and countless other artists, is one of the most often-encountered icons of the composer, despite the fact that we have next to no organ music surviving from his pen. Does this mean that we also see no influence proceeding from the vocal church music he did write into his decidedly secular symphonies? Apart from the occasional quotation, such as the F Minor Mass in the Second Symphony and the D Minor Mass in the Third and Ninth, the presence of chorales and chorale-like melodies in the symphonies is usually taken to be such an influence. It is the purpose of this paper to determine the characteristics of these chorales, classifying them as to size or completeness, and also to discuss their participation in the formal structures which give each symphony its shape.

What is a chorale?

We shall take a chorale to be a series of chords, basically in four-part harmony, with the rhythmic phrase structure of a church hymn. We can almost imagine that a chorale from a Bruckner symphony, sharing the chromaticism of great nineteenth-century hymn-writers such as Henry Gauntlett or John Bacchus Dykes, could be sung in a church service if a text of sufficient grandeur, and with the correct rhythm, could be found. Particularly we require that the part writing is essential, and that the upper, melody voice does not move more elaborately than the lower voices, and we might even expect that all four voices are of roughly equal melodic interest. This last criterion is also an ideal for church hymns, though many fine hymn tunes achieve their success without meeting it.

A great number of church hymns are in four phrases, a characteristic which might descend from the early-mediæval Latin office hymns which are mostly in four lines. The four-line Latin hymns are almost all iambic tetrameter, what we would today call long meter beginning with an upbeat, but the later vernacular four-phrase hymns are often trochaic, and we will see that Bruckner’s chorales are usually trochaic, that is, they tend to begin on the main beat. By contrast the Lutheran literature is full of examples of hymns with more than four phrases, and with quite complex phrase structure, with or without upbeats.

Chorales and chorale-like passages were being used in sonata movements by other composers at the time, and had been for many years. One could begin by pointing out obvious examples in the Waldstein Sonata of Beethoven, where the chorale is an integral element of the sonata-form structure of the first movement, and in the second trio of Mendelssohn, where the chorale is used to mark the climax of the finale, not to mention the actual quotation of a Lutheran chorale in the latter’s D minor symphony. From only a bit later we encounter chorales in the C minor piano quartet of Brahms and the third scherzo of Chopin in which short phrases, each of four chords, are set off by filmy piano interludes. And there is also the overture In Memoriam of Arthur Sullivan, written on the occasion of his father’s death in 1860, where the quietly-stated opening elegiac chorale in C major gives way to an agitated sonata movement in the minor before returning at the close in magnificent, organ-fortified splendor.

Four-phrase chorales

For now, instead of calling on a church hymnal for examples, let us turn to the profane world and begin with a chorale written for the operatic stage, by Robert Schumann in his 1848 opera Genoveva. As the curtain rises on the first act, the singers are about to embark on a campaign against the Moors, and they declare their willingness to die for God, asserting that nothing ill can happen to them since all is in His hands. The hymn is in the grand manner, with eight phrases, and at the end moves down into the relative minor. Serving as an epilogue, a short instrumental phrase reinforces the unexpected modulation, in preparation for the first recitative. The effect in this seldom-staged masterpiece is most impressive. Not many years later, Bruckner’s second-most-favorite composer, Richard Wagner, parodied this effect in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Immediately upon the ending of the prelude, the curtain opens to a chorus singing a hymn for the celebration of the nativity of St. John the Baptist. Two people in attendance, of whom much is made in the rest of the opera, are observing each other surreptitiously. Thus the phrases of the chorale, which sound decidedly Lutheran, are separated by a different sort of music which describes the efforts of Walther and Eva to see each other without being seen. These intercalary phrases, similar to Schumann’s epilogue, give the chorale a setting or framing within a larger structure, just as the interludes function in the Chopin scherzo.

Now what does Bruckner offer of this character? Certainly the most famous Bruckner chorale is the great brass utterance in the finale of the Fifth, the first phrase of which reminds many listeners of the so-called Dresden Amen. We first hear it as the codetta (epilogue) of the exposition, where it also contains intercalary music, interludes between the lines of the chorale, which almost seem to constitute a reaction on the part of the symphonic background to the imposition of these mighty chords. There are clearly four phrases, with each phrase containing eight chords. The meter is iambic, like the Latin office hymns, and to it one could sing any one of hundreds of texts such as Veni Creator Spiritus, / mentes tuorum visita, / imple superna gratia / quæ tu creasti pectora. After the first phrase of the chorale is used as one of the subjects of the greatest orchestral fugue ever written, and a lot of other events take place as well, the chorale returns in the coda as a dramatic gesture of overpowering strength. Paradoxically, the intercalary phrases used with the chorale in the coda are simpler and more uniform in character than the ones in the exposition. Perhaps that is due to the inexorable momentum which has been building up for twenty minutes over hundreds of measures.

The mighty Fifth was not the first symphony which Bruckner concluded with a chorale of four phrases. Indeed much the same thing happens at the end of the First, most clearly in the earliest version of that symphony, the one of the first performance of 1868 and unavailable since then until I edited it for Georg Tintner’s 1998 recording on Naxos. In this chorale, despite its clear hymn-like structure, the melody is not nearly as well defined as it is in the Fifth. That is probably just as well, as the effect of the chorale is largely textural, providing a firm, conclusive, quasi-strophic underpinning to the orchestral sound. Also, the third and fourth phrases are themselves divisible in half, and thus recall similar phrases in the Genoveva and Meistersinger chorales, as well as many Lutheran chorales which do the same thing. This further re-orients and dazzles the listener, and adds to the general atmosphere of holy glee with which every Bruckner symphony ends.

But hiding in a very different sort of location there is yet another four-phrase chorale, a vignette at the end of the first part of the Andante of the Fourth. Bruckner himself referred to this music as a prayer (Gebet). The prayer seems to rise to heaven like incense in the third and fourth phrases. This music acquires added significance from the fact that it is never brought back in the later sections of the movement.

Many-phrase chorales

In at least two locations Bruckner allowed this sort of writing to spread over quite a long period; these are the song-themes or Gesangsperioden of the finales of the Third and Seventh Symphonies. In the chorale from the 1873 version of the Third, the thematic rhythm is also iambic, but with six syllables rather than eight to each line. In 1873, the chorale was often very lightly scored, but in the 1878 and 1889 rewritings, though substantially abbreviated, it is much more richly harmonized, and begins an octave lower than in the early score. Bruckner’s pencil notation at this point in ÖNB Mus.Hs. 6033, the basis of the 1874 variant of the Third Symphony: “Throughout the Gesangsperiode the wind band must stand out”, and under the strings, “the Gesangsperiode the strings must keep back”[1], might be the first stirrings of the later revision. At any rate they were written so forcibly that the pencil nearly cut through the paper.

[1] See Thomas Röder’s Revisionbericht, 1997, page 111.

Plotting the emotional contour of such a large structure is an ambitious task, but one would have to do that if the effects of the various revisions are to be investigated and analyzed. The original 1873 chorale seems discursive or even prolix to listeners accustomed since birth to 1889, but upon more study the 1873 version can be seen to have a large-scale rise and fall of tension which, in grouping the lines into four stanzas, makes the prominent citations of Tristan and the Second Symphony seem quite natural, and their absence in 1889 thus short-breathed.[1]

[1] The conductor Herbert Blomstedt is firmly of this opinion, and for many years has taken a great interest in the performance of the 1873 version.

At any rate, if the whole chorale is to be rendered in either version, we are far from the ability to sing it in church, although any small section would sound appropriate enough by itself, divested of the polka which skips along beside it in the symphony. Erwin Doernberg speaks: “August Göllerich tells in his Bruckner biography how he was once walking home with the composer late in the evening, when, passing the Schottenring, they heard the music of a festive ball from one of the stately mansions. Not far away, in the Sühnhaus, the body of the cathedral architect Schmidt lay in state. Göllerich relates how Bruckner remarked to him: ‘Listen! Here in this house is a grand ball and yonder in the Sühnhaus the master in his coffin! That is life and that is what I wanted to show in the last movement of my Third Symphony: the polka means the fun and joy of the world and the chorale the sadness and pain of life.’”[1] Thus the music must be performed at a pace which makes the polka dance, at least half note = 72, while also allowing the chorale to mourn: Sunt lacrymæ rerum, et mentem mortalia tangunt. The meticulously-organized ebb and flow of the scoring of the 1873 version gives it a more organized structure, but the somber richness of the 1889 texture might make that version more thoughtful and thought-provoking.

[1] The Life and Symphonies of Anton Bruckner, New York 1960, page 145.

In the finale of the Seventh Symphony the mood of the chorale, which has only a walking bass as accompaniment, is a self-possessed calm amid the hurly-burly of the first and third themes. Again, there are so many phrases that the relationship of each to the whole is difficult to discern, and here there are no competing versions from different times to tease out our thoughts. Meanwhile the mellow Wagner tuben supply a counterpoint evenly divided between solemnity and humor.

The strophic structure which seems appropriate to the presentation of a theme need not apply in a chorale which arises from development. In the middle of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony a majestic brass chorale arises from the horn theme, with a striding counter-texture in the strings. In the 1888 version, the strings play pizzicato against the brass chords, unforgettably described by David Aldeborgh as Aa great mountain profile set against a tapestry of stars@.[1]

[1] This was in a paper delivered at the Bruckner Journal Readers’ Conference of 2003.

The distinguished musicologist Constantin Floros has suggested a category of these complete or even over-complete chorales as “Harold-type”, because of a supposed resemblance to the pizzicato-accompanied pilgrims’ music in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy of 1834. In his Fourth Symphony, Bruckner provides a pizzicato background for the Gesangsthema or second theme of the slow movement which is in chorale style. If it is isolated from the score and played in a sustained manner, it loses its familiarity and takes on a greater and more mysterious meaning. Should we not accept the pizzicato texture as a real chorale, and the well-known viola tune as a counter-melody? After all, that is the only way in which the music could be sung: the singers with the conjunct pizzicato chords, and an obbligato instrument with the familiar octave-leaping melody. There is an even grander instance in the first movement of the Fifth, where the pizzicato chorale accompanying the second theme, of twelve syllables per line, cries out to be sung.[1] Here and elsewhere, the attention of the thoughtful listener should be focused on what seems to be the background, but is really the essence of what is going on.

[1] Appropriate words for this chorale, coming uncannily close to Bruckner’s own feelings, can be taken from a poem by George W. Caird published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1983/2000, no. 338: “We are thy stewards; thine our talents, wisdom, skill; / our only glory that we may thy trust fulfil; / that we thy pleasure in our neighbours' good pursue, / if thou but workest in us both to will and do.”

Chordal scales

Another very famous Bruckner chorale is the so-called “Farewell to Life” in the Adagio of the Ninth. In it the melody simply proceeds downward by steps. Its placement near the beginning of the adagio, and the fact that it does not recur in the movement, is paralleled by the Gebet in the Fourth. However, the result is quite different. In the Fourth, after a lyrical beginning, the movement becomes thoughtful and the prayer ascends to the heavens. But in the Ninth, there is a brilliant climax in which a mysterious four-note figure is sounded out repeatedly by the trumpets. Then the harmonies shift downward, and the ensuing “Farewell to Life” assures that the mood of the listener, if not his soul, goes directly down to the pit.

The descending scale has been for a long time a metaphor of loss and death. There is a madrigal from the early seventeenth century, Tirsi mio, caro Tirsi of Salomone Rossi, in which a nymph threatens suicide if her lover will not return to her. It contains a long chordal scale eerily similar to the well-known chordal scale in Bruckner’s Second Symphony. And in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, near the beginning of the opera the Commendatore dies to the accompaniment of descending scales. Then in Wagner’s Lohengrin the “Lament for Parting”, really for a death, consists of a direct scale spanning over two octaves. Finally, sleep is a temporary kind of death, and in Die Walküre the sleep motive is a highly-chromatic chordal scale of a very special kind. This last was one temptation which Bruckner could not resist. He quotes it in the slow movement of the Third Symphony, where it is present in all versions, having survived the catastrophic excision of the other Wagner references present in its inaugural version of 1873. At that time Bruckner had already used it in the first movement; he normally worked on his symphonies in the order of the movements. The examples show some aspects of these quotations. In fact he also used Walküre-like descending chords in the first movement of the Fourth, written the next year, but in a different key; this reference, like that in the first movement of the Third, did not survive the reforming zeal of 1877-78.

Despite the removal of most of the Walküre references, Bruckner’s mind continued to be obsessed with the sound and significance of the descending scale, as we see in an E-major passage in the third theme group of the finale of the Eighth, both in 1887 and in 1890. The development of that movement begins with a reversal of the downward motion. There is also an echo of this theme in the adagio of the Ninth at measures 155-162. But the full development of this chorale idea is its greatly expanded descendant in the finale of the Ninth. The same key is used in the Ninth as was used in the Eighth: E major. But in the sound-world of the Ninth, by virtue of this giant brass chorale, the adagio’s dark, muffled “Farewell to Life” is transformed in the finale into a brilliant shaft of light streaming down from heaven, although whether it represents salvation for the protagonist in his last hours is not yet established, and indeed, can only be established through a completion of the movement.

Fragmentary chorales

There is yet another class of chorales, chordal sequences which possess the chorale sound but which, as with the Dresden Amen, form groups too small to be considered as more than a motive. Examples from Wagner are the famous Tristan chordal sequence, and the “fate” motive so prominent in Die Götterdämmerung. One from Bruckner is a passage from the third theme group in the first movement of the Third, given in its 1873 form. The first three or four melody notes of this chorale are often referred to as the “motive of the Cross”, based on a labeling as such by Liszt in his Graner Fest-Messe. It occurs in the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies as well. It can and has been said to derive from the intonation of the Gregorian psalm tone in the eighth mode, although it could just as well stem from the second or the third, or from a hymn which begins that way such as Vexilla Regis prodeunt, or indeed from the third-act chorus Gesegnet soll sie schreiten near the beginning of the third act of Wagner's Lohengrin (see Anton Bruckner Eleven Symphonies, pp. 74–75).

The derivation by Johann Mattheson (1681–1764) of the melody for the concluding chorus of his Magnificat a due cori, given its greatly-delayed world premiere performance at the Boston Early Music Festival in June 2005, is from the solemn version of the eighth psalm tone. It follows the style of the alternatim Magnificat settings of Pachelbel, Muffat, and many others and is completely natural. But whether Bruckner did that sort of thing in a symphony over 150 years after Mattheson, or whether by contrast he considered the melodic scrap to be a tribute to Mozart by virtue of its resemblance to the finale theme of the Jupiter Symphony as has also been suggested, is a matter for discussion in a less formal venue. At any rate, in 1877 Bruckner wanted the listener to know that a chorale was being used, and he labeled it in the score and made the upper part more active, and in 1889, the revision was carried further. It is often said that the 1873 version does not really have this chorale. But once again, what is the chorale? If we accept that it is not the tune, but rather the chordal structure, then 1873 does indeed possess it, though perhaps not so obviously as the later versions do. Questions like that help to delineate Bruckner’s reasons for revision, which often take the shape of reinforcing or bringing out melodic lines to give the work variety and relief.

In giving meanings to certain chorales as I have above, I have tried to limit myself to the implications of what the composer himself said about the music, or in the case of the “Cross” motive, to address a popular conception which may or may not be valid. But the most important function of the chorales is not to be established by adventurous exegesis. It is instead simply the air of solemnity and grandeur, or perhaps just solidity, that the chorales impart to the music, and the sense of the gradual filling-out of time and the ineluctable dramatic arch which they invariably convey. They constitute the greatest possible contrast to the nervous, energetic dotted rhythms which Bruckner also loves to use. It is not too much to say that when employed by Bruckner, they are the pillars upon which his great edifices of sound are supported.

In preparing this paper, I acknowledge with gratitude the help and consultation of Crawford Howie, Ebbe Törring, and Benjamin Korstvedt, and of Stephen Stubbs in re Mattheson.

Bruckner’s Hymnal