So that 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 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 epilogue to 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 recording on Naxos in 1998. In this chorale, despite its clear chorale-like structure, the melody is not nearly as 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 passage in 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.