Childhood & Early Life
Josef Anton Bruckner was born on 4 September 1824, in Ansfelden, at that time a small village, but now a part of Upper Austrian city of Linz. His father, also named Anton Bruckner, was the village schoolmaster and an organist. His mother, Therese (nee Helm), was a choir singer.
Anton was born the eldest of his parents’ eleven children, having four surviving siblings named Ignaz Bruckner, Rosalie nee Hueber, Josefa nee Wagenbrenner, and Maria Anna Bruckner. Others died in infancy.
At the age of six, Anton began his formal education at his father’s school. By then, he had also started learning the organ with his father. Good at studies, he was quickly promoted to higher classes. From the age of ten, he started deputizing for his father as the church organist.
In 1835, he was sent to study with his godfather, Johann Anton Weiss, a schoolteacher and organist in Hörsching. He was quite happy there; writing his first music, a sacred motet titled ‘Pange lingua’. But in 1836, as his father became ill, he was compelled to return to Ansfelden.
In June 1837, his father died of tuberculosis. Upon his death, the house they lived in was allocated to his successor. His mother then took him to the St. Florian Monastery in Sankt Florian, where he was admitted as a choral scholar.
St. Florian Monastery remained a spiritual home for Bruckner until his death. The beauty of the upper Austrian landscape, together with the baroque architecture of the monastery and the sound of his favorite organ, which came to be known as the ‘Bruckner Organ’, had immense impact on his later musical output.
At the St. Florian Monastery, young Anton began training in music under the supervision of Prelate Michael Arneth. Apart from choir practices, he was also required to study violin and organ, sometime playing the latter instrument during church services.
In 1840, he completed his training in music with excellent grades. Thereafter, he was sent to Linz, to be trained as a teacher, completing his teachers’ training course in 1841. In the same year, he started working as an assistant teacher in a school in Windhaag.
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Anton Bruckner remained at Windhaag for fifteen months, writing his first mass sometime during this period. Life here was terrible for him. The pay was not only very poor, but he also had to undertake many menial jobs apart from teaching. In addition, his superior, Frans Fuchs, constantly humiliated him.
Although he never complained, his situation was noticed by Prelate Michael Arneth. In 1843, he sent Bruckner to Kronstorf an der Enns, a small village located near Sankt Florian, as an assistant teacher.
Bruckner remained at Kronstorf till 1845, having a happier and more productive time. He now began to study with Leopold von Zenetti. Concurrently, he also composed a greater number of works, which showed his steadily advancing skills.
In 1845, Bruckner passed a second teaching examination, returning in the same year to St. Florian as a fully qualified teacher. He remained there for around a decade, producing a huge body of work. All along, he continued to study with Leopold von Zenetti, visiting him three times a week.
In 1848, Bruckner was appointed an organist in St. Florian, a position made permanent in 1851. Also in 1848, one of his closest friends, Franz Sailer, died of a heart attack. In 1849, he wrote ‘Requiem in D minor’, his first important large-scale work, in Sailer’s memory.
His second important work from this period was ‘Festive Missa Solemnis in B flat minor’. It was written in 1854 to celebrate the enthronement of Friedrich Mayer as the new abbott of St. Florian. According to many musicologists, it was his best work before 1864.
From 1855, he began studying advanced harmony and counterpoint with Simon Sechter, a well-known Viennese composer and teacher, mainly through correspondence, continuing his studies until 1861. During this period, as stipulated by Sechter, he stopped composing, concentrating on his studies. Meanwhile in early 1856, he joined Linz cathedral as its organist.
In 1860, he became the director of the choral society, "Liedertafel Frohsinn". In 1861, upon the completion of his studies with Sechter, he wrote ‘Ave Maria’ (Hail Mary), set in seven parts.
On 12 May 1861, he made his concert debut, conducting ‘Ave Maria’. The performance was highly successful, establishing him as an expert in harmony and counterpoint. Also from the same year, Bruckner began studying form and orchestration with the conductor of the Linz orchestra, Otto Kitzler, ten years his junior.
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Continuing to compose, he wrote ‘Vier Orchesterstücke’ (Four Orchestral Pieces), 'Sonatensatz for piano' and 'March in D minor' in 1862; and ‘Studiensymphonie’ (Study Symphony in F minor) and ‘Psalm 112’ in 1863. Also from 1863, he began to study the works of Richard Wagner.
In 1864, Bruckner completed his studies with Kitzler, writing ‘Mass No. 1 in D minor’ shortly after that. Its premiere, held on 20 November 1864, was highly successful and a review in the ‘Linzer Zeitung’ put it in the highest rank of church music, making him famous.
Continuing to compose, he completed ‘Symphony No. 1 in C Minor’ and ‘Mass in E Minor’ in 1866. In the same year, partly because of overwork, both as a composer and a cathedral organist, he suffered a severe nervous breakdown, having to spend three months in a sanatorium.
On his recovery, he continued with writing, producing pieces like ‘Mein Herz und deine Stimme’ (My heart and your voice) in 1868. In May, he had his ‘Symphony No. 1 in C minor’ premiered, but it was not very well received.
In 1867, Simon Sechter, professor of composition at the Vienna Conservatory, passed away and Bruckner was appointed in his place. Moving to Vienna in 1868, he started teaching theory and counterpoint at the Conservatory, holding the position till 1891, quickly earning his students’ respect with his engaging style of teaching.
Once again, he started composing, writing ‘Symphony in B-flat major’, ‘Wir alle jung und alt in D minor’, ‘Locus iste’ and 'Mitternacht’ in 1869. Unfortunately, he faced severe criticism, especially from Eduard Hanslick, a dominant figure in Viennese music, for his experimental style.
At that time, there was a quarrel between the admirers of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. While Hanslick was a close friend of Brahms, Bruckner was a follower of Wagner, thus unwittingly becoming Hanslick’s enemy. Consequently, his career began to suffer and his works started being labeled as ‘nonsensical’ and ‘wild’.
Despite his dispute with Hanslick, Bruckner also had his share of supporters. Among them were Theodor Helm, a leading figure in Vienna’s musical life and also the music critic for ‘Deutsche Zeitung’. Renowned conductors like Arthur Nikisch and Franz Schalk were also on his side.
Gradually, Bruckner’s works began to gain recognition. He visited France in 1869 and England in 1871, receiving a warm welcome everywhere. In England, he gave six recitals at Royal Albert Hall in London and five more at the Crystal Palace. During this period, he also earned fame as a renowned organist.
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In 1875, in spite of Hanslick’s opposition, Bruckner was appointed a lecturer at the University of Vienna, a position he held until 1894. Meanwhile, from 1871, he started writing symphonies, among which, ‘Symphony No. 3 in D Minor’, written in 1873, gives us the first glimpse of his mature style.
In 1874, he wrote ‘Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major’ and in 1874-75, ‘Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major’. Concurrently, he also wrote a number of masses, motets and other sacred choral works, and a few chamber works, completing his ‘String Quintet in F Major’ in 1879.
In spite of having a long list of impressive works to his credit, Bruckner remained relatively unknown till the beginning of the 1880s. The turning point of his career came in 1884. By then, he was sixty years old.
In 1884, he completed ‘Te Deum in C major’. He had started working on it in 1881 but postponed the work to complete ‘Symphony No. 6 in A major’ and then 'Symphony No. 7 in E major’.
Although ‘Te Deum’ later became very famous, his first moment of triumph came on 30 December 1884, when his ‘Seventh Symphony’ was premiered in Leipzig under the baton of Arthur Nikisch. Very soon, his other symphonies began to win wider appreciation in Germany and Vienna.
In 1886, he composed ‘Trösterin Musik’, a song based on a text by Robert Prutz. Due to performing difficulties, the choir was enhanced by the use of a harp during its premier on 15 April 1886.
Continuing to write, he composed ‘Um Mitternacht’ in memory of Joseph Seiberl in 1886. Also in the same year, he completed ‘Symphony No. 8 in C minor’. This was the last symphony that he was able to complete.
In 1887, he started working on his last symphony, ‘Symphony No 9 in D minor’, dedicating it to “Dem lieben Gott“ (Beloved God). Concurrently he continued working on other pieces, writing 'Heut kommt ja Freund Klose zum Gause' in 1889, 'Adagio für Orgel' and 'Improvisationsskizze Bad Ischl' in 1890.
In 1891, he retired from Vienna Conservatory. Continuing to teach at the University of Vienna until 1894, he composed ‘Psalm 150’ in 1892 and ‘Helgoland’ in 1893, concurrently working on his ‘Symphony No 9’.
In 1894, he completed the first three movements of ‘Symphony No 9’. But by then, his health had begun to fail and he died before he could complete the finale movement. It was later reconstructed and the symphony was premiered under his pupil, Ferdinand Löwe, in 1903.
Anton Bruckner is best remembered for his ‘Symphony No. 4’, which he nicknamed ‘Romantic’. Originally composed in 1874, it had been revised several times until 1888. Its first performance, taking place in 1881 in Vienna under Hans Richter, was greatly acclaimed. Even today, it remains one of his most popular works.
’Symphony No. 7’ is another of Bruckner’s best-known works. Written between 1881 and 1883, it was first performed on 30 December 1884. Later, the work was revised in 1885, affecting its tempo and orchestration.
Family & Personal life
A romantic at heart, Anton Bruckner spent his entire life searching for the right woman, ultimately dying a bachelor and a virgin. He had proposed to a number of young women, mostly in their teens, but each time, he was rebuffed either by the girl or by her parents.
At the age of 70, Bruckner proposed to a young chambermaid. They might have gotten married, but as she refused to convert to Catholicism, he called it off.
On 11 October 1896, Bruckner died in Venice. In accordance of his last will, he was buried in a vault immediately underneath his favorite organ, now known as 'The Bruckner Organ', at the monastery church of St. Florian.
Anton Bruckner Privatuniversität, one of the five Austrian universities for music, drama and dance, has been named in his honor.