The towering symphonic mountain ranges that rise up before us in his music are quite a change from the hills of his childhood - like Kirchberg mountain in his birthplace of Ansfelden in Upper Austria, located between the provincial capital of Linz and the Stift St. Florian. But just as his symphonies don’t reveal all their treasures upon first hearing, we also need to look down more closely from atop the Kirchberg and allow our gaze to rest upon the schoolhouse below. This is the setting where many of Austria’s important personalities (including Franz Schubert alongside Anton Bruckner) came into the world - in a schoolhouse, as the children of teachers. The feeling of confinement inside may seem oppressive, but there are wide expanses as well: the sweeping landscape surrounding it, in addition to wide expanses of the spirit - as a schoolmaster, one of Anton’s father’s duties is to play the organ and lead the church choir, where his mother Theresia sings. We can picture to ourselves how the child had his first experience with great music here, how he heard more during the course of his parents’ duties, and how he expressed his astonishment to them. And this picture would be accurate, as this is what the composer related as an old man.
With the goal of becoming a teacher like his father, he receives the necessary training at the Stift St. Florian and in Linz, where there was also plenty of music-making, then works as a school assistant in small villages like Windhaag and Kronstorf. By this point, the Stift St. Florian has already become his “world” - to which the renowned court organist in Vienna and respected composer would always return throughout his life, and where he would later die. He travelled a fair amount, celebrating triumphs as an organist in France and England, seeing and admiring the Swiss Alps, and visiting the major German cities to attend performances of his works. He also visited Wagner in Bayreuth, which he particularly enjoyed, and played the organ there at Liszt’s funeral.
He doesn’t write his first symphony until the age of 41. But he realizes that this is the calling conferred upon him by God, his true vocation. In keeping with this, he later requests that his honorary doctoral degree from the University of Vienna state that he received the honor as a “symphonist.”
1837-1850 Choirboy at the Stift St. Florian, trained as a school assistant, working in this capacity in many towns throughout Upper Austria
1850-1856 Organist at St. Florian
1856-1868 Cathedral organist in Linz. Bruckner studies counterpoint with Simon Sechter and instrumentation and musical form with theater Kapellmeister Otto Kitzler
1868 Moves to Vienna as Sechter’s successor, is named professor at the conservatory and court organist
Between 1869 and 1871, highly successful concert tours, performing as an organist in France and England
1876 Inaugural lecture at Vienna University
1878 Named full member of the K.K. Hofmusikkapelle
1891 Honorary doctorate from Vienna University
October 11, 1896: Bruckner dies in Vienna. Upon his own request, he is buried in the crypt at the Stift St. Florian - directly beneath the organ
His most important works: 3 large-scale masses in D minor, E minor, and F minor, 9 symphonies (he considers 2 additional symphonies to be “invalid”), String Quintet in F major, Te Deum and Psalm 150, a series of motets that he composed “according to the dictates of his heart,” including Ave Maria, Os justi, and Vexilla regis
Did you know?
His whole life long, he is searching for a woman to enter the sacred vows of marriage.
He champions the hallowed science of music theory, but often breaks its rules himself.
He is quite fond of beer and wine as well as Austrian cooking, including “smoked meat with sauerkraut and dumplings.”
He has a great love of children, and rewards the Hofburgkapelle choir boys with candy when they sing well.
His sister writes to him on his 70th birthday: “Everyone talks about how great a composer you are, but no one says anything about how you have always supported our mother and your siblings.”
A pious and thoughtful Catholic, he dedicates the Ninth Symphony to the “Dear Lord.” The work is left incomplete, however, with the finale remaining a torso.
His opponents, supporters of his contemporary Brahms, say that he composes like “a drunken man.” Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein sees in Bruckner an example of “good Austrian work: true, but never on the side of probability.”