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Grand, majestic and sublime - Bruckner's Mass in F minor

Anton Bruckner is a bit of an oddity amongst the great composers. He was an organist who didn't write any major organ works; he was incredibly modest to the point of making revisions (often major ones) at the behest of friends and critics to large-scale masterpieces; a composer who only pursued composition seriously in the latter half of his life; a composer who seems to abide by the practices laid down by his forebears, whilst being unique, innovative and revolutionary.

Biographer Karl Grebe said: "his life doesn't tell anything about his work, and his work doesn't tell anything about his life, that's the uncomfortable fact any biography must start from" and Hans von Bülow described him as "half genius, half simpleton". There are multiple versions of his symphonies, changed and altered on advice from various sources. It is hard to think of another composer who was so prepared to make alterations. Beethoven was notoriously vitriolic when suggestions were made regarding changes and the occasions he capitulated were rare. In Bruckner's case, there are numerous editions of the symphonies (ranging from drastic to slight changes) with emendations made by the composer himself and some by friends and colleagues without much clarity on whether Bruckner authorised them or not.

This extract from the Credo of his Mass in F minor displays this duality. A bold, invigorating opening and an ethereal second section. Bruckner tended to orchestrate and write in blocks, much like the changes in register on the organ. The whole mass is well-worth exploring with its rich textures and harmonic turns. It is a grander affair than his E minor Mass which has more of the character of his small-scale choral works with their modal flavours.

Bruckner never married and maintained a deep religious belief. He was a great admirer of Wagner, though he never seems to have enjoyed the dramatic side of Wagner's works, keeping his interest on the music. He never wrote an opera or oratorio of his own. Like Wagner, Bruckner was a favourite composer of Hitler, but his music was never censured like Wagner's. Maybe it was Bruckner's humility that saved him in this regard.

This silhouette drawing by Otto Böhler "Anton Bruckner arrives in Heaven" very much sums up this very pious man. In it, Bruckner is greeted by Liszt, Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Haydn, Handel, Bach.

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