Hopefully your appetite for German confectionary has been whetted by our first blog instalment for this concert and you’ve saved room for the next course: Anton Bruckner.
Bruckner’s highly-wrought motets are my personal favourites amongst our mighty Teutonic cake display. Although his symphonies tend to be sprawling, these works, written for the Roman Catholic liturgy throughout his career, are tightly-constructed (iced) gems which effortlessly fuse an advanced contrapuntal technique with his own brand of heart-wrenching chromatic harmony and deep personal belief.
Of the four we are performing in this concert, the Ave Maria is the earliest (1861). A tranquil but luminous opening plays the richly-clustered higher and lower voices off against each other, until he permits all voices to build to the climax ‘Jesus’. After this a sustained, ecstatic burst of sound overlapping the voices at the top of their ranges praises ‘Sancta Maria, mater Dei’, until the basses introduce the sense of calm prayerfulness – ‘ora pro nobis’ –with which the work ends in simple but luscious homophony.
Perhaps the most widely-known of the set, Locus Iste was written for the dedication of the votive chapel of the Linz Neuer Dom (New Cathedral) in 1869. The clarity of its simple ternary form, opening and closing in C major on a solid bass foundation, reflects its assertion of the irreproachable nature of house of God, whilst the shifting modulations of the central section suggest something of its sacramental mystery.
Os Justi (1879) a setting of Psalm 36, most clearly reflects the principles of the Cecilian Society, which hoped to reform Catholic music by harking back to the ‘pure’ music of Palestrina and Gregorian chant. The motet is in the Lydian mode, and Bruckner again makes striking use of ternary form, with a complex central fugal section framed by stark chording which then bursts unexpectedly into a glorious soaring climax rich with suspensions. The piece concludes worshipfully with a chanted Alleluia.
Finally, we come to perhaps his most dramatic setting, Christus Factus Est (1884). Bruckner’s debt to the contrapuntal tradition is still palpable, but the complex harmonic shifts situate it firmly in the late Nineteenth Century, as well as offering a profound meditation on the text. The dynamic, as well as harmonic, range is colossal, contrasting Christ’s quiet humility in the opening bars with our proper veneration for His name at the climax of the piece, after an extraordinary sustained crescendo from p to fff. With those mighty chords still ringing in our ears, the piece dies away ppp dim., to dwell in reverential silence on the ‘the name that is above any other’.
See you soon for a taste of Mendelssohn!