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Classical Composers A-Z: Anton Bruckner

Peter Wintersgill tells of the life of Anton Bruckner, the composer of monumental symphonies.

Born
4th September, 1824, in Ansfelden, Upper Austria

Father
Anton, teacher and organist

Mother
Therese, singer, daughter of civil servant.

Family
Eldest of five children, had three sisters and one brother.

Childhood
Grew up surrounded by music, father played the organ in the village church, mother sang in the choir. Showed early musical ability, but failed to sustain this, and became a late developer. Left home at 11 to live with cousin Johann Weiss at neighbouring village of Horsching, who taught him the organ and harmony. Returned home at 12 when father was ill and deputised for him at the organ.

Adolescence
Father died next year when he was 13, when he went to St. Florian monastery as a choir boy, staying till he was 16. He stayed on as a teacher, with a two-year gap from 1850 for a teacher training course in nearby Linz. All this time he continued composing, which he started at 13.

Early Adult Life
He continued having music lessons till the age of 40, when he, like Brahms, belatedly composed his first symphony. He wrote church music, however, long before this, including a Mass in 1844. He continued teaching till 1856, when he was appointed organist of Linz cathedral. At the beginning of the 1848 revolution he joined the national Guard, fortunately not for very long. He wrote his Requiem in 1849 after the death of a friend and his Missa Solennis and Magnificat in 1852.

Always liable to mood swing he had a severe attack of depression, spending three months in hospital. He also had a phobia, amounting at times to an obsession, about counting things. One of his fellow patients was unable to wear a certain dress, lest Bruckner should start counting the pearls with which the dress was decorated. He also wrote several short motets, including Ave Maria (1861).

Later Adult Life
During the period 1863-69 he wrote his first three masses and first three symphonies, moving in 1868 to Vienna to take the post of professor of harmony and Counterpoint at the Conservatoire there. He remained in Vienna for the rest of his life. He was invited in 1865 by Wagner to the premiere in Munich of Tristan and Isolde. He held Wagner in great awe, never having met him before; when they did meet he knelt at the great man's feet and called him "Master". Eventually the two became close friends.

His first symphony of all, with his usual modesty, he entitled number O and it was not performed till 1924. Symphony number 1 had its premiere in 1868 in Vienna, number 2 in 1873; the third symphony, dedicated to Wagner, appeared in 1877. He conducted all the first three premieres himself. The fourth symphony (The Romantic) was written in 1874, but not performed till 1881. He completed eight symphonies in all. The ninth remains unfinished; he only wrote three movements, which were not performed till after his death. The eighth was finished in 1887 and had its premiere in 1892. Of his masses, number 3 in F minor (the Great) appeared in 1869.

Last years
During his last years he travelled a lot, conducting and giving organ recitals; he was noted for his improvisation on the organ. He appeared in several countries, including England, where he played on the Albert Hall organ. He received many honours, including an honorary degree at Vienna University and decoration (the Order of Franz Joseph) from the Emperor.

His physical and mental health both deteriorated, not steadily but in fits and starts. He had an attack of dropsy (an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen) and several episodes of depression - one in particular followed the failure of his 8th symphony. He got gradually weaker and finally died on 11th October 1896 in Vienna aged 72.

Health and Character
Bruckner was essentially a simple man. He was brought up before the revolution and readily accepted authority, remaining rather subservient especially in his letters. Musically he was far from simple. He was really two people, the humble peasant and the confident composer. He was a perfectionist, revising his symphonies several times, under pressure from well-meaning friends.

Being subject to mood swing, he was liable to bouts of alternate mania and depression, sometimes with suicidal thoughts. Another trait was the obsessional one of compulsive counting, notes in a bar, bars in a phrase, turrets on buildings, etc. In spite of numerous affairs with young girls, often much younger than himself, he, like Beethoven before him, never married.

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