Anton Bruckner’s mighty Mass No. 3 in F minor emerged at a pivotal moment in the composer’s life. In a way similar to the music which Beethoven composed following the Heiligenstadt Testament, it can be heard as a majestic expression of faith and gratitude. Beethoven’s contemplation and ultimate triumphant rejection of suicide in the face of progressive hearing loss is well known. A nervous breakdown in the spring of 1867 led to similar personal challenges for Bruckner.
The F minor Mass is the monumental, life-affirming music which Bruckner composed (against the advice of his doctors) in the year following his three-month-long recuperation at the sanatorium of Bad Kreuzen. Scored for a quartet of vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, it is music which takes on symphonic dimensions. We get a glimpse of the awesome power and mysticism of Bruckner symphonies to come. The instrumental voices of the orchestra and the choral lines enter into a divine musical conversation. It is a mass for the concert hall as much as for the church. At first declared “too long and unsingable” by the conductor Johann Herbeck, the F minor Mass was praised by Johannes Brahms who “applauded…so enthusiastically…that Bruckner personally thanked him.” (Keith Kinder) In 1895, a year before his death, Bruckner wrote that if he were able to again hear the Mass performed, it would be the “climax” of his life.
The Kyrie begins with a haunting descending motif which sets in motion a continuously developing contrapuntal drama. With each new phrase, the music seems to be searching for a way out of the dark towards transcendence. The Gloria which follows (10:03) moves into joyful C major with a triumphant ascending transformation of the initial motif. A celebratory fugue concludes this movement, as well as the Credo (22:05). In the Et incarnatus section of the Credo, the angelic voices of the solo violin, woodwinds, and horn converse with the solo tenor. The brief Sanctus (40:28) is followed by the celestial majesty of the Benedictus (42:58). Set in A-flat major, this movement begins with a string chorale which seems to anticipate Mahler adagios to come. The concluding Agnus Dei (50:43) returns to the home key of F minor, only to reach the transcendence of F major for the Mass’ final prayer, Dona nobis pacem. The final moments drift off into the ultimate serenity with the pastoral voice of the oboe restating the four-note descending motif which began the Mass. Through the working out of a divine process, we arrive “home.”
This 1996 concert performance features Herbert Blomstedt with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra and choir and the Dänischer Rundfunkchor. The four soloists are Angela Maria Blasi (soprano), Cornelia Kallisch (alto), Herbert Lippert (tenor), and Franz-Josef Selig (bass).
- Eugen Jochum and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
- Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
- Colin Davis and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
- Franz Anton Krager, Moores School Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony Chorus
Featured Image: the interior of Marienkirche in the North German city of Lübeck, the venue for the performance above