Anton Bruckner in St. Florian

by Mag. Isabel Biederleitner

Abbey of St Florian ©Erich Obernberger | KULTURQUARTIER
Abbey of St Florian ©Erich Obernberger | KULTURQUARTIER

Only about 20 km from the regional capital city of Linz lies St. Florian, a market town with about 6000 inhabitants in the heart of Upper Austria. After a short trip, visitors arriving in this tranquil place are treated to quite a sight: the impressive Augustinian monastery St. Florian – a cultural center of the region and a treasure of the Austrian baroque – towers over the town at a considerable height. The monastery‘s patron (✝︎ May 4th, 304) was buried under the monumental and picturesque basilica, which forms part of the rambling monastery building and has a foundation laid in the 4th century. Its unique library, with Austria‘s oldest music manuscript, and valuable collections bear witness to a distinguished  musical tradition going all the way back to the 9th century.

Who would be surprised that Anton Bruckner treasured this special place as a source of power and inspiration from his childhood onwards and remained faithful to it his whole life long, even specifying that he should be laid to rest after his death (on October 10th, 1896) in the basilica‘s crypt, directly beneath his beloved organ. His request was fulfilled: a memorial stone on the floor of basilica shows the exact position of the sarcophagus. Attentive visitors will note that Bruckner‘s name is spelled incorrectly („Brukner“) on the simple coffin, allegedly an error on the part of the silversmith which was never corrected. However, this does not break the spell that emanates from this magical place, from the monastery basilica of St. Florian; quite the opposite: since then, St. Florian has become the Mecca of Bruckner devotees, as an important place in his working life where Bruckner‘s powerful artistry first took form. 

The world‘s greatest orchestras have chosen St. Florian as a concert venue so they could breathe Bruckner‘s spirit and play his magnificent symphonic works „over“ him in the basilica. And not only play them, but raise them to a new  interpretive level. The most famous (and so far only male) conductors of our time insist on coming to St. Florian at least once in their career to experience the spiritus loci. For example, before his 90th birthday the great Bruckner interpretor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski expressed his wish to finally lead the Bruckner Orchester Linz at Bruckner‘s final resting place, a wish the 2015 Upper Austria Monastery Concerts were able to grant. Herbert Blomstedt is also giving himself a 90th birthday gift in 2017 with a concert by the Bamberg Symphony in St. Florian – a late premiere! All the big international names have one thing in common: the moment they arrive at St. Florian, they head down to the crypt to see Bruckner…

It is no coincidence that live recordings of concerts in the monastery basilica are among the most successful musical records, such as (most recently) a lavish DVD cycle by the Cleveland Orchestra and its chief conductor Franz Welser-Möst, another „child of Upper Austria“ who felt the power of St. Florian from a young age and is now savoring it as an international star conductor. Last but not least, for its 50th anniversary the Bruckner Orchester Linz under chief conductor Dennis Russell Davies, which recorded Bruckner‘s Symphony No. 8 from St. Florian in 2002, now presents the original versions of Symphonies No. 2, 3 and 7, which have resounded through the basilica these past few years as part of the International Bruckner Fest. Since the Upper Austrian Monastery Concerts began in 1973, the Bruckner Orchester Linz has performed a symphonic work by Bruckner in the basilica of St. Florian as the highlight of every summer and regularly returns in early autumn for the Bruckner Fest. It is this decades-long familiarity with all the church‘s particularities and refinements that make this Upper Austrian symphony orchestra‘s concerts so exceptional.

Born not far from St. Florian, in Ansfelden, Anton Bruckner was already familiar with the basilica‘s extraordinary acoustics as a child. After the death of his father he attended the parish school, became a member of the St. Florian Boys‘ Choir, and received a well-rounded musical education. At 24, Bruckner became the monastery organist; even after his career path took him to Linz in 1854, and later to Vienna, he remained attached to the monastery. He preferred to spend his vacations in his favorite monastery room (No. 4 in the Prälatengang, where today conductors seek a moment of peace and strength before a concert) and relaxed in the idyllic landscape of the Traunviertel. He also used this time for intensive work on his compositions.

Anton Bruckner‘s symphonic work after his 40th year was the fruit of a long preparation, and emancipated itself from the early liturgical compositions produced in Upper Austria. Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen sees Bruckner‘s symphonies as flowing directly from his spiritual work.

[1] This intentional interweaving of the two genres is reflected especially in the composition techniques of the 7th symphony. The Finale was written at St. Florian during the summer of 1883; Anton Bruckner completed the Symphony No. 7 there on September 5th. His symphonies carry the unmistakable influence of his organ music and his many years as organist at St. Florian and in Linz. The block-like structure, high-contrast instrumentation, the consistent omission of particular instruments (such as English horn, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and percussion) and Bruckner‘s „world of forms“ bear witness to this; it can also be seen in the original version of Symphony No. 3 with its numerous Wagner quotations, before the master undertook significant changes. However, it retained its dedication to Richard Wagner, whom Bruckner had shown the score in Bayreuth in 1873 when Wagner was beset by the stress of building his Festspielhaus. The dedication followed a memorable meeting where Wagner took an initially reluctant look at Bruckner‘s 2nd and 3rd symphonies. On that September evening at the villa Wahnfried in 1873, joy at Wagner‘s fulsome praise caused so much beer to flow that Bruckner was unable to recall which symphony his idol had chosen to have dedicated to him. Bruckner had to wait for a friendly letter from Bayreuth for assurance that the D-minor work was to become the „Wagner Symphony.“

For his honorary doctorate certificate from the University of Vienna in autumn 1891, Anton Bruckner explicitly requested the title „as symphonist, because that has always been my vocation“. [2] Nowhere do we feel this truth more than in the basilica of St. Florian.

Mag. Isabel Biederleitner

[1] Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen: Bruckner als Sinfoniker, in: Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen (ed.): Bruckner Handbuch, Bärenreiter, Stuttgart, 2010, p.91.
[2] ibid., p.153.