Edexcel A-Level Notes: Bruckner: Locus iste


Anton Bruckner: Gradual - Locus iste
Jack Day

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), a virtuoso organist, conductor, composer and teacher, grew up and worked in the almost feudal conditions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He entertained a strong and unquestioning Catholic faith, and throughout his life he composed music for the Catholic Church. Bruckner worked at St Florian and Linz for a decade each, until his move to Vienna where he was employed from 1868 to his death twenty-eight years later. Bruckner had been the cathedral organist in Linz, but occupied a more junior rank at the Court Chapel (Hofkapelle) in Vienna, as one of the three organists. There was little stimulus for him to compose vocal music for the Hofkapelle, though he continued to write for his previous employers, and the Emperor encouraged his orchestral work. Locus iste was first performed at Linz, although written in Vienna. Bruckner's main position during his Vienna years was as Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory. He also had a part-time lectureship at Vienna University from 1876 onwards.

Pertinent stylistic comparisons can be made to Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Like Brahms, Bruckner wrote symphonies, which sometimes respect classical forms. Unlike Brahms, however, he absorbed Wagner's influence, with its emphasis on programme music (music with a story) rather than absolute music (music for music's sake). However, this alignment may have been more political than actual, and is of little use in considering his vocal music.


Translated, the text reads thus:

Locus iste a deo factus est
Inaestimabile sacramentum
irreprehensibilis est.
This is the Lord's house, which He hath made
Profoundly sacred,
it is beyond reproof.

Locus iste is a concise miniature. It exploits a very nineteenth-century freedom to move chromatically between keys, but avoids more adventurous sounds such as the augmented triad. Bruckner's more restrained language has a sufficient grounding in tonality to allow the listener to discern shades of dissonance: there are suspensions in bars 2, 4, 6 and 8, of which those in bars 4 and 6 appear stronger than those in 2 and 8 (Bar 7 contains an accented passing note in the bass, not a suspension).

Derek Watson describes this Gradual as an ABA form, with homophonic outer parts enclosing an imitative central section that has a climax in B major. However it could also be argued that the work is in binary (A1 A2) form, as the climax in A1 (bars 17-21) is balanced by the closing procedure (bars 40-48). One could even claim an A B C A' D structure. Whatever the form, the phrases balance one another and the material develops in a way that goes beyond the expectations aroused by a simple ABA description.

Bar 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Chord C d D7 G G7 C

Harmonically, this is one unit, circling C major. From bar 5, the words repeat, the melody is slightly different, and the harmony fulfils a very different function. This is quite different to Tavener's The Lamb, in which the composer does not undertake any tonal manoeuvres at all.

Bar What happens Comment
9-12 Extension of bars 7-8
G7 chord, in three different voicings, bars 9-11.
The music is given time to respond to the emphatic climax of bars 7-8.
12 Cadence to G, dominant (V) of C Notice the emphasis Bruckner gives to the B naturals in bars 9-11. B is the mediant (3rd degree) of G major, and the leading note (7th degree) of C major. This prepares the ear for bar 12; a resolution to C major would have sounded weak.
12-16 Inaestimabile sacramentum
g -A (as dominant of d minor)
Graceful ascending gesture
16-20 Inaestimabile sacramentum
a - B (as dominant of e minor)
Exactly the same notes, a tone higher, but greater impact because of the transposition, an enhanced dynamic and the cumulative effect of repetition.
21-29 irreprehensibilis est
subito piano
move back to C via B, A and G
The music is given time to respond to the emphatic climax of bars 19-20.
Tenor-stepwise chromatic descent.
Soprano and Alto work out the harmonic implications of this descent. move back to C via G 6/4 - 5/3 in bar 29
27-29 irreprehensibilis est Soprano and Alto double their note values, changing the rhythm on pre-hen
30-39 Locus iste a deo factus est Verbatim repeat of bars 1-10
40-42 Extended 'Deo' moving by chromatic steps to e minor. This may be the next-most important climax in the piece to bars 19-20. The harmonic movement and volume are of comparable intensity.
43 [Rest] Restraint is very important in art!
44-48 Coda:
C, F, D, (1st inversion – F sharp in bass), G, C.

Percy Scholes quotes 'a German writer' as saying that Bruckner 'was half a Caesar and half a village schoolmaster'. Whilst the scoring and length of this work are not ambitious, it is a very fine composition.