About Librarian’s Corner:
Leeds Vocal Movement loves to sing music from a wide range of genres, and my aim is to better understand what we are singing. This blog adds some context and analysis to the notes on the page, for the benefit of members and listeners alike!
Locus Iste – Anton Bruckner (1895)
Josef Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was an Austrian composer and accomplished organist during the Romantic era. Bruckner was heavily influenced by the works of his German contemporaries, in particular Richard Wagner; however, he also studied Baroque and Renaissance composers, including J.S. Bach and Palestrina. Bruckner’s sacred works often depict this mixture of Romantic and early music influences, and his motet Locus Iste is no exception.
The influence of early music
Bruckner wrote many sacred works, including over thirty motets. Motets are defined simply as “a sacred choral piece, usually unaccompanied, in several parts”, to allow for the diverse range of pieces associated with the form. Composers between the 13th century and the present day wrote motets, but they were most common in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Typical features of Renaissance sacred works include the use of modes, Latin text, and polyphonic textures. These characteristics are found in the motets of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who was a particular influence on Bruckner’s works.
Three hundred years on, motets became popular with Romantic composers like Brahms and Bruckner, despite its progressive musical developments. The Romantic era was defined by a step away from the “rules” of earlier musical styles; composers rejected the musical “boundaries” that were prominent in the Classical era, while celebrating and emulating the composers that popularised them. This included a conscious movement towards adding emotion and meaning into compositions, through techniques like the use of dynamics, a lack of strict musical forms and variations of traditional harmonic progressions. Alongside this was the revival and adaptation of early music traditions; the Catholic Church particularly encouraged the use of polyphony and Gregorian chant in 19th century sacred music. As a devout Catholic, the influences of both early music and of the Catholic Church can be spotted within Bruckner’s Romantic motets.
A blend of eras
Locus Iste is a clear example the Romantic era’s revival of early music. This motet was written as the dedication of the Votive Chapel of the newly built Linz cathedral, which is made clear from the title ‘Locus Iste’, meaning ‘this place [was made by God]’. The piece is the setting of a Latin gradual:
Locus / iste / a / Deo / factus / est
place / this / by / God / maded / was (This place was made by God,)
inaestimabile / sacramentum;
priceless / mystery (it is a priceless mystery,)
irreprehensibilis / est.
without reproof / it is (it is beyond reproach.)
Bruckner’s motets consistently depict influences of early sacred music; along with the Latin text, hints of polyphony are found among the otherwise homophonic texture, such as the varied rhythms of the four parts in the penultimate phrase. The long, slow vocal lines throughout the piece and the use of modal chords are particularly reminiscent of Renaissance Gregorian chant.
Another early music influence is Bruckner’s use of the melody to emphasise parts of the text, known as word painting. This is most obvious in the bass line; scholars have highlighted “the isolation of the bass part at structurally important points” as evidence of word painting, for example initiating the ‘a Deo’ phrases in the first and third sections, and prompting the climactic rises at ‘inaestimabile sacramentum’.
However, the Romantic characteristics in Locus Iste cannot be ignored. Bruckner’s use of dynamic contrast is a clear step away from early music; there are very few gradual dynamic changes, and the sharp piano and forte contrasts between the sections provide the high level of passion that defined the Romantic era. 
This passion can also be found in the use of harmony, such as the use of accidentals and chromatic progression at ‘irreprehensibilis est’. This diversion from the more traditional harmonic progression in the first two sections shows a similar movement towards the Romantic style; here, we find the harmonic freedom allowed by Romanticism, embedded in the slow, majestic vocal lines of Gregorian chant.
Bruckner in present day
Today, Bruckner is better known for his symphonies than his motets; his 4th, 7th and 9th symphonies have stood the test of time particularly well. However, Locus Iste remains one of Bruckner’s most famous motets, and among his most popular sacred works. It has continued to be a favourite within choirs and choral societies, and will no doubt be filling churches with its Renaissance and Romantic blend for years to come.
Written by Rosa Stevens – Choir Manager and Librarian
Feature image source: https://bit.ly/2r8m4ME