Bruckner learned to play the organ at the Monastery of St Florian, near the village where he was born. Decades later, he was buried in its crypt underneath the instrument he adored.
A renowned organist, in 1871 Bruckner impressed audiences at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where he gave six recitals on the newly built Henry Willis organ (at that time the largest in the world) dutifully improvising on the theme “God save the Queen”. Although he wrote no major works for organ, its technical demands and sonorities influenced the orchestration of his symphonies, which often switches between multiple groups of instruments, much like changing manuals on an organ.
Bruckner’s great hero was Wagner, and there is a well-known story about him visiting the “Master” of Bayreuth in order to persuade him to accept the dedication of his third symphony. When Wagner died in 1883, Bruckner was composing the Adagio of his Seventh Symphony. Hearing the news, he ended the movement with a haunting passage which he always referred to as “funeral music for the Master.” Two years later, Bruckner memorialized Wagner at an organ concert at the Monastery of St Florian. It was reviewed in the Linz daily newspaper:
“Bruckner’s admirers arrived at the monastery by every possible form of transport – in carriages and carts, by rail and on foot – in order to hear the sublime music which Bruckner was able to coax from the magnificent instrument. Shortly before half past three the monastery chapel filled up, and soon the friendly face of our dear Bruckner appeared at the organ.”
“Bruckner gave an excellent example of one of his world-famous improvisations. Beginning quietly, continually swelling up until it reached unexpected power, the sounds of the magnificent lamentation on the death of Siegfried from Götterdämmerung shook the audience. Bruckner then brought all his genius to bear in a contrapuntal reworking of the piece; but Siegfried’s lamentation was soon joined by a new and equally sublime, solemn dirge: it was Bruckner’s own funeral music from the Adagio of his Seventh Symphony, which he wrote in deepest grief on the death of Wagner.”
“Then the heavens cleared and a lofty intermezzo in the style of Handel sang out. This jubilant song which followed the funeral music was interwoven with a theme from the Eighth Symphony. The ‘Walsungen’ and ‘Siegfried’ motifs from the Ring retuned once again. This time, however, the grief had disappeared, and powerful singing lines resounded in all registers, rushing and rejoicing towards the end of the piece. Bruckner’s artistic achievement had stirred us and lifted our spirits powerfully, and it would be hard to express in mere words our thankfulness for what he gave us.”