There are God knows (probably literally) how many settings of the Ave Maria prayer, including some super famous ones (hey there Schubert!). There is one setting, though, that to me towers above the others, a brief work of absolutely staggering beauty.
It’s not really surprising that Bruckner is responsible for something beautifully Catholic – the man dedicated a symphony to God for Christ’s sake…wait… – but it may be a bit surprising that it is an unaccompanied choral setting. Bruckner composed around 40 motets, and he actually set the Ave Maria three times. The version above is the second of these settings, written in 1861, five years before the first version of his Symphony no. 1. And yet, like his now-more-famous colleague/student/friend Gustav Mahler, you can hear the sound of the mature Bruckner in this work of his youth (as a relative term for his compositional career, which peaked 25-30 years later; he turned 37 in 1861, and now I remind you that Schubert would have been dead for six years at that age).
The slow movements that Bruckner is notorious for have their genesis in these choral settings: the second movement of the Symphony no. 7 immediately comes to mind, as does the third movement of the Symphony no. 9. Note the similarities between the above video and this bit from the end of Sym. 7, mvt. 2 with utterly bizarre Christian imagery and a money shot of Wagner looking like the God of Music and Lightning included for your viewing pleasure:
I mean, that’s as good as music gets by anyone at any point ever, and it sounds like a wordless choral setting. The truth about Bruckner is that he was a church musician and a fucking brilliant organist. As popular as his symphonies have become with the advance of time, his religious music has unfairly taken something of a back seat. But go back and listen to the motets and the masses and you’ll hear a side of the man that is closely attuned to how he lived his entire life. It’s a special treat, and a glimpse into some of the musical nuts and bolts of what would become as good a run of symphonic music as anyone (Bruckner 4-9 stand up pretty favorably to whatever you care to think of as awesome, and I would be inclined to throw 1-3 in there myself. Bruckner is the shit is what I’m saying).
Hail Bruckner, full of awesome sauce. Fuck all the haters, man.