Anton Bruckner: Ecce sacerdos magnus


Although largely remembered for his symphonic works, Anton Bruckner also composed a number of choral works and sacred motets. Ecce sacerdos magnus was composed in 1885 and is a musical setting of the antiphon of the same name. Translating to ‘Behold the Great Priest’, the work showcases Bruckner’s flair for handling rich textures and harmonies effectively. 

Composed after being requested by Johann Burgstaller, Ecce sacerdos magnus was scheduled to be performed for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the diocese at Linz Cathedral. However this was not the case. The work was not performed at this event, nor did Bruckner ever hear it performed in his lifetime. The work premiered in 1921.


The Lyrics
Latin Original

Ecce sacerdos magnus, qui in diebus suis placuit Deo.

Ideo jurejurando fecit illum Dominus crescere in plebem suam.

Benedictionem omnium gentium dedit illi, et testamentum suum confirmavit super caput ejus.

Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

English Translation

Behold a great priest, who in his days pleased God.

Therefore by an oath the Lord made him increase among his people.

He gave him the blessing of all nations and confirmed his covenant upon his head.

Glory be to the father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.


The Music

The voices are split into eight parts for Ecce sacerdos magnus, and are accompanied by organ and three trombones. The dramatic opening lays Bruckner’s bare fifths and creates a spacious and bold beginning. This antiphon was intended to be used as processional music for the entrance of the Bishop into the cathedral, therefore the must be majestic and somewhat ceremonial in character. The intensity at the start is carried through for most of this work.

Bruckner’s masterful layering of the voices and the organ creates some highly dramatic and thrilling sections of the work. Each small section of the work, which explores a different part of the antiphon words, takes the listener through a number of different characters and atmospheres. Bruckner mixes together both some traditional aspects of sacred music, such as the way the voices move and behave, as well as his own compositional style – in this work it’s his rich harmonic language. 

As the intensity builds towards the end of the motet, the trombones bolster the lower voices which allows the upper voices to delicately sit on top of the strong foundations. The texture becomes thinner and a lyrical upper voice theme ensues. The sacred motet finishes quietly in ironically the least intense part of the whole work. 


Final Thoughts

Anton Bruckner’s sacred setting of Ecce sacerdos magnus is effective in a number of ways. From the rich harmonic language, to the layering of the voices and the handling of the organ and trombones, Ecce sacerdos magnus is a gem in Bruckner’s choral output.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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