The first performance of the work was in 1885 when two pianos substituted for the orchestra. The first performance with full orchestra was in 1886, and it was performed over thirty times in Bruckner's lifetime. Bruckner died before he could finish the finale of his 9th symphony and it has been suggested (some scholars believe by Bruckner himself) that the Te Deum be used as the finale. All of Bruckner's musician be considered as sacred in the sense that as a devout Catholic he composed for the glory of God, but the Te Deum is so different in character (not to mention in key) that it isn't a good fit at all. Better to leave the 9th an incomplete masterpiece and the Te Deum separate works.
The text for Te Deum has been attributed to various early Christians. such as Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine. It was written in the 4th century and is a hymn of praise. There were selections from the Psalms added to the hymn at a later date. The hymn has been set by many composers and is still used in the Catholic church at various times.
The Te Deum is in 5 parts:
I - Te Deum - The hymn of praise to God opens with rhythmic driving music, a rhythm that appears throughout the piece. The choral writing is mostly in unison, with simple harmonies otherwise. It was as if Bruckner wanted to use the sheer force of voices singing in unison in the key of C major to represent the conviction of his own faith.
II - Te ergo quaesumus - With the plea for God's help, the music turns to a gentle song for the tenor with comments by the soloists. Th e chorus is silent, the orchestra a chamber ensemble.
III - Aeterna fac cum - The orchestra returns to full force with the help of the choir.
IV - Salvum fac populum tuum - The music returns in mood and melody to the second section as the tenor pleads for mercy. The chorus and orchestra return to the driving rhythm of the opening, and alternate between calm and quiet, and agitated counterpoint.
V -In te, Domine, speravi - The music brightens and the soloists have a dialog. Bruckner now shows his gift for counterpoint as the chorus sings a fugue of two songs, a double fugue, where the melodies weave in and out like a finely made basket. The music changes to a tune that is similar to the main theme of the slow movement of the 7th symphony, a work Bruckner composed at about the same time as the Te Deum. The music ends on a positive note of jubilation.
Despite the Te Deum being a sacred work , it has always seemed to me to be a dramatic work also, the closest thing Bruckner ever wrote to opera. The rhythmic drive of the opening is one of the most powerful openings of any work I remember hearing. It is a classic in every sense of the word. The Latin text and English translation is included on the video: