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Symphony No. 9 in D minor

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Anton Bruckner
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Herbert Blomstedt, conductor/Jonathan Biss, piano, plays Mozart Mar. 19 - 21, 2009
© Richard Freed
A hundred years after the 35-year-old Mozart composed and introduced his final piano concerto, Anton Bruckner, at nearly twice that age, undertook his final symphony. In this case the issue of valediction is not mere conjecture: whatever Bruckner's intentions for his Ninth when he began working on it, it turned out to be a clearly defined gesture of farewell, and in this case the composer neither completed the work according to his original design nor lived to hear it performed.

As any juxtaposition of music by Bruckner and Mozart reminds us, these two composers were men of different times and had still more sharply contrasting personalities. Bruckner was not a Wunderkind, and his performing activity was limited to the organ loft of a church (which activity surely influenced the character of his symphonies). He never developed social skills, did not travel widely, and he suffered from a daunting level of insecurity even after his symphonies were taken up by the great conductors of his time and received the endorsement of his idol Richard Wagner.

Indeed, while Bruckner composed his masterworks after passing an age which Mozart never attained, he retained a naïveté that did not require exaggeration to become legendary in his own time. Dozens of anecdotes serve to deepen one's amazement that Bruckner's symphonies could have been conceived by such a simple soul. He did some of his composing in his bathtub, beside which he kept a bust of himself. He tipped the illustrious conductor Hans Richter a Thaler after the final rehearsal of his Fourth Symphony. When he undertook to conduct one of his symphonies himself, he had to be coaxed to give the initial downbeat after repeatedly telling the frustrated musicians, "No, gentlemen—after you!" When a prankster told him the Bulgarians had chosen him to be their king, he was utterly taken in.

The apparent incongruity of such behavior with the majestic and by no means awkward tonal edifices he created with so sure a hand is perhaps most succinctly described in Donald Francis Tovey's reference to "the childlike rustic person that Anton Bruckner was apart from his music." No one but Bruckner would have fashioned such a work as the Ninth Symphony and inscribed it simply "Dem lieben Gott" ("To dear God"), and no one but Bruckner would have been found, at age 72, kneeling at his bedside praying aloud, "Dear God, please let me get well soon. You know I must have strength to finish the Ninth!"

Bruckner made his initial sketches for this symphony as early as September 1887, but the effort involved in revising his First and Eighth symphonies kept him from getting started in earnest until 1891. By the end of November 1894 he had completed three of the projected four movements, but he never got beyond a jumble of sketches for the final one. It was as if the Dedicatee Himself, with unerring musical judgment, had decreed that this clearly valedictory work should not end with a conventional celebratory finale, but with the most sublime example of the adagio form which Bruckner had made uniquely his own.

While Bruckner was not aware of such a decree, he knew the Ninth was to be his last work. He had in fact labeled the leading motif of the Adagio, in 1894, "Abschied vom Leben" ("Life's Farewell"), but he had intended to follow that movement with a giant fugue, a form traditionally regarded as one of the noblest in music. When he saw that he would not be able to complete his finale, he suggested that the Te Deum, composed ten years earlier, might be performed in its place, and he even set about composing a bridge passage to link it to the Adagio (which in this symphony, as in the Eighth, is the third movement rather than the second, following the scherzo rather than preceding it).

Although that bridge material was discarded—Bruckner came to see that the Te Deum cannot be regarded as an acceptable finale for this symphony, to which it is in no way related in terms of basic tonality—the idea of a choral finale for the work is itself not a jarring thought, for the score abounds in near-parallels with the Ninth of Beethoven: the same key, the same sequence of instrumental movements, and, most significantly, a remarkable similarity of both mood and structure in the respective individual movements.

Nearly all of Bruckner's symphonies were edited to the point of distortion by well-intentioned associates, and were first published in those editions, with many of the touches that constituted the composer's individual style smoothed away. In the case of the preceding works, Bruckner had been on hand to give his nominal approval, but the Ninth, edited for publication after his death, was subjected to the most extreme alterations by Ferdinand Löwe, who conducted the premiere in Vienna on February 11, 1903. Some 29 years later, however, the Ninth became the first of Bruckner's symphonies to be heard in its restored original form. Siegmund von Hausegger conducted the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in the historic performance on April 2, 1932, that brought the full power of Bruckner's majestic originality to the public for the first time, and two years later the authentic score, edited by the same Alfred Orel quoted in the preceding note on Mozart's final piano concerto, began the series of publications of Bruckner's music under the sponsorship of the International Bruckner Society. Hausegger recorded the work after giving that important premiere, and in 1934, the year Orel's edition was published, Otto Klemperer conducted the New York Philharmonic in the American premiere of the original version. The respected critic Lawrence Gilman (who was also the Philharmonic's program annotator at the time) described the event as a "consecrational disclosure" after three decades of Löwe's "sandpapered" version. After that, it was not long until the original versions of all the Bruckner symphonies, in painstaking scholarly editions, had replaced the corrupt ones of Löwe and the composer's similarly motivated pupils the brothers Franz and Josef Schalk. (The score used in the present performances is an edition prepared a bit later than Orel's, by Robert Haas, for publication by the International Bruckner Society.)

"Feierlich, misterioso," the marking for the first movement, might stand as a motto for the entire symphony. Terse dictionary definitions of feierlich as "solemn" or "festive" may confuse Anglophones with their apparent contradictions; a more suitable rendering in this instance might be "ceremonial," in the sense of a consecrating ceremony, and in Bruckner's usage the term connotes intensity as well. From the first measures, that Brucknerian consecrational intensity pervades this music; it exudes an urgency and otherworldly quality on a level Bruckner had not reached in any of his earlier works. Following the stern outburst at the climax of the dramatically expanding introduction, the themes suggest a context of aspiration; open-hearted and open-armed, they seem to reach out (and, by their very design, upward) with the sort of spontaneity and unabashed spiritual abandon we might associate with a sense of great release and confident certainty of fulfilment.

The Scherzo, no less surely than the concluding Adagio, is the grand culmination of Bruckner's achievement in a form he had invested with a unique character. Pizzicato strings over weaving woodwind harmonies and a sustained note from the trumpet set a scene of eerie suspense. One almost expects Mendelssohn's elves to come stealing in, but instead a ferocious, pounding theme in the full orchestra shatters the anticipated idyll, and in the bizarre trio we have no jolly woodland sprites, no easy-going Ländler as in Bruckner's earlier scherzos, but something more demoniacal than merely mischievous. The scherzo proper is repeated in full. In all, this movement may well represent the most forward-looking of all Bruckner's compositions.

The great Adagio looks both forward and backward—and most of all inward. In the opening measures we hear recollections of Wagner's Parsifal and premonitions of the final Adagio of another valedictory Ninth, the last of Gustav Mahler's completed symphonies, but the blazing E major climax to this opening section could be no one's but Bruckner's. Bruno Walter once described Bruckner—in contradistinction to Mahler, the God-seeker—as "a man who had found God," and nowhere in his music is that more evident than in this Adagio, charged not only with the sweetness of resignation and farewell, but with the luminous joy of the confident pilgrim approaching his goal. The four-note motif running through the movement is labeled "Fate": it holds no menace, nor is there a hint of reluctance in "Life's Farewell." There is a brief reference to the Miserere of the Mass in D minor Bruckner composed in 1864, as if a final act of confession, and in the coda, as Erwin Doernberg noted in his biography of the composer, there are "two delicately transfigured greetings from the Eighth and Seventh symphonies." At the end it is the "Fate" motif that provides the final hushed benediction.

There have been various unfinished symphonies, and there have been various attempts at finishing them. In the case of the Unfinished Symphony, by Franz Schubert, prizes were given out on the centenary of the composer's death for a "completion" which was given little attention and was quickly forgotten, because that exquisite two-movement work does not appear to us as a mere "torso," but as something totally and satisfyingly complete as the composer left it. And so it is with Bruckner's remarkable Ninth, though some present-day Brucknerians have undertaken to flesh out the composer's sketches for the finale—not by way of suggesting that a four-movement version of the symphony should be put into general circulation, but merely to enable listeners to form some idea of what Bruckner had in mind. The finale as completed by the American William Carragan has been recorded by Yoav Talmi and the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos, together with the three-movement symphony itself and a separate presentation of as much of the material for the finale as Bruckner himself had scored. On Teldec, Eliahu Inbal conducts the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra in a reconstruction of the finale by the Italian scholars Nicola Smale and Giuseppe Mazzuca; this performance does not come with the rest of the Ninth itself, but as filler with Bruckner's Fifth Symphony.