Bruckner's Symphony No.9: Finally, a Finale? Page 2
Bruckner continued to chart new harmonic territory throughout the Ninth, but nowhere so much as in its Finale. Even those who have long known and loved the symphony's first three movements will no doubt find at first, as I did, the opening of the Finale to be disturbing, even alarming, and perhaps feel some sympathy for poor Ferdinand Löwe as he "corrected" all of the first three movements' many dissonanceshere, there are many more. Bruckner always structured his themes with great care, to ensure maximum flexibility in their later development via counterpoint and inversion, but in this regard the themes of the Finale are in a class by themselves. The extreme and angular intervals of the first two themes seem at once to leap upward and fall further downward, then shriek in the violins with near-hysterical anguish before subsiding into what sounds like a wallow of grief and despair. But in this movement, every falling motif and figure later rises, every theme that first descends in angst later climbs to gloryand, almost always, these falling and rising figures at some point are overlaid to work against, then with each other to achieve a sense of great and ultimately triumphant striving against almost insurmountable odds. The Finale is one of the most thorough workings-through of musical logic I know of; like the greatest works of J.S. Bach, sacred or secular, it seems to demand to be heard as a spiritual journey.
But we are still at the beginning. A reassuring figure in full strings then enters, followed by perhaps the most beautiful chorale Bruckner ever wrote, led in its descent, alternately chromatic and diatonic, by solo trumpet. Soon after this comes a four-part fugue whose density Bruckner compounds by condensing the rhythm of the main subject's last few bars; this accelerates the end of each statement to launch the theme into its next statement in a crack-the-whip effect I've heard in no other fugue. The stretto is dauntingly dense. After further development of multiple themes in minor key there bursts, like a sunrise (or, this being Bruckner, the glory of God), a remarkably circular fanfare passage in the major for full brass choirs, interspersed with upward-striving string figures. This subsides into a silence preceded by what sounds like an opening phrase for horn that is abruptly cut offan entrance original enough that early completers of the Finale muted it as much as possible with dynamic markings (Bruckner provided none). Eventually, through more development, the chorale returns, then the "sunrise" fanfare completely reconfigured, then a restatement and combination of the main themes of the earlier movements, and a final statement of the chorale.
What then follows is, or was, the coda, the section for which no final draft pages survive. However, some of Bruckner's sketches for the coda have recently resurfaced, and conform to a verbal description Bruckner gave his last physician, for whom he played them on piano. Hereand especially in the latest editions of the completions by Carragan and by Samale, Mazzuca, Phillips, and Cohrsthe music does actually begin to sound like a vast cathedral by Calatrava or Gaudí, its high nave supported by asymmetric but structurally essential columns, arches, and crossbraces of sound. If architecture is frozen music, then this is music of a grandly flowing architectonics.
The finest examples of what is commonly called "absolute music" instill in the listener the sense of being told something of great importance that is as necessary as it is untranslatable. Listening over the last decade to Bruckner's dauntingly thorough working-through of his musical/spiritual calculus in the various completions of the Finale, and many times more in preparing to write this survey, my sense has grown that this music says or embodies not only something that Bruckner stated in none of his other works, but that no one else has either. At some point in my listening, the Finale was no longer a jarring, bewildering addendum to a work whose first three movements I and most others had long considered "unfinished but complete," but instead now seemed a lifting onto another plane of all that had gone beforesomething that, in retrospect, put the long-familiar first three movements into a scale and proportion that now seems as "right" as it is new. The effect is at once exciting, expanding, and humbling. To paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin on the fiction of John Crowley: Those who enter this music are advised that they will leave it a different size than when they came in.
From being unable to conceive of the Ninth with a Finale of any kind, I now find it difficult to conceive of it without this one, in these many versions of its lost true formany more than I can imagine Beethoven's Symphony 9 without its final movement, which sums up and transcends the three movements that precede it, even as it pulls them up after it onto its own loftier plane. The comparison is not idly chosenthe more I listen, the more the two works seem equal in scope, profundity, and originality. The various scholar-composers discussed below who have tried to bring us a version, in sound, of the last movement of Bruckner's last symphony have done far more than add a footnote to the historical record, and even more than rescue a lost masterpiecethey have retrieved from near oblivion the greatest work by one of our greatest composers.