"Unfinished but Complete": Further Thoughts

I want to address the statements by many over the past century that Bruckner's Symphony 9 is, in its unfinished, three-movement form, still somehow complete. From at least one perspective, this is a wholly understandable take on the symphony, and it works well enough, up to a point. After all, Bruckner himself called the descending brass chorale early in the Adagio, beginning at bar 29—a chorale that prefigures the descending chorale in the Finale—his "farewell to life," and the phrase has since been applied by many to the entire symphony, and particularly to the Adagio.

I have no quarrel with this, but I do have a caveat, or at least want to point out a distinction that to Bruckner would have been self-evident but is less so, now, to us: that the chorale, and the entire Adagio, constitute Bruckner's farewell to earthly life. It is important to remember that the long, sustained chord that concludes the Adagio is structured to sound, at least to my ears, not fully resolved but suspended. Yes, the mere fact that it is a major chord, following nearly half an hour of tortured anguish in mostly minor keys, even dissonances, argues persuasively to the ear that some peace and resolution have been attained, and I think they have. But that peace and resolution have never sounded final or absolute to me—not even years ago, when I knew nothing of the Finale and accepted the received wisdom that, despite the composer's intentions, Bruckner's Symphony 9 was "really" a three-movement work, in its very incompleteness somehow complete. The suspension of harmonic resolution of the Adagio's final chord has always sounded to me not like a final breath at last let go (as, say, the final bars of Mahler's Symphony 9 have to me always sounded), but like a final breath taken—and then held.

However, the world in which Bruckner's Symphony 9 was first heard, and began to be established in the standard repertoire in the three-movement form in which we for so long knew it, was fresh from the horrors of World War I. That world was far more comfortable (if that is the word) with a symphony whose "program" paralleled the course of a mortal life and concluded with a mortal death. In a modernist view deeply informed by deep distrust of religion and disbelief in divinity—how could a loving God have permitted the horrors of the trenches?—the only life one could say farewell to was earthly life, because, in such a view, that is the only life we have. Thus the echt modernist reading of a three-movement Ninth: the best one can hope for at the end is a fading-out into silence and oblivion, peaceful if unresolved.

But this is, ultimately, a revisionist interpretation that imposes on Bruckner a worldview he would have found deeply repellent. Bruckner was a deeply devout Roman Catholic. For him, the end of earthly life was only a prelude to a greater and far longer life. But first would come a far greater challenge: judgment by God. Only then, assuming that the soul had been found worthy and not consigned to hell, would come the ultimate blissful union for eternity with divinity. Given that, the final earthly breath taken in for that last long chord of the Adagio is released only on the other side of death, in the Finale, and its exhalation marks only the beginning of the next leg of the soul's long journey.

I hear the Finale as the soul's deeply reluctant greeting of the afterlife, which begins with a long, hard Purgatorio. But Bruckner's Purgatory sounds, to my ear and sensibilities, far more like the Bardos of Tibetan Buddhism, in which the illusory demons and fears of the earthly ego are presented to the soul in dizzying and terrifying profusion, the challenge being, in this final test of faith or spiritual resolve or equanimity, to ignore them and keep straight on toward the light of eternal joy and peace. This is why, in Tibetan Buddhism, family and priests remain with the body of the deceased for three days following death, constantly chanting reminders to the disembodied but not entirely departed soul to not be distracted by these phantom terrors, and to instead ignore them for the Maya, or illusion, that they are.

Bruckner, of course, knew little or nothing about Buddhism, Tibetan or otherwise, but his musical Purgatory sounds to me like a far more hellish and Bardo-like place than, say, Dante's many-storied mountain of slow, patient penitence and undoing of earthly sins. And, just as the Ninth's Finale is far more disturbing and hellish than any other of Bruckner's Finales, the eventual resolution is so much harder won—indeed, barely won—and is thus so much more meaningful, musically and/or spiritually. At least, it is to this non-Buddhist, non-Christian listener.

In my survey of recordings of the various completions of the Finale, I said, "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." Two years on and many listenings later, that demand now seems to me impossible to deny. For the modernist, the three-movement Ninth completes that journey. For Bruckner and others of a more spiritual—or differently spiritual—bent, whether Christian or Buddhist or otherwise, believers or agnostics or atheists, only the fourth movement, the challenging Finale, completes the tale of the soul's journey, insofar as such a journey can ever be completed or told.—Richard Lehnert

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