Bruckner's Symphony No.9: Finally, a Finale?
Anyone who has read the notes accompanying a performance or recording of Anton Bruckner's final work, the unfinished Symphony No.9, knows the story: Before he died, on the afternoon of October 11, 1896, Bruckner had been able to complete only preliminary and fragmentary sketches for the Symphony's fourth movement, the Finale, which he'd worked on that very morning. Those sketches show little musical, structural, or harmonic coherenceif there was any overall plan, it was still only in the mind of a man rapidly going senile. But even had Bruckner retained all of his faculties and lived another year, his vision for the Ninth, and especially for this movement, was probably unrealizable, at least on this earthly plane. Besides, Bruckner had himself described the last movement he completedthe Adagio, with its anguished 11-tone row of a primary themeas his "farewell to life." What earthly music could possibly follow such an embodiment in sound of pain and suffering, followed by hard-won peace fading out at the last into barely audible acceptance? Surely, the three-movement Ninth, though left unfinished, has a completeness of its own.
The problem with this story is that so little of it is true. Gradually, in the 114 years since Bruckner's death, and especially since 1983, fragments of a more complete and accurate account of the work Bruckner had actually completed on the Finale have begun to cohere, as have the fragments of the movement itself. The real story is sadder, more interesting, and ultimately more hopeful.
When Bruckner died, his body lay in state for three days in his chambers, visited by friends, colleagues, and students paying their last respects. Bruckner's last amanuensis and secretary, Anton Meissner, encouraged the mourners to take with them, as memento mori, various belongings of Bruckner's. Mostly these were sheets of musical manuscript from a stack near Bruckner's deathbed, and chiefly of his most recent work: the sketches, revisions, and final full orchestrations of the Finale of Symphony 9. What remained passed into the possession of first Josef Schalk, a pianist, writer, and former student of Bruckner'sand, four years later, when Schalk died, into the hands of his brother Franz, another of Bruckner's students who had also served as the composer's assistant, protégé, and sometime editor. For the rest of his life, Franz Schalk would imply, or state outright, that Bruckner in those final years had not been in his right mind, that the Finale fragments made little sense, and that he had saved Bruckner's legacy from being embarrassed by the composer's own decline. In the absence of almost any evidence to the contrarymany actual pages of the manuscript now more or less scattered to the windsthere was little reason to doubt the word of one of Bruckner's closest intimates, and Schalk's version of Bruckner's last works and days became the generally accepted one.
Bruckner seems to have been cursed with friends and colleagues who deeply loved him and his work while having little respect (albeit much affection) for the former or understanding of the latter. The Schalks were chief among these, having earlier cut by half the massively fugal Finale of Bruckner's Symphony 5, in an edition still occasionally performed today. While that was apparently done behind Bruckner's back, Bruckner was desperate enough to have his difficult and unfashionable works mounted that he is known to have said, "Do what you want, just perform them." But it now seems clear that Franz Schalk's bewildering later behavior was founded on his own bewilderment at what Bruckner was actually doing in his final work. Another of Bruckner's former pupils, Ferdinand Löwe, compounded this in the first performance, in 1903, of the Ninth's three completed movements, which Löwe entirely reorchestrated and "corrected" in an edition now universally condemned as wrongheaded and spurious.
Over the last century, however, and as recently as 2003, manuscript pages of the Finalefrom Bruckner's sketches, revisions, and final, fully orchestrated autograph scorehave continued to turn up in private collections and libraries in Europe and the US. From the evidence now available, it seems that Bruckner had actually finished a through-composed sketch of the entire Finale sometime in June 1896. In fact, portions of as many as half a dozen sketched versions survive, though none in full. This might have left unresolved the dilemma of exactly how many bars of lost music might have originally linked the surviving fragments were it not for one of Bruckner's mental odditiesironically, one that had also greatly delayed his completion of the Ninth.
Throughout his life, Bruckner's apparently innate tendency toward rigorous formalism was intensified by a degree of what might now be called obsessive-compulsive disorder. Evidence of this ranged from his keeping careful lists of how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers he recited each night, through the precise mathematical symmetry of the numbers of measures in his symphonies, to endless and often pointless revisions of earlier works. In fact, he interrupted work on the Ninth for a year to completely revise his Symphony 1, a project most Bruckner scholars now agree was not worth the effort. But Bruckner's meticulous bar-counting has helped greatly in the reconstruction of the Ninth's Finale. He wrote the final drafts of his symphonies on large, consecutively numbered sheets of score paper, each single-folded sheet comprising four pages of four bars each in full orchestral staff. According to Bruckner scholar Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, in his "The SPCM Completion to the Bruckner Symphony No. 9," an exhaustive essay available at www.abruckner.com, the number of missing bars can thus be known almost precisely: 223 of a probable total of 665. The 442 extant bars are less "fragments" than substantial chunks of continuous music, mostly in full orchestration, and as long as eight or nine minutes, separated by gaps of only 8 or 16 or 24 bars. Not only that, sketches and revised sketches, in various states of completion, exist for 127 of those 223 missing bars, leaving only 96 bars, most of them in the coda, for which nothing in Bruckner's hand survives.
Not everyone agrees that the Finale and its coda should match the respective numbers of measures Cohrs has come up within particular William Carragan, another Bruckner scholar, whose latest edition of his own completion of the Finale totals 717 measures. However, Cohrs is probably correct when he states that only about 15% of the Finale is missing in any form, these gaps comprising only 5% of the entire four-movement symphony. He compares this with Franz Süssmayr's completion of Mozart's Requiem, which has been in the standard repertoire for more than two centuries, and of which Süssmayr himself composed 22% of the music and orchestrated more than 90%.
But until the last two decades, most scholars were loath to even contemplate a performing version of the fragments of the Finale of Bruckner's 9th, and conductors even more so; even now, when such versions are beginning to be performed, no conductor of first-rank stature has done so. It's not clear why this is so, given the present general acceptance of the Mozart-Süssmayr Requiem, the Mahler-Cooke Symphony 10, the Puccini-Alfano Turandot, and the Elgar-Payne Symphony 3, each of which (the Mahler excepted) contains far more music entirely written by someone other than the composer than do any of the completions of the Bruckner Ninth discussed here (the Marthé excepted). (Since the original publication of this article in the March 2010 Stereophile, I have learned that performances and recordings of a four-movement Ninth are being planned by two "star" conductors.)
However, there are now enough of these completions, and enough decent recordings of them, to give the listener a very good idea of Bruckner's plan for his final work. Currently, three completions, two of them in multiple editions, are important, and are the only ones to have been recorded in any format now available: the first, by William Carragan; the most recent, by Sébastien Letocart; and perhaps most important, and the most extensive and most exhaustively researchedit is certainly the most rigorously arguedby Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca, later joined by John A. Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs. Here is what they have discovered.