Bruckner's Symphony No.9: Finally, a Finale? Page 2

For the Finale of the Ninth, Bruckner, a devout Roman Catholic, had conceived what has often been described (though apparently not by the composer) as a vast cathedral of sound, dedicated by Bruckner "to the dear Lord" and capped by a coda comprising the main themes not only of all of the symphony's preceding movements, but also of his symphonies 5, 7, and 8. Not all Bruckner scholars agree that Bruckner actually did intend to work in those themes from his earlier works, and the composer's alleged sketch of how all of those themes would overlap, which some claimed to have seen, has not survived, if indeed it ever existed. Still, on the strength of the evidence presented by the completions surveyed here, the music of the Finale almost defies description in its richness, density, and ambition, even for Bruckner. For example, the composer built most of his symphonic movements on the statements, developments, and contrapuntal workings-through of three themes or theme groups: a first main theme, a more lyrical theme developed from the main theme, and a stormy third theme, usually built on octave intervals. The Finale of the Ninth has eight main themes, many of them of a type new to his work—but it is Bruckner's rigorous developments and interweavings of these themes, in a continuous organic process throughout the length of this long movement (20 to 30 minutes, depending on the conductor and the completion performed), that are so astonishingly complex. In this Finale, Bruckner's various musical funds—of melodic and rhythmic ideas, advanced harmony and tonal color, and rigor of development and counterpoint—seem inexhaustible.

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 dissonances—here, 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 glory—and, 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 off—an 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. Here—and especially in the latest editions of the completions by Carragan and by Samale, Mazzuca, Phillips, and Cohrs—the 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 before—something 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 form—any 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 chosen—the 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 masterpiece—they have retrieved from near oblivion the greatest work by one of our greatest composers.

foscari's picture

Dear Richard Lehnert-First of all let me tell you that I have had no musical education. The fact that I love Bruckners music is that even though I am Jewish Atheist I have a lot of empathy for Bruckner and it one of the main reasons I cannot take even the latest finale of the 9th, seriously as the ending of the symphony.
I am just not sure how ill Bruckner was when trying to compose this finale but I expect that it was not just very serious physical illness but mental illness as well.
Thankfully, in my opinion he saw that he could not finish the work, even if his doctor Richard Heller said that he had played the coda to him, and finished his third movement with his "farewell to life" and this is my main point. I do not believe that the fourth move would have begun with the dissonance and fragmented music we hear after the way he finished the third movement. I do believe that the third movement would of finished in dissonance similar to ending of the first movement , left completely stark like the hellish dissonant utterances before the "farewell to life".
I just dont dont think through his health he was capable of completing , in my opinion, after the three greatest movements in the Symphonic repertory. You may say "what about the chorale"? Yes but the chorale in itself is knowhere enough . Alot of what was Bruckner reminds of music going back to remnants of the "Nulte". I happen to very much like the nulte, but this is a different world to this 20th century Bruckner.We are hearing late Mahler, Schostakovitch, Prokoviev and even early Schoenberg in this style. It is unique for the 19th century. Then we get this throwback.The Chorale is brilliantly arranged from the wide open chords we hear towards the end of the third, which has great similarity to the opening of the Tallis Fantasia by Vaughn Williams. I suspect Bruckner was able to compose this chorale during some kind of remission.
I am happy to hear these reconstructed finales as a very good curiosity. Perhaps Hans Zimmer was even inspired to compose his minimilistic ending to The Da Vinci Code after hearing this minimilistic theme after the reintroduction of the Chorale towards the end although I suspect that Carragan actualy "arranged" this.
However for me, I will take the three movements as Bruckners last "words".
You see Mr Lehnert as I have no musical education I can make up a conspiracy theory that we do hear something like Bruckners intentions for his coda to his beloved " Lord". Maybe , just maybe, Gustav Mahler paid his professeur a "late" visit and we hear this coda in The Resurrection !

Kind Regards From Barry Bernstein

sjlevine34's picture

I disagree with Mr. Bernstein.  Also being a Jew and an agnostic (leaning toward theistic), I have found the Finale of the 9th quite captivating and convincing.  While the movement's structure appears unusually tight for the composer, listening to the fragments as performed by Harnoncourt convinces one that it is what Bruckner intended.   And the music, I feel, is the composer at his finest.

dalethorn's picture

It seems that the data is mostly there, but the interpretation is in dispute. Not much different from Bible text then.

dieter's picture

Hi Guys
I'm not sure what being Jewish has to do with Bruckner: I'm a Goy, I love Mahler, so what.
I feel haunted by the reconstructed last movement of the 9th: it's awesome music, so Bruckner. I confess that Bruckner is up there with Bach and Beethoven in my Pantheon.

Terril's picture

I'm half jewish :) And a Bruckner lover for many decades. I found that it was quite difficult to fully "Grok" this finale for some time even though I can usually "grok" any music almost instantaneously. For example any oriental music some of which I learnt to play. My musical meducation is though quite limited. The version by Friedeman Layer of the finale I find absolutely inspiring and I consider it the greatest movement from a bruckner symphony. I far prefer it to the Berlin under Rattle, whether thats because of the altered reconstruction or Rattles conception I don't know.