"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

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.

damian101's picture

I enjoy the Josephson completion a lot, the best recording of it is Aarhus Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons. Very much worth checking out.