Simon Rattle conducts the completed Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner

09 Feb 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 9 in D minor in the performing edition of the 4th movement completed from the manuscripts by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca (1985-2008/revised 2010) (94 min.)

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    Sir Simon Rattle on the completed Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner (19 min.)

It is the unfinished works of great composers in particular that enjoy a mystical reverence. This is also the case with the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner, who after completing the first three movements, died while working on the finale. But unlike Mozart’s Requiem, for example, of which only a minimal part comes from the composer himself, there is a wealth of sketches by Bruckner for the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. In more than 25 years of detective work, an international team of composers, conductors and musicologists developed these sketches into a breathtaking whole. The completed symphony is performed here by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle.

The fact that Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is a farewell to the world is shown firstly in the composer’s intention to dedicate the symphony “to the beloved God”. But also in the large-scale first movement, everything seems like the last word. The following Scherzo appears as a demonic dance of death; the Adagio, a swan song of disconcerting fragility. And then the finale: of the 647 bars in the reconstruction, 208 are completely by Bruckner, for most of the remaining bars, string parts, drafts of the wind parts or initial sketches were available – there were only 37 bars for which there was no music at all by the composer. The completed movement reveals many disturbing moments as well as Bruckner-like grandeur. But, as Simon Rattle says, “everything that is strange about this finale is 100% Bruckner. And one can see the terror and the fear and the passion which he was going through in his life at that time.”

A Monumental Sinfonia da chiesa?

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in a completed performing version

Music history is strewn with fragments of many different kinds. Some are no more than ideas jotted down by a composer without any intention of working them out; others are simply studies. Some could not be finished for biographical reasons, while the rest are fragments of works that were actually completed but have not survived intact. Whether it is appropriate for a given composition to be completed posthumously has to be determined on an individual basis. A variety of historical attitudes can be observed in the reception of musical fragments. Beginning in the 18th century there emerged a new appreciation of torsos in art, which Romantic aesthetics soon took to the point of glorification. In music this resulted in the virtual veneration of certain fragments by great masters – in particular Bach’s Art of Fugue, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, Bruckner’s Ninth and Mahler’s Tenth. Arguing against that reverence for the uncompleted is the curiosity of music lovers longing for an answer to the question of how a composer might have envisaged the work in its entirety.

In our day, the first step in assessing the feasibility of completing Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony must be to set out all the historical facts as supported by the latest source research. From Bruckner’s letters, articles appearing during his lifetime and eye-witness reports, as well as from the surviving musical manuscripts, there can be no doubt that performances of the three-movement torso were not what he intended. On the contrary: the possibility of incorporating the Te Deum as an alternative conclusion was already part of his conception of the symphony at an early stage. When it became apparent that he would no longer be able to complete the fourth movement, he expressly decreed that that large choral work would make for the “best substitute”. This decision and his reported dedication of the symphony to “the beloved God” taken together indicate its ultimate concern: an exploration of “last things” in the style of a monumental sinfonia da chiesa, created in full awareness of this being a final opportunity to communicate with posterity, but also under pressure to create something worthy of its dedicatee.

The Genesis

These considerations are clearly reflected in the Ninth Symphony’s long gestation. The earliest date is found in sketches for the first movement from 12 August 1887 (two days after Bruckner completed the first version of the Eighth), while the latest is 11 August 1896 on manuscripts of the finale, exactly two months before his death. Before finishing the composition and orchestration of the Finale, Bruckner made individual fair copies of the three preceding movements. In the last years of his life, he continued to work on the fourth movement whenever his condition (congestive heart failure with diabetes) permitted. He was able to sketch the whole movement but not to orchestrate all of it.

The first movement of the Ninth is extraordinarily rich in material, with three spacious thematic groups. All three give the impression of a final statement: the last and mightiest of Bruckner’s unison principal subjects; an endlessly spun-out lyric theme; and a stern closing theme that quotes from the Agnus Dei of his D minor Mass. In the development section he puts the three main themes on ice, utilizing only secondary elements from them. All the mightier is the climactic return of the opening, after which the recapitulation section substantially develops the movement’s various themes. A resigned chorale follows and then a coda which, after piercing trumpet cries and dissonances, ends on an open 5th, quoting the end of the “Inferno” movement from Liszt’s Dante Symphony.

The movements that follow are all similarly ambitious. At the same time, it is quite astonishing how Bruckner constantly proceeds to do the opposite of what one has come to expect from him. The Scherzo, normally relatively light, is suddenly turned into a demonic dance of death, while the Trio section – earthly music in his previous symphonies, often a ländler and sometimes replete with yodelling – is here an unearthly elfin dance. The Adagio, toiling relentlessly at its own destruction, no longer belongs to this world at all. It climaxes in a catastrophic collapse on a seven-note dissonance. The ensuing farewell song is entirely new. It starts out with material repeated from the opening, as though nothing at all had just happened, but then the music starts to dissolve. Quotations from other works assume the foreground – the “Miserere” from the D minor Mass, the Adagio themes of the Seventh and Eighth – above them violins playing a succession of notes suggesting chiming bells. What could possibly follow?

The Process of Restoration

In the Finale, Bruckner has created an out-and-out antithesis to the first movement, and its deconstruction of material goes further still: the powerfully striding main theme evades any development through its repetitions and leads directly into the second subject, where the usual lyricism (as in the opening movement) is replaced by desolation, thereby making the effect of the third theme, a grand wind chorale accompanied by blazing violin figuration, all the more impressive. At the end of it, initially resigned, there appears softly on flute the 4th-5th motif from the Te Deum. Substantial portions of the development are built upon it, suggesting that this motif will probably return in the coda. A fugue follows, based on elements of the Finale theme and culminating in a new theme derived from the germinal motif of the first movement’s principal subject. A gradual rebuilding ensues, in which the recapitulation of the lyrical and chorale themes are enriched with development. This was doubtless intended to climax in a audacious coda, of which only sketches are extant: coming after the return of the chorale – which Bruckner combines with the string motif from the Te Deum – the last bifolios of the score containing the climactic cadence (formed out of the epilogue theme at the end of the fugue, just mentioned) are unfortunately lost.

The performing version of the Finale presented at this concert has been generated by a complex process. Nicola Samale, John Phillips, Giuseppe Mazzuca and the present writer – a multi-national team of composers, conductors and musicologists – were occupied by this project from 1983 to 2011. The aim of this work in progress is to bring the surviving material into coherent form for performance. It began with an examination and conflation of the surviving sources, scattered all over the world in libraries and private hands. In the course of this work it was discovered that, along with many sketches, Bruckner left an “emerging autograph score”, revised several times and numbered consecutively bifolio by bifolio. Of the latest version, approximately half is thought to be missing today.

As a consequence, it was initially necessary to recreate the structural outline of this final state using sketches and earlier, discarded bifolios. The result being presented today comprises 653 bars. 440 correspond to Bruckner’s surviving score, of which he had already fully orchestrated 208. The remainder exists as fully elaborated string parts with indications of important wind entries. Another 117 bars could be reconstructed from sketches and discarded bifolios. 96 bars had to be supplemented with the use of music-forensical methods; for all but 37 of them, however, music by Bruckner existed. It is the editors’ hope to have achieved a result that is essentially faithful stylistically and enables the listener to experience a convincing impression of the symphony in its four-movement entirety.

Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs

Translation: Richard Evidon

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