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ClassicsOnline Home » BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9, WAB 109
By Philip Haldeman
American Record Guide
By Raymond Chapman Smith
The Advertiser (Adelaide)
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9, WAB 109
Symphony No. 9
A mediaeval artisan might easily have kept a daily record of how many
different prayers he prayed and how often he repeated them. For a composer of
the nineteenth century, with its belief in unstoppable progress and human
supremacy, to behave in this fashion is certainly unique. But Anton Bruckner,
though accepting the harmonic and orchestral achievements of the Romantic
period, did just that; he did not really belong to his time. Even less did he
fit in with the Viennese environment into which he was transplanted for the
last 27 years of his life. The elegant and rather superficial society he
encountered there must have thought the naive, badly dressed fellow with the
'wrong' accent a rather pathetic oddity.
Bruckner had indeed come from a very different background. The little
village in Upper Austria, Ansfelden, where his father was a schoolmaster, was
not far away from the great and beautiful monastery of St Florian. The young
Bruckner followed in the footsteps of his father for a short time; but St
Florian possessed one of Europe's finest organs, and young Anton, whose talent
for music was discovered early, became an organist. The experience of hearing
and playing this magnificent instrument became central to his whole life. He
spent many hours there, practising and improvising, and eventually his playing
was so exceptional that he made successful tours of France and England as an
organ virtuoso. He had lessons in theory and composition, and started composing
fairly early in life, but he felt the need for more instruction in counterpoint
and became for several years a most diligent pupil of the famous Simon Sechter,
visiting him every fortnight in Vienna. Many years earlier and shortly before
his death, Schubert had also wanted to study counterpoint with Sechter, but of
course he was wrong; most of his life work was already done, and works such as
his early Mass in A flat showed him in no need of such lessons.
Sechter forbade Bruckner to compose a single note in order to
concentrate entirely on his innumerable exercises, and here Bruckner, who had
in the meantime advanced to the post of organist at Linz Cathedral, showed one
unfortunate trait of his character, perhaps acquired as an altar-boy: utter
submission to those he considered his superiors. He obeyed. But when he had
finished his instruction with Sechter and took lessons with the conductor of
the local opera, Otto Kitzler, who introduced him to the magic world of Wagner,
music poured out of him. Now forty, Bruckner composed his first masterpiece,
the wonderful Mass in D minor, followed by two other great Masses, and Symphony
No. 1. His reputation reached Vienna and he was appointed to succeed
Sechter as Professor of Music Theory.
Bruckner had ample reason to regret his move from Linz to Vienna. He,
the fanatical admirer of Wagner, was innocently dragged into the rather silly
conflict between the followers of Brahms and those of his beloved Wagner. So he
made many enemies, most cruel of whom was the critic Eduard Hanslick, whom
Wagner caricatured as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. But though
adversaries did him harm, his friends and admirers hurt his works much more.
All his young students were gifted Wagnerians and they thought Bruckner's music
needed to sound more like Wagner, and that it needed other 'ministrations' such
as large cuts as well. They considered their beloved Master to be a 'genius
Many of those misguided admirers, such as Artur Nikisch and Franz
Schalk, became famous conductors and they set about making these enormous
scores acceptable to the public – and it must be said that the master, who was
desperately anxious to be performed, often agreed and sometimes even became an
accomplice to their mutilations. But he also left his original scores to the
National Library with the comment 'for later times'. His own insecurity made
him constantly revise his works, especially Symphonies No. 1-4. As a
result, we are confronted in many cases by several versions of the same work.
Sometimes the later versions are a definite improvement, as with the Fourth
Symphony; and sometimes, in my opinion, the first version is superior, as
with the Second and Third Symphonies.
One who deals with eternal things is in no hurry, and therefore
performers and listeners must also allow plenty of time. Whereas Mahler, who
died three years before World War I began, was the prophet of insecurity,
‘Angst’ and the horrors we live in, the deeply religious Bruckner sings of
consolation and spiritual ecstasy (Verzückuug) – but not exclusively. In
some of the Eighth and most of the Ninth Symphonies, he expresses
agony, perhaps doubt.
Bruckner's music touches the innermost recesses of the human soul. In
this way he reminds me of Dostoyevsky. This quality is probably the only thing
the compulsive gambler and epileptic sinner has in common with the celibate
Symphony No. 9
Unfinished masterpieces sometimes assume a new life of their own. For
instance Schubert, who left more unfinished works than anyone else, may have
had his reasons for not completing his marvellous Quartettsatz, but now
it stands by itself as a complete work. Nobody knows for sure why he did not
complete his Symphony No. 8, but the score of part of the third movement
and the sketches for the fourth were certainly not worthy of the superlative
first and second movements. When he sent the two finished movements to his
friend Hüttenbrenner for performance in Graz, in gratitude for having been
elected an honorary member of the local Music Society, he must have decided
they could be performed by themselves.
The already ailing Bruckner spent the last two years of his life trying
frantically to complete the Finale of his Ninth. It is not meant
cruelly when I say that I for one am glad that Fate did not grant him his wish,
because the material intended for the Finale is just as unworthy of what
is perhaps Bruckner's greatest music as is the unfinished material of
Schubert's Eighth. The various efforts of the brilliant scholars who
have recently made performing versions of Bruckner's Finale will be of
entirely historical interest.
The mystery and horror of death permeates these three movements of the Ninth
Symphony. As in the Requiem aeternam of Mozart's unfinished Requiem,
the key of D minor dominates this first movement. After a soft Din the
strings and woodwind the eight horns softly proclaim their merciless sentence.
A desperate outcry in remote keys is followed by restless soft modulations at
first in the strings, with echoes in the oboe. Then the intensity increases and
with very bold harmonies the whole orchestra reaches the main theme in a loud
unison (a relative of the one in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 4).
The tempo broadens with a gentle tune in A major with glorious
harmonizations. The third theme-complex starts again in D minor. Eight bars
before Letter H in the orchestral score the three two-bar phrases in B minor, G
minor and E minor seem to me the only rather weak bars in this tremendous
movement. The exposition ends in F major with a mysterious B natural in the
second violins pizzicato, and the flute. This unusual combination may
have influenced Schoenberg in his Chamber Symphony No. 1.
The desperate outcry reappears more than once, but as a whole the
development section is rather calm. After an increase in tempo and strength the
main tune appears again in greatly embroidered shape, as a recapitulation mixed
with a continuation of the development, as often in Bruckner's work. The lovely
second tune appears again in the main tonality. A "schoolmaster"
cadence introduces the superlative coda ending, as in the Mozart Requiem, with
a terrifying open fifth, D-A.
In the Scherzo there is a frightening pizzicato dialogue
between the first violins and the cellos, accompanied by mysterious harmonies
and 41 bars of an uninterrupted pedal-point on C sharp, at first only in the
oboe, then reinforced by a trumpet. At last the key of D minor is established
with a mighty stamping in the whole orchestra. A jolly tune follows quite
unexpectedly in the oboe, but the gloomy terror returns, and this unique Scherzo
ends with a merciless conclusion in D minor.
The Trio is perhaps the only truly fast music the mature Bruckner
wrote. It sounds like a spiteful kind of Mendelssohnian fairy music, followed
by an expressive phrase with magnificent harmonies. Then the stamping Scherzo
returns. The whole movement seems to me filled with devilish terror.
The Adagio, a heartrending farewell to this world, starts with an
agonized melody where the minor ninth sets the mood. Mysterious harmonies in
the Wagner tubas, instruments invented by Wagner for The Ring, with a
timbre halfway between horns and trombones, are followed by solemn trombones
and finally the woodwind, in an obviously intentional quotation from Parsifal.
Gradually a crescendo leads to an unusual climax, for everyone
except the Wagner tubas, where the trumpets proclaim twice a strange dotted
signal, repeated three times. Eventually the tubas enter with an extremely
slow, soft descending tune.
The tempo slightly quickens in a lovely G flat major passage. A flute
over a chord in the tubas leads to the recapitulation. A beautiful string
passage gradually leads to the climax with the three trumpet signals (but this
time only once). The lovely G flat major passage returns in A flat after a
fermata. Bruckner continues with a part of the main tune. Then there is a
mysterious string passage which might have influenced Vaughan Williams in his Tallis
Fantasia. A very slow section contains a quotation from the Miserere of
Bruckner's first masterpiece, the Mass in D minor. After a mighty
increase in sound a desperately dissonant climax is reached. In a subsequent
passage Bruckner seems to have miscalculated orchestrally. However perfectly
the fourth Wagner tuba plays, his part simply sounds out of tune because the
cellos are simultaneously embroidering the same melody. Gradually peace returns
and at the unearthly ending the tubas quote his Adagio from Symphony No.
8, followed by the horns with the first tune from Symphony No. 7. I
for one do not want to hear anything after this most moving of all farewells…
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BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9, WAB 109