Having dedicated his Seventh Symphony to King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his Eighth to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, Anton Bruckner devoted his Ninth Symphony ‘an den lieben Gott’ (to beloved God), thus paying tribute with his last major work to his main source of inspiration.
Indeed, the writing of church music was second nature to Bruckner. It is all the more curious, therefore, that his interest in it sharply declined after he moved from Linz, where he had made a name for himself as a virtuoso organist, to Vienna. Yet although the symphony was ultimately to become his life’s work, the sacred was most certainly inextricably bound up with his art, as evidenced by the many solemn, chorale-like melodies and quotations from his religious choral works.
It is difficult not to conclude that Bruckner sought comfort and a sense of meaning in religion with which to barricade himself against the hostile outside world. Although he was certainly a well-respected composer late in life, few took him seriously in the private sphere because of his awkwardness and naivety. Former students at the university in Vienna recounted that their eccentric teacher would interrupt his lessons to pray as soon as he heard a church bell ringing. Indeed, he apparently understood as little of everyday life as he did of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen – after a performance of Götterdämmerung he is reported to have asked a lady sitting next to him, ‘Why are they burning that woman?’ He felt safest far up in the organ loft, the best conceivable place to commune with the Most High.
In his book on the Bruckner symphonies, the English composer and essayist Robert Simpson writes, ‘The essence of Bruckner’s music, I believe, lies in a patient search for pacification.’ The author observes that the symphonies of most Romantic composers are often battlefields of despair, pugnacity and stress. After the final chord, they leave the dumbfounded listener with the feeling that the life of the composer himself has been depicted in music as if it were a theatre of war (which indeed was often so). Yet this is not the case with Bruckner, the least Romantic of all Romantic composers. His music might best be characterised as inspired but impersonal, in which a steady succession, accumulation and development of themes and motifs build towards a powerful climax. The first movement of the Ninth Symphony is an impressive example of just such an approach. The same would probably have been true of the finale, had he managed to complete it.
Bruckner had spent the previous eight years, since 1887, accumulating plans, sketches and outlines of his Ninth Symphony (which, if the two early unnumbered symphonies are counted, is actually his Eleventh). Bruckner settled on his favourite key of D minor, which he associated with the mysterious, the majestic and the solemn. A Ninth Symphony in D minor – who can’t help thinking immediately of Beethoven? Such an allusion may have provoked his Viennese opponents, the anti-Wagnerians rallying round the dreaded critic Hanslick, yet nothing would suggest that this was, in fact, the good-natured Bruckner’s intention. Rather, the number nine (‘farewell symphony’) filled him with fear.
Bruckner seems to have wished to flee from the task he had set for himself. Having revised several of his earlier symphonies and even having written a number of choral works simultaneously during its long gestation period, he always had a reason for putting off working on the Ninth. The result, of course, is that the symphony remains but a torso.
The fact that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony served Bruckner as a model is hard to ignore. Like Beethoven’s, the beginning of Bruckner’s symphony evokes the slow awakening of a giant. In the first movement, the music feels its way from a vibrating continuum towards its final form, embodied in a majestic coda. As in Beethoven’s Ninth, a fierce, sharply accented Scherzo follows which shares nothing with the affable folk dances heard in several of Bruckner’s earlier symphonies and those of his contemporaries. Again, like its great predecessor by the composer from Bonn, the Adagio ascends to a level attained only sporadically in other works. It is this movement in particular, with its mysterious depth, wide and sometimes desolate intervals and abrasive dissonances, which has astounded and fascinated entire generations of composers after Bruckner, influencing many of them, including Schoenberg. After the last pizzicato in bar 243, all remains quiet, and the instruments can be put away.
‘If the good Lord will just allow me to finish this work,’ he allegedly said to his doctor, even when it was actually already too late. Bruckner most certainly must have perceived the inability to provide his last symphony, which he viewed as the very apotheosis of his art, with a finale as a serious personal failure. Dating from 1884, his Te Deum could do duty as such, he said shortly before his death, in what must have been a moment of despair. After all, a tragic work in D minor closing jubilantly in C major is hard to imagine from a composer whose architektonisches Ordnungsdenken (architectonic structural thought) was so universally lauded. Some conductors have opted for this ‘solution’, to the dissatisfaction of numerous Bruckner specialists.
Bruckner did make good headway, though, on his envisaged finale. In fact, there are no fewer than six unfinished, yet substantial, versions in his own hand – enough, according to some at least, to attempt to complete the work even now. But these various completed scores have rarely if ever held their own, despite Sir Simon Rattle fervently championing one in particular which he has recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It is clear from the surviving material for the last movement that the completed symphony would certainly have been of even greater scope than either the Fifth or the Eighth. In retrospect, it is very fortunate that the composer conceived the Scherzo as the second, and not the third, movement. One can just imagine the overall effect the work would have had if the Scherzo had functioned as the final movement, like some grim joke following the mysterious serenity of the Adagio (Willem Mengelberg is said to have once reversed the order, performing not the Adagio but the Scherzo as the last movement).
As in other works, Bruckner could have opened doors in the final movement which had remained closed in previous movements. This does not mean, however, that the Ninth sacrifices any of its artistic significance because it is unfinished. The work continues to intrigue and to raise questions, just like the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony by another composer to whom Bruckner owed so much and with whom he felt such a direct kinship: Franz Schubert.
Aad van der Ven