Friday, September 19, 2014

Anton Bruckner Dressed to the Nines

No. 165 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast165- Playlist

It is now time for us to dress Anton Bruckner “to the nines” this week, and consider his ninth - and unfinished – symphony.

There is no debating that Bruckner had intended this to be his ninth “published” symphony. There are two other symphonies attributed to Bruckner, which were published after his death: a student symphony (numbered “00”) and another symphony in D Minor, which is often called “Die Nullte” or “the zeroth” which precedes the first chronologically and for which Bruckner wanted “a mulligan” - long after its composition he had declared that it "gilt nicht" ("doesn't count").

So, though there are 11 symphonies in total, the “curse” applies here, since this was meant to be his ninth and the last symphony upon which he worked, leaving the last movement incomplete at the time of his death in 1896. Bruckner dedicated this symphony "to the beloved God" (in German, "dem lieben Gott").

As I discussed last Spring in a post featuring Bruckner’s Fifth symphony, listeners less familiar with Bruckner could argue that his symphonies “all sound the same”. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but does stem from the way Bruckner likes to develop his symphonies. Scholars call Bruckner’s approach to the sonata form "Statement, Counterstatement and Coda." (as opposed to the standard exposition, development and recapitulation/coda).

The opening movement of the symphony is a clinic on this approach - an unusually large number of motifs are given in the first subject group, and these are substantially and richly developed on restatement and in the coda. Bruckner also cites material from his earlier works, at one point Bruckner quotes a passage from the first movement of his Seventh Symphony.

As I said at the on-set, Bruckner left the fourth movement unfinished (we will get to that later), so that the overall three-movement form of the work really is an “oreo cookie” of expansive slow movements with a noble and brisk scherzo in the creamy middle.

According to Wikipedia, Bruckner had conceived an entire fourth movement; whether the manuscripts he left would have made up the final form of the Finale is debatable. Several sheets of the emerging autograph score survived, consecutively numbered by Bruckner himself, as well as numerous discarded sketches. The surviving manuscripts were all systematically ordered and published in a notable facsimile reprint, edited by J. A. Phillips.

Large portions of the movement were almost completely orchestrated, and even some eminent sketches have been found for the coda, but only hearsay suggesting the coda would have integrated themes from all four movements.

Scholars are split as to the virtue of these unfinished sketches, some claiming that the Finale doesn't flow with the rest of the symphony. There is, however, an intriguing resolution to this dilemma, and it is provided by the composer himself.

Bruckner knew he might not live to complete this symphony and suggested his Te Deum be played at the end of the concert. The presence in the sketches of the figuration heard in quarter-notes at the outset of the Te Deum led to a supposition that Bruckner was composing a link or transition between the two works. In fact, the sketch for such a transition can be found on the autograph score. Some people think that at best this would have been a makeshift solution, pointing to a tonal mismatch or clash between the two keys (D Minor for the Symphony, C Major for the Te Deum). However, I like to point to the “dedication” of the Symphony as a good clue that indeed this resolution has merit.

In order for you to make up your own mind, what I did is simply append a performance of the Te Deum to the end of the Symphony. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a pairing in my collection featuring the same conductor. For such a pairing, might I suggest visiting the Music Library of MQCD Musique Classique, which hosts the 1950’s Bruckner cycle by Volkmar Andreae (Hyperlinkhere).

As Bruckner died before completing the symphony, there aren’t any revisions of the work, though there are at least four versions of the score. The performance on the montage by Karajan (from his 1978 Bruckner cycle) uses the Nowak edition.

I think you will love this music too!