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Length: 60 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (4 = Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
AB (after Beethoven), writing a symphony in D minor was clearly not considered hazardous to several composers in the 19th century (e.g., Schumann, Dvorák, Franck, Mahler). But composing a ninth symphony in D minor, the key of Beethoven’s history-changing final symphony, was looked upon as fool’s work, and to be avoided like the plague. Further, superstition decreed that writing a ninth symphony at all would be tempting fate, the belief being that trying to go beyond the magic number nine would endanger the one who attempted such an action. That Anton Bruckner bravely chose to set his Ninth Symphony in D minor can be looked upon as symbolic of his reverence for the final symphony of Beethoven. He was indeed tremendously impressed and influenced by the mighty work, by its mysterious opening out of which worlds are created (all of Bruckner’s first movements begin in an atmosphere of quiet, expectant awe), by the character and scope of its movements, and, in his eighth and ninth symphonies, by the sequence of its movements. The latter element — the placement of the Scherzo as the second movement and the Adagio as the third — is of particular value in the present work, for since Bruckner never completed a fourth movement for it, the Symphony is infinitely more impressive ending as it does with the exalted beauty of the Adagio than it would be concluding with a Scherzo.
Bruckner worked on the Ninth Symphony from 1887 through 1894. During the two subsequent years until his death in 1896, he made some sketches for a finale, one that almost certainly would have capped the Symphony with the kind of dynamic expansiveness that characterizes the closing movements of his other symphonies. But if his spirit was willing to make a finale, his flesh was not. When he realized the work would probably not be completed, he suggested that his Te Deum be played after the third movement, but his sense of the artistic imbalance thus created probably caused him at least subconsciously to abandon the notion and to accept that the Adagio would be the finale of his Ninth Symphony.
In his weakened condition, Bruckner easily could have been apprehensive about the fate of his unfinished symphony. He was, sadly, accustomed to agreeing to excisions being made in his works in order to have them performed — his well-meaning friends and admirers persuaded him to make countless revisions of the symphonies, and only Numbers 5, 6, 7, and 9 were not extensively revised. And some of these same friends undertook their own revisions, at times drastically altering the Brucknerian profile. Fortunately the original scores, reflecting the composer’s best-considered thoughts, are the ones most often used in contemporary performances of these particular works.
This fidelity to Bruckner’s intentions would surely bring comfort to the long-suffering composer, to whom some success came late in life. In 1884, when he was 60, his Seventh Symphony brought the recognition and acclaim previously denied him largely because of the hostility of such an influential critic as Eduard Hanslick, whose contempt for Wagner was readily bestowed upon the Wagner-admiring Bruckner. Although he did have a high regard for Wagner, Bruckner subscribed not at all to that composer’s theories, but was still castigated by the traditional Brahms faction as a ‘Wagnerian symphonist.’ For a fact, Bruckner’s symphonies owe a large debt to Wagner’s brass sonorities and expressive string writing, but we know they also show the hand of Beethoven. Had the latter relationship been recognized, Bruckner might have gained the support of the prominent pace-setters whose good word could have turned the tide earlier, making the long struggle for some earthly reward less strenuous. Fortunately, his simple background was good preparation that fortified him for the hardships he experienced.
Like Schubert, Bruckner was the son of a school teacher who assisted his father in the classroom. Also like Schubert (who gave up a country school house to devote himself completely to music — music, not incidentally, that was deeply fixed in Bruckner’s consciousness), and like Mozart and Beethoven too, Bruckner found the lure of Vienna too great to resist. Specifically a teaching post at the city’s Conservatory was the determining factor in his move from the provincial town of Linz in 1868. Unlike the mentioned predecessors, Bruckner, at 44, was long past his formative years when he made the Viennese capital his home (Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven were in their early 20s at the time of their Viennese immigration). Still, the years of his greatest productivity were ahead of him; once in Vienna, he devoted himself almost exclusively to the writing of symphonies, composing eight of his nine massive works in the form there. That he persevered in this compositional direction is a testament to the strength of character and unswerving faith in God intrinsic to his Catholic peasant nature, for his music encountered the kind of opposition that might have destroyed a man with less spiritual fortitude.
The mysticism of Bruckner’s religiosity is immediately apparent in the opening of the Ninth Symphony. As strings maintain a quiet tremolo on the keynote, D, for the first 18 measures, eight unison horns softly announce the main theme, a severe and solemn idea, unfolding in small motivic segments, that at last expands intervalically and harmonically. The aura of expectancy created by the opening is heightened by the following agitated but still quiet motif in violins, which is answered by the winds. Through the device of rising modulatory sequences, this material reaches an anxious and broad climax, during which a powerful idea, containing Bruckner’s favorite triplet rhythm, is declared by the full orchestra in unison. After a pause, an eerie passage of pizzicato strings under quiet, alternately ascending and descending cries throughout the winds leads to the warm, lyrical second theme. This is given by first violins, as second violins weave a counter-melody. Still other ideas are introduced, the most important one being a kind of martial theme (with a Brahmsian flavor), given by the strings. The remainder of the movement builds repeatedly to granitic climaxes followed by mystical, sometimes chorale-like passages. The final full-orchestra measures bring the movement to a demonic close, with trumpets blazing dissonantly on a three-note descending figure taken from the main theme.
The Scherzo second movement, with its repeated-note idée fixe, is, for Bruckner, a daring piece of music, filled with dissonances, an aura of grotesquerie, and a steely rhythmic thrust prophetic of such 20th-century composers as Bartók and Prokofiev. A brief contrast to this tautness comes with a sprightly oboe melody, and an extended departure from it in a quicksilver, almost Mendelssohnian trio.
The eloquent expressiveness of the lengthy Adagio is represented in the opening notes of the unaccompanied violins, as they reach up a ninth, then fall back. The element of chromatic yearning and reaching is almost a constant presence in the movement, so that the aura of Tristan und Isolde seems nearly tangible. A warm, rapturously beautiful melody in strings brings solace to music that moves from resignation to fierce anger and back again. At about the half-way point, a shattering climax grows out of a presentation of the warm melody, this time given in extended note values. To end his unfinished symphony, Bruckner introduces quotations from his two preceding symphonies, closing the work in touching, sighing serenity.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.