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Composed: 1887-1896
Length: c. 63 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th = Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings 

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 12, 1959, Bruno Walter conducting

“Te Deum” is a dedication that, for Anton Bruckner, signifies infinitely more than the single, albeit substantial vocal work so-titled (and sometimes suggested as a fitting finale for the Ninth Symphony) that he completed in 1884. “To God” was the engine, the motivator, the dedication of Anton Bruckner’s life and work, his belief, his raison d’être, his blessing and bane. When Bruckner believed, he created; when his faith wavered, his artistic self-confidence and with it his reason crumbled, to wit the mental breakdowns he suffered along with various severe physical ailments over his years as church organist, teacher, and composer in Linz (he was born in nearby Ansfelden) and Vienna.

He was further victimized, ironically, by the intense but curiously patronizing devotion of friends who regarded him as a supreme inventive genius, but a strictly instinctive genius, lacking the technical means to achieve his musical ends unassisted. Thus, their constant “improvement” of his symphonies, not merely by suggesting changes which he would then (often) make himself, but drastically altering – with or without his permission, during his lifetime and after – his scores to make them conform to some personal or academic notion of practicability. The result of this treatment was to create an all-too-durable, to some observers appealing, image of Bruckner as a sort of idiot savant. Later generations of musicologists have, happily, set this situation to rights, so that we are now more readily able to hear Bruckner’s music as he, and not his well-intentioned associates, conceived it. In recent years additional evidence has continued to turn up that modifies, at times negates, previous notions of the composer’s definitive (a word always to be used advisedly in this context) thoughts regarding his symphonies, even by the selfless latter-day editors of his scores, such as Robert Haas, Alfred Orel, and Leopold Nowak.

The dedication to his “dear God” would be affixed again, a dozen years after the vocal Te Deum, to his Ninth Symphony, which was left incomplete at the composer’s death in 1896. His sketches for the fourth and final movement have been fleshed out by at least a dozen hands in the century just past; but like that other celebrated “unfinished,” Schubert’s B-minor Symphony, the three-movement Ninth hardly seems like a torso: It is complete in effect if not fact, floating, sublimely, ultimately into the ether at the close of the third movement after an hour of alternating struggles and victories.

The Ninth Symphony becomes in a sense self-sufficient with what turned out to be its final measures, which reprise themes from earlier Bruckner works: the Miserere from his Mass in D minor, the Adagio of the Eighth Symphony, and, finally, a fragment of the opening theme of the Seventh Symphony. How odd, and touching, to engage in such a retrospective before even reaching the work’s conclusion. A premonition that this would, indeed, be the end? Or are we merely romanticizing?

Bruckner commenced labors on what would be his last symphony in 1887, immediately after putting the finishing touches to his massive Eighth. He was still at it two years later, having interrupted work to revise earlier compositions. Further interruptions were caused by physical weakness. By the beginning of 1894, however, he had recovered sufficiently once again to travel, to Berlin, to hear his Seventh Symphony and Te Deum performed. In the following months he returned for the last time to the Abbey of St. Florian, near Linz, to play the organ – as he had done for so many years when he was younger. He then made an attempt to resume his lectures at the University of Vienna, but was too weak to continue for more than a few weeks.

By year’s end he had written the three movements of the Ninth Symphony, although he clearly wished to continue. He is quoted as saying at the time, “I have done my duty on earth. I have accomplished what I could, and my final wish is to be allowed to finish my Ninth Symphony. Three movements are almost complete, the Adagio nearly finished. There remains only the finale. I trust that death will not deprive me of my pen.”

He was by then spiritually exhausted, and physically as well, with a chronic hacking cough that defied diagnosis but was situated in the larynx, and extreme nervous agitation alternating with periods of forgetfulness and depression. Nonetheless, he was achieving belated recognition in his native Austria: At the age of 70, he was given the Freedom of the City of Linz, a signal honor, and the Austrian Emperor awarded him a generous subsidy as well as an apartment in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace, with a splendid garden and a view of the city below.

The third movement occupied the composer nearly all of the last two years of his life. Six fragmentary versions preceded the Adagio we hear today. He was still tinkering with it on the morning of October 11, 1896, when he paused to take a walk in the Belvedere Park. He died in the Palace a few hours after returning. The funeral was held three days later, in the Karlskirche. The composer’s remains were eventually interred, as he had earlier requested, beneath the great organ of St. Florian’s, at which he had officiated so many times and whose sound was never far from his mind when writing his symphonies.

With the composer seven years in his grave, the Ninth Symphony was published and first performed in the bowdlerized edition of one of the most influential of the aforementioned friends, Ferdinand Löwe. Something resembling the composer’s original (“resembling” and “original” are other words to be used advisedly in any discussion of Bruckner’s symphonies) did not see the light of day until 1932, when it was published, then performed by the Munich Philharmonic in a private concert conducted by Siegmund von Hausegger, alongside the corrupt Löwe edition, giving at least a handful of listeners a choice. Several months later, Bruckner’s “own” Ninth Symphony, divorced from Löwe, made its public debut in Vienna under the baton of Clemens Krauss, but in a version still sufficiently far from what the composer envisioned to make our more dedicated Bruckner scholars take to their cudgels. The debate over the “real Bruckner” has raged ever since.

The observation “but death never means the end,” made by Otto Klemperer – himself a noted Brucknerian, by the way – in connection with the Berg Violin Concerto, bears a notable irony relative to the Bruckner Ninth, where it has no such benign, spiritual connotation. For the composer’s death was a “beginning” – of wrangling over his legacy. And it became particularly heated (and time-consuming) over the sketches Bruckner left for the finale of his Ninth Symphony.

Among the nay-sayers to a good deal of previous Bruckner scholarship, few have expended more passion and effort on attempting to set this matter to rights than Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs, a principal member of the team editing the collected works of Bruckner, “and the representative of the editorial team for the performing version of the finale of the Ninth Symphony” (his words).

For nearly three decades now, Bruckner scholars have been sifting through the sketches Bruckner left for the fourth movement, with, of particular importance, a “reconstruction” by Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca that was publicly performed in Berlin in 1986. A successor version appeared in 1990, produced by Samale’s team, based on new discoveries made by the Australian musicologist and composer John A. Phillips.

Cohrs relates that, “Subsequently, Phillips prepared the ‘documentation of the fragment’… and this was first performed in Vienna in November 1999, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Symphony,” and again in 2002, with Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic, at the Salzburg Festival as a pre-intermission teaser to the standard three-movement version. “The documentation of the fragment serves not as a concert piece but simply to give a vague idea of a piece of music that must, strictly speaking, be considered lost,” Cohrs observes. “That Bruckner’s own vision of a splendid finale died with him cannot be denied. Any performance version by another hand can only be provisional, a work in progress, because it is by no means impossible that material now lost could resurface.” It would seem to be a never-ending story, for scholars, at any rate.

It seems likely that – in concert, as on the present occasion – the Bruckner Ninth will remain a three-movement work and capstone of a career. A complete three-movement work. As to the viability of a four-movement version, the jury may remain out, but it is not difficult to guess what its verdict will be.

– Herbert Glass