Bruckner's Ninth Symphony really was nearly complete

Bruckner nearly completed the finale of his Ninth Symphony; Letocart and/or Rattle's should get performed

Shortly after my 'expulsion' from William and Mary at the end of November 1961, I had come home to my parents, planning to restart my education at George Washington University in early 1962 (which I did), with somewhat strained relations with my somewhat authoritarian father. But I got a Columbia mono LP of the 3-movement Bruckner Ninth Symphony for Christmas, with Bruno Walter. Bruckner had dedicated his life-leaving symphony “to God”.

Right after Christmas, I started composing a third Sonata. I still have a lot of the sketches, which I am drawing together for a performable document. Only recently have I realized that the playful theme that starts the Exposition of the first movement has a subconscious origin in a theme from the trio of the Bruckner Ninth Scherzo, which many music scholars call the “Hallelujah” theme, by comparison with Bruckner’s Te Deum and probably his Psalm 150 (and possibly can trace back to Handel).

My own autobiographical narrative is well covered elsewhere in my three DADT books and in own music is covered in another blog (“Bill’s media reviews”) so now I want to get to the case for seeing a complete four movement Bruckner Ninth as standard concert repertoire around the world.

Before proceeding further, let me note at least two CD’s available: Rattle on WB (2011, to be discussed below) and on Naxos (1992 version, Wildner conducting, same composition team, Naxos site; Amazon link does not resolve.

Bruckner himself had suggested that the C Major Te Deum be performed if he did not complete the symphony. But, unlike Mahler, Bruckner always ended his symphonies in the same key as the first movement. The Te Deum does have material that connects to the Ninth (and other works), but is not quite as harmonically dense as the symphony itself.

(Note the Psalm 150 also, which I heard in performed in Dallas in the 1980s. A “boyfriend” who was also a physician loved it, but others in my social cohort didn’t feel reached by the music.)

We do accept “completions” of other works: Mozart’s Requiem (Sussmayr), and Puccini’s opera Turandot (Alfono) and even the Mahler Tenth (I got to know Ormandy’s performance on Columbia of the “Cooke 1” version).. In fact, I rather like the “completed” Schubert Unfinished (Newbould, with Rosamunde music in the Finale), and the “completed” Schubert Symphony #10 in D (Bartholomee), which has a Brucknerian feel in the first two movements. I also like hearing the Mahler First with the Blumine movement included.

There is a 35-minute YouTube video by Nicholas Harnoncourt where the conductor discusses the surviving bifolio manuscript of the Bruckner Ninth finale. (The video originally offered is no longer available; this is the best available now; 2021/1/16.)

Harnoncourt takes the position that composition (as a “process piece”, to use the language of NYC composer Timo Andres in his famous 2015 twitter storm) and instrumentation are different steps. So Harnoncourt explains that the existing music thread up to the coda is almost complete, except for a few missing bars in the development, and then again after the fugue. Harnoncourt says that note indicate that Bruckner wanted a catherdral-like coda with quotes form his earlier works, especially the Third, Fifth, Seventh (the “Jacob’s Ladder” rising theme), and Eight (the scherzo theme) symphonies, as well as the “Hallelujah” motif that occurs in the scherzo trio and then again in the slow movement. He apparently also wanted to use the descending interval motive that opens Beethoven’s Ninth (as well as Mahler’s First later), which becomes a major idea in the first movement (the “octave” motive that concludes the first theme group) and which is said to occur in the Te Deum.

I find four performing versions on YouTube. One of them with Eliahul Inbal seems truncated (although it uses the “Bruckner Pivot” to introduce the final pedal point, and I’ll come back to that), and there is another by Carragen, performed by Schaller, that didn’t particularly convince me, at least. I admit I haven’t spent much time on it, and it is covered in Wikipedia.

That leads me with the two best versions, the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazucca, which are actually about four versions (1985, 1992, 2008, and 2011, the “Conclusive Revised Edition”), performed by Simon Rattle and the Seattle Symphony on a Warner Brothers CD.

And a version, 2 minutes longer (to 24 minutes) by Belgian composer Sebasiten Letocart (he also calls himself Seba Tracotel in social media) with the Budapest Symphony performed by Nicholas Couton.

The two versions are very similar until the Coda, which starts at Minute 19 on Letocart. Both follow Harnoncourt’s analysis.

At this point, it is well to summarize the form of this Finale up to the coda.

There is a brief introduction in moderate tempo of a dotted theme, that soon leads to the first subject, which has lots of wide skipping intervals and is almost dodecaphonic. Indeed, the whole symphony, most of all this finale, explores new areas of chromaticism (written in the mid 1890s), which anticipates not only the Mahler Ninth (1909) and probably some late Scriabin, but frankly the world of Arnold Schoenberg, especially Schoenberg’s large post-romantic works before he took up 12-tone writing. Unresolved dissonances abound, which, as Harnoncourt explains, conductors would want to take out (this had happened with Brucknner’s earlier symphonies, but remember Beethoven’s Eroica and Schubert’s Great C Major were considered shocking at first to conductors). But even in the world of this finale, atonality seems like the ultimate endpoint.

The Exposition, however, has three major subjects. The second subject is more conventional Bruckner (a little like the second subject of the first movement), with its own “trio”, before this prepares us for the majestic, descending chorale theme, very chromatically harmonized from E Major, as if it should be sung as a church hymn. In many works (like if Rachmaninoff had this material), it would become the “big tune” for the conclusion, but here the descending nature of the motive argues against that outcome already.

The Development starts out in a straightforward way, but in a short time a fugue begins. Harnoncourt calls the music “wild”. Curiously, to me, the dotted rhythms and blocked nature of the clashing lines reminds me of Schubert (toward the end of the development of the first movement of the “Great”, whose clashing contrapuntal dissonances early 19th Century conductors found disturbing) The music then presents the “Hallelujah” motive, as then what sounds to my ear like a genuine Recapitulation of the original D Minor stuff starts. The Recapitulation in both versions is reasonably straightforward until it comes to the restatement of the Chorale, where Harnanoncourt (and all other scholars) admit so some controversy.

Samale at al bring back the “Te Deum” idea with the full octave theme from the first movement, repeat the Chorale, and come to a violent climax (one more restatement of the Octaves) with a harmonic “Pivot” and a double take. Then the final version (2012) maintains tempo and volume, and throws the “Jacobs Ladder”, Te Deum, and Hallelujah motives together on one final pedal point in D Major. The overall mood is one of conventional joy.

The 2008 Samale-Cohrs version had, after the last dissonance pivot (with only one invocation of the Te Deum octave idea), provided a “coda of the coda” that briefly goes back to pianissimo, in D Major, quoting the Beethoven Ninth opening intervals, and building the Jacobs Ladder and Allelulah together, coming to a stop on a find fortissimo D Major chord for full orchestra. The 1992 version, on Naxos, is very similar. But in the 2011 version, after the Pivot, the music maintains its momentum and volume. It’s hard for me to understand, from the explanations in Cohrs document, why.

But it’s useful to compare to the end of the Bruckner Symphony #8, where the coda in the finale starts “misterioso” and quietly in C Minor, build up to a climax in F Minor, and then crashes on a subdominant seventh-to tonic Pivot (the “Bruckner Pivot”, although Scriabin uses it to great effect at the very end of his Divine Poem), where the music remains fortissimo, with various motives (especially the scherzo) play on top of one another until the last three octaves, E-D-C, still in FFF. (Schoenberg offers a similar Pivot to end his massive “Gurrelieder” in C Major.) The Bruckner Eighth is very satisfying and perfectly executed, since Bruckner finished it himself. Some observers note that the Bruckner Eighth is the only of Bruckner’s symphonies to have a first movement end quietly, and have even suggested that Bruckner could have considered ending the Ninth quietly, in religious resignation to a perhaps hollow Heaven (maybe like the end of the Mahler Ninth).

But Letocart takes on a different tack. His coda is in four parts (starting at 19:00). He reiterates the chorale theme, to be sure, but dot not fully requote the Te Deum octave theme (he does invoke one central jagged phrase from it in the brass, with unresolved harmony dissonances, which might be more effective in a “bare bones” sense). He, instead, has briefly quoted a key theme from the Bruckner Fifth (well known for its blazing conclusion in the brass after another fugue, recalling Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue indeed). He comes to what could be a pivot point, but in fact has prepared us for one more “misterioso” invocation, back in D Minor. In fact, the music has already turned quite dark. We know Bruckner is facing an End, his own. The music could wind down to solitude, as Letocart invokes the descending D Minor intervals originally from the Beethoven ninth. But instead, through a serious of Neapolitan chords, it explodes like a supernova, using only the “Halelujah” motive. I miss the 'Jacobs Ladder' of the Samale and the Te Deum, but somehow the simplicity of Letocart’s final bars, leading to a final drum roll accompanying the fortissimo D Major chord and finally only octaves, conveys the sense of Apocalypse.

The sense of apocalypse is communicated in a shocking 17-minute short film by Narcis Aliphalic, “Anton Bruckner’s Ultimate Finale” Letocart explains the darkness of the music, and plays the descending chorale theme on the piano as if a song without words. But the film shows a parallel narrative with some young adults, including a young man and woman, in their 20s, enjoy a (Vienna?) city park. Other spectators join, include a group of other shirtless young men. As the coda turns dark, the other young men draw the first young men into a bizarre intimate, perhaps homoerotic, ritual. But then everyone is watching the sky, as a huge light approaches. The original young man is “chosen” by others to be the first to meet the returning Christ, or God, or alien spaceship. Everyone knows that they are facing their last moments on earth, but their afterlife will not be hollow. The very last shot of the chosen young man shows him facing the light with chest hair suddenly burned off. I do wonder if this film has been in a festival somewhere, like Cannes, Sundance or Tribeca.

Here’s Letocart’s discussion of the 'Hallelujah.'

I’ve tweeted the New York Philharmonic, and I think they could be interested in putting on this work in the 2017-2018 season. It’s hard to say which version would be chosen. The “establishment” likes Cohrs-et al, but I think the Letocart conclusion is far more shocking and may be closer to the truth of what Bruckner thought he faced in his last days.

So, the “big tune” of the chorale is not used, and the Allelujah is a motive, not a full tune. Many post romantic works are well ended with a big tune which (as with Rachmaninoff’s second and third piano concerti) can arise from simple, playful beginnings. A “misterioso” near the end is not possible in works like that. But in the Bruckner Ninth it sounds right, and needed. It tells us what we may all face.

Here are references, to Cohrs And Letocart. (He also calls himself “Seba Tracotel” in social media, and lives in Belgium, but near Germany. He is quite active on Facebook in commenting on troubled European politics; it helps that I can read French pretty easily. With postings by another Belgian music and film artist, Timo Descamps, it helps to read Dutch, which pretty much looks like “misspelled” English and German mixed together.)

Letocart has an ftp-ed PDF of much of his score which I requested through social media, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be public.

(Posted: Saturday, December 3, 2016 at 2:15 PM EST)