Anton Bruckner: Finale of the Ninth Symphony – Fragments

Sony Classical SK87316
Mainz 2006

Text: Peter Hirsch

In the last 18 months of his life, with longer interruptions due to illness, Bruckner worked on the finale of his Ninth Symphony. After his death on 11th October 1896, the surviving manuscript material was not handed over to the Vienna Court Library (k.u.k. Hofbibliothek) as the composer had ordered in his will, but ended up being scattered in all directions. Only just short of 50 years later was most of the material returned from a private collection (the estate of F. Schalk) to public ownership, and it now belongs to the Austrian National Library. (Further manuscript sheets are to be found in several other collections, e.g. Vienna's Stadt- und Landesbibliothek and in the library of the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna.) In addition to fully orchestrated pages of the score, there are also pages containing only the string parts, there are particells, i.e. sketches for piano scores generally worked out in four systems, often with indications of instrumentation, and there are so-called drafts of the layout of the movement.The latter sheets often only contain a single part plus bar numbers, and were used by Bruckner, who tended to think in terms of fixed bar groups, as a kind of architectural guide to his own work. Both the sections of the score and the above-mentioned drafts of the layout of the movement were written down on double sheets of manuscript paper which the composer prepared beforehand; each double sheet contained the details of the instrumentation and bar divisions that yielded 4 bars a page, i.e. 16 bars per double sheet. These sheets were numbered and then placed on different piles, according to their state of completion. If a particular passage was reworked or altered, Bruckner wrote out a completely new sheet with the same number, which he then placed on another pile. In the course of this complex process, probably in June/July 1896, many sheets were renumbered in order to accomodate an extension at the beginning of the movement. All this led to numerous misunderstandings and misinterpretations, in the 1980‘s and1990's John A.Philips took a fundamental new look at the material. Bruckner had drafted the movement until well into the reprise – probably even into the coda –, and the majority of it as a finished score. As we can tell from the adjacent sheets and from counting the bar groups, there were originally completed double sheets that fell into the hands of souvenir hunters after the composer's death, and have not turned up since. The situation is not without an absurd irony: a composer's manuscripts become sought-after relics after his death – at the composer's own expense! By seizing autograph manuscripts out of a mixture of reverence and greed, Bruckner's admirers ended up destroying the very object of their admiration.It is like the incursion of reality into the domain of art.

Some of those gaps have been reconstructed by evaluating earlier states of the score and particell sketches. Obviously enough, the musicologist needs to proceed with the utmost scupulousness here. That means that many passages display highly differing degrees of elaboration. The result is a fragment on both the horizontal and the vertical scales, a fragment in terms of both length and elaboration. One particularly tricky example of this is to be found towards the end of the first section after the chorale, where the flute marks the beginning of the development with the Te Deum motif. This surprising and highly significant entry does not stand out, however, but takes place very discreetly, unemphatically, like a kind of verre eglomisé music whose continuation gets lost in uncharted territory. Apparently this point caused Bruckner quite a struggle; what could be reconstructed and what we hear is a kind of 'music in darkness' that allows us to listen to something literally unheard (of).

By strictly confining ourselves to the surviving material, we also emphasise that all the breaks and dissonances that we hear are original! Bruckner writes some music here that is even bolder and more radical than anything in the previous three movements: e.g. the trumpet dissonances at the beginning of the development section. If you hold the actual manuscript in your hand, it is nothing short of frightening to see with what vehemence Bruckner almost carves this suspension (minor ninth before the octave) into the paper, using a sharp pen in lieu of pencil: it's as if he were cutting into flesh to emphasise unequivocally his still vital creative powers.

But what is left is also what's missing: just before the coda, the fragments come to their final end. Of the coda, where – as Max Auer writes – the composer intended to pile up all the symphony's themes one on top of the other, as he had done in the Eighth, only a handful of bars exists on unbound sheets from a sketchbook. How much written-out material has been lost, is not known. Furthermore, on the way to the point where the fragments end, there are four painful gaps than cannot be reconstructed. Bruckner‘s way of musical thinking and composing in bar groups offers however an unexpected chance, namely the chance to perceive the torso as musical architecture whose grandeur is not impaired by its sometimes fragmentary state of preservation. The opportunity to think the pulse of the music ahead into nothingness makes what is not actually there plastic, almost three-dimensional; the experience is comparable with the way our mind's eye supplies the pieces missing from fragmentary frescoes or from some ancient or medieval ruins – albeit always linked to the ever-present fear of the end, the fright on the brink of the abyss.

Translation: Clive Williams