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Bruckner (1824-1896) - Symphony No. 9

Anton Bruckner still seems to completely polarise opinion: there are those who cannot stand his music, and those who cannot understand those who cannot stand his music. Discounting those who say, with consummate candour, “Anton who?” there are very few “floating voters”. Why? Ever since Brahms spat out that immortal condemnation of Brucker's “symphonic boa-constrictors”, poor Bruckner has been regarded with great suspicion. Yet, Brahms himself was not immune to this criticism - he'd also written “symphonic boa-constrictors”, only he called them “Concertos”. But, as they say, mud sticks. I think it's time to get out the hose-pipe. 

Yes, Bruckner's symphonies are long - and long-winded - but it doesn't follow that they throttle their prey (sorry, “audiences”). They operate in a monumental time-frame that has nothing to do with Bruckner's idolisation of Wagner, the master of long-windedness, whose main impact was simply to crystallise Bruckner's technique for creating musical monuments. In spite of length, and accumulations of brass and Wagner Tubas, Bruckner remained very much his own man, stylistically speaking. So, for the real reason we must look further back - to Bruckner's reverence for God and His Creation. Bruckner was not the first to express reverence monumentally: it was fairly common - Monteverdi's Vespers, Bach's B Minor Mass, and Berlioz' Grande Messe immediately spring to mind. What set Bruckner apart was the inclusion of “His Creation”, which must have impressed so sensitive and simple a soul as he grew up amid majestic mountains and vast forests. This feeling of epic scale and grand design, of a World breathing across aeons, is virtually inescapable in his major symphonies, and never more than when a naive little polka is set by Bruckner, to measure Man and his ephemeral merriment against the might of God's Creation. 

To some, all this epic grandeur is nothing more than mountains of rhetoric enfolding valleys of lassitude.  Yet, this is only how it will seem to the impatient. Immediately we fall in step with Bruckner's pulse, we start to notice a profound architectural strength. In replacing the normal two subjects of sonata-form by three groups of subjects - a “masculine”, a “feminine”, and a third which combines the two - he achieves the requisite expansion of his canvas. At the other end, he “telescopes” his recapitulations into the ends of his developments, the apparently relatively brief reminders of the subjects creating the sensation of having made an immense journey from A to B, an impression very different from the “returning home” of normal sonata-form. Conveniently, this also acknowledges his audience's limited stamina. 

His scherzos, on the other hand, are always tightly bound within the classical “nested” ternary form, looking back beyond Beethoven to Haydn. They are scaled up through the use of massive, driving ostinato materials, contrasted with trio sections that are generally expansive and lyrical - in effect the “industrial” and “pastoral” corners of Bruckner's symphonic “worlds”. 

Bruckner's slow movements, though, are something else altogether. Formally, they come in all shapes and sizes, but each is inevitably the heart of its respective symphony: it is here that the melodic meets the monumental, the rhapsodic romantic melds with the stern symphonist - in a Bruckner adagio,  the simple believer kneels to prayer in the greatest cathedral of all. 

Of course, there are “mountains” and “valleys” in his music, not of rhetoric and lassitude but huge thrusting or arching climaxes replete with granitic brass and jagged string figurations, and contemplative episodes of ruminating woodwind and strings, often underpinned by warm brass chords.  Sometimes these are connected by rivulets of ostinato, or one of those strategically placed silent “viewpoints” where the very world itself seems to hold its breath. Ostinato is also a favourite developmental device, lending a distinctive “pre-minimalist” feel to his music - until, that is, he unleashes one of those inspired, curving melodies. 

Am I perhaps overstating my case? Listen: in our over-impatient age of ever briefer “sound-bites” and ever shorter “attention spans”, a Bruckner symphony delineates a space and time within which we can draw breath and reflect. “So what?” I hear, “So do the Minimalists!” True, I might sigh, but they lack both the sheer grandeur and the intricate musical machinery to expand my soul: Bruckner challenges my mind, makes me think more deeply, while Minimalists (in the main) merely make me sleep more easily. 

I haven't mentioned his finales, largely because in the Ninth Symphony there isn't one. Like many a composer still active at his death, Bruckner left some work incomplete, in this case only sketches for a finale. This is a miracle to surpass even that of Schubert's Eighth. In both cases, we can really only guess at what wonders the composer might have wrought, while what we have seems so perfectly poised that we cannot imagine how anything could be added without detriment. 

There's precious little room for specific notes on the movements - I've provided just a few signposts to guide the newcomer. No matter, just listen to the music (and reflect!), then buy a CD and try to wear it out. There's a superb Naxos disc (8.554268) costing a mere £5 - while you listen, reflect on that

1. Feierlich, misterioso: This is how the universe began. Horns echo across the cosmos. Gradually, fragments coalesce into a vast torrent of sound. A pizzicato “rivulet” bridges to the second subject group, elaborated by strings, climaxing in expansive melody. The third subject creeps in on a solo oboe. Stealthily, the opening theme returns to initiate the development. With inexorable logic, momentum gathers through ostinati and vaulting outbursts, culminating in an apocalyptic climax: the recapitulation starts even while development continues, until another, slower “rivulet” is heard, from which point the telescoped reprise continues, ending on a hushed brass cadence. The coda grows over rippling strings; a first subject motive rises inexorably, surging into a massive peroration capped by searing trumpets. 

2. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft: Pizzicato strings and pecking woodwind pick out a perky tune which suddenly erupts into slabs of grinding discord, a daemonic ländler! Against this is set as counter-subject a lilting little oboe tune. Characteristically, Bruckner enlarges the coda of the main subject's repeat. The trio alternates a thrumming theme, fleet of foot, with a more leisurely flowing tune. The repeat of the scherzo, as always (well, with one exception!), is implacably exact. 

3. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich: There are three subjects, the first is a soaring threnody, out of which bursts the second, a passionate effusion of trumpets and horns over a full orchestra. The third, an exquisite and richly attended tune, gradually evolves a dancing character (almost a “naive little polka”). Then the music develops, rondo-like, until an unearthly, widespread harmony of strings: soon after, there's a whirring, and a glowering third subject emerges from beneath. Unbearable tension becomes still less bearable when it breaks: fortissimo, seismic eruptions of the threnody's opening phrase thrust orchestral factions into tortured collision. Pause! A growing expectation of a re-emergence of the second subject is thwarted: the music softens, musing and revolving timelessly around its harmonies. Is this how the universe will end? 

This unprecedented ending is so graphic that I can only see that colossal upheaval as a “death agony”, and the succeeding coda as a brief “purgatory” and a final “ascent into heaven”. If a confirmed atheist like me can feel that, there's surely hope for all of us.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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