Performance Friday, February 24, 2012 | 8 PM

Berliner Philharmoniker

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Pre-concert talk starts at 7:00 PM in Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage with Walter Frisch, Professor of Music, Columbia University.

Anton Bruckner was working on his Ninth Symphony until the day he died in 1896, but never completed the work he had dedicated to “the Almighty God.” Deeply spiritual in conception, Bruckner’s Ninth is grand, sweeping Romantic music, filled with triumphant brass chorales and poignant lyricism.
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The Program

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

Anton Bruckner: His Life

Anton Bruckner was raised in the small Upper Austrian village of Ansfelden as a devout Roman Catholic, a faith he would ardently follow for the rest of his life. He was a skilled organist, working first at St. Florian (a monastery near Linz), and finally in Vienna, to which he moved in 1868. Not only did his writing begin to overtake his activities as an organist, but his increased exposure to the most important and progressive music of the day—Beethoven, Liszt, and above all, Wagner—strongly influenced his work. Though he composed motets and masses (neither surprising, considering his faith and employment), his symphonies are the works that have secured his reputation.

The Symphony Before Bruckner

Bruckner’s symphonies can best be understood by considering the 150-year tradition of Austro-German symphonies that came before him. The symphony, or sinfonia as it was initially known, had in Italy by the 17th century come to mean a brief instrumental overture to larger vocal works. Over the next hundred years, the form migrated north where the first great symphonist, Joseph Haydn, completely transformed it into today’s received meaning: a long-form composition, usually in four movements, scored for orchestra. The symphony grew larger and more ambitious with each generation; Haydn’s pupil Beethoven spurred the next watershed developments. In his nine symphonies, he created longer works in which multiple movements are harmonically and thematically linked, transforming the symphony from a potpourri of discreet pieces into a unified statement. Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, and Brahms built their grand statements on Beethoven’s framework.

By the time Bruckner came of age, the form had grown louder, larger, and longer still; in the process, it had become the preeminent genre for composers of the Austro-German school. Another composer who loomed large over Bruckner was not a symphonist at all, but an operatic master—Richard Wagner. In pursuit of a new musical language for his gargantuan stage dramas—particularly Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle—Wagner’s oeuvre juxtaposed harmonies in strange and distinctive ways, complementing his intensely expressive dramatic forms. Bruckner took those harmonic techniques into the symphony hall. Often over an hour in length (most of Haydn’s symphonies were only around 20 minutes), Bruckner’s symphonies utilize Wagner’s chromatic textures along with a unique feel for instrumental writing, inspired in part by his experience as an organist.

Bruckner: Revisions, Versions, and the Lost (and Found) Finale

Bruckner compulsively revised his symphonies, in some cases several times over, with the result that scholars now face a plethora of questions as to his true compositional intentions. According to musicologist Richard Taruskin, “In an effort to secure easier access to performance, some of [Bruckner’s] pupils began making simplified versions of his works and publishing them with their teacher’s reluctant approval, thereby creating a nightmare of ‘versions’ through which performers today have to chart their course.” For years, therefore, published editions of Bruckner’s works were poor representations of the composer’s intentions.

The case of the Ninth Symphony is particularly egregious, since it was widely known that Bruckner died before completing the fourth movement, but few realized how far advanced the movement’s composition actually was. Many of Bruckner’s sketches and score pages for the finale were stolen after his death; the bulk of this material was quietly kept in private hands until well into the 20th century. As a result, the work has almost universally been performed and recorded as a three-movement work—with a long, dramatic and moderately-paced first movement; an intense, demonic Scherzo; and the impassioned, at times tortured “Farewell to Life” of the Adagio. We now know these movements were to be crowned by a majestic finale. Not until recently was it discovered through assiduous scholarship that Bruckner not only sketched, but nearly completed a full score of the Finale. One-third of the movement was completely orchestrated, with some pages even marked as finished. The rest included completed string sections, as well as notes and indications of Bruckner’s intentions for the rest of the orchestration. As such, it has been possible for the team of musicologists (Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca, later joined by John A. Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs) to reconstruct this long-lost masterwork without resorting to the What might he have intended? questions often required to complete composers’ unfinished works.

A Closer Listen

Bruckner’s symphony is pointedly cast in the key of D minor—the key of Beethoven’s Ninth—and opens similarly: ominous, rumbling strings playing tremolo, in this case on a unison D. The sustained notes in the basses and low brass bring to mind the organ pedal tones Bruckner would have played with his feet. As the movement slowly builds to its initial grand statement (the full orchestra playing in octaves) and to a series of subsidiary themes, these long organ tones are never far away, held long beyond their expected duration to create a sense of anticipation. Resolution finally arrives with an enormous, intense recapitulation; one can’t help but admire, with our modern ears, the sonic power of a massive brass section, backed by strings and winds; before the advent of amplification, this was as loud as music got. And few works since can match the magnitude (or amplitude) of the coda. The opening of the second movement, a quick and lively Scherzo, is another prime example of the influence of Bruckner’s knowledge of the organ. The strings, quickly and delicately plucked against a sustained and slowly evolving chord in the winds and brass, are reminiscent of an organist playing a sustained chord while continually coloring it with different stops. After this introduction, the movement jumpstarts with pulsating rhythms, driving the movement into distant keys. The central Trio section, animated by strings in counterpoint with wind melodies, is in the remote key of F-sharp major (almost as distant from the opening as functional harmony allows) before returning to the propulsive opening material.

After the second movement savagely beats its rhythm into near-oblivion, we are given the elegiac third. Unlike its model—the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth—this movement is not a pastoral reprieve from more intense subjects; rather, it is among the most heartrending works of Bruckner’s oeuvre, his own “Farewell to Life.” It contains some of the most expressively dissonant music written to that date. Fleeting, contrasting sections—bucolic and occasionally ecclesiastical in tone—only seem to emphasize the searing return of the opening material. Pushing the expressive potential of chromatic music to its limits, the movement drives inexorably to an enormous climax, following which the coda dissolves into an atmosphere of profound peace.

All of this leads us to the newly completed Finale. Bruckner, in failing health and well aware that the work would be his last, wanted to infuse its conclusion not only with what came before, but also with the intense spirituality that filled his life. The Finale is in the composer’s customary sonata form, which has three (rather than two) theme groups. An enigmatic introduction builds into a massive statement of the Finale’s principal theme, followed by a second or subsidiary theme group that uses much of the same motivic material quietly and in unison, as if completely hollowed out. All of this music is dominated by a persistent dotted rhythm that only breaks its hold as Bruckner introduces a glorious brass chorale, a theme he prefigures in the Adagio. This leads to a quotation, in the flute, from his own Te Deum—an earlier work for chorus and orchestra composed and dedicated “to God in gratitude for having safely brought me through so much anguish in Vienna.” The further course of the movement reveals that the angst that pervades the first three movements and much of the fourth was intended to be set in relief against a triumphant resolution, as the orchestra joins together, after so much rumination, for Bruckner’s concluding “Hallelujah,” a grand climax in—what else?—D major.

—Chris Cerrone

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Carnegie Hall presentations of the Berliner Philharmoniker are made possible by a leadership gift from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

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