The Sensuality of the World to Come: On Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony

Anton Bruckner is the greatest composer completely unknown to most people. He is my favorite symphonist, and I am sure that he would enrich any person’s life.

The great Benjamin Zander and his Boston Philharmonic performed Bruckner’s “unfinished” Ninth Symphony last night at Jordan Hall. 

Late nineteenth-century Austrian, sui generis, very Catholic, pious and mystical in the decadent and delightful world of fin-de-siècle Vienna, that wondrous ferment of Ringstrasse and Jugendstil, of Mahler and Klimt and Freud: Bruckner stood outside these exciting currents because of his Catholic piety, but he was at least as advanced in his art as any of the other great ones operating in Vienna at this time. Indeed, maybe it is only now that we are beginning to catch up with him…

Bruckner is not commonly programmed, but Zander said that his sense of things is that we are on the cusp of a Bruckner era, that his time has come. Please God that this be so. Our culture needs this music. As Zander puts it: 

“This music has an extraordinary effect on the mind. [Everyone came out of that rehearsal] radiant, calm, and full of love. There are very few things you can do to create that nowadays. …It makes you feel very healthy. It gives you access to a state of mind quite outside that of normal life that is especially needed in these anxious times.”

The maestro gives lectures on the music he is about to conduct, and those are must-attend events. (They will be performing Mahler’s Second in April. I will be there, and so should you!)

The Philharmonic’s performance of the Ninth was excellent. Zander understands the articulations of this complex and very long-arced music, and his orchestra vigorously and precisely persevered to conjure up the glory.

The final movement was left unfinished by Bruckner at his death in 1896. His last musical testament is the Adagio, which provides a fitting conclusion for his Ninth and a fitting valedictory to his life. 

The whole symphony bears the dedication: “An den lieben Gott” (To the beloved God). All of his music, even this piece so full of breathtaking dissonance, is focused on God.

I am providing a link to the Scherzo: My goal is to entice you to actually listen, and then to get hooked. Indeed, it was the Scherzo of the Ninth that first caused me to fall under Bruckner’s spell. The scherzos of his symphonies are absolutely unique in the symphonic literature, an epitome of his style. They are the most easily approached of the movements. They are the shortest, so their compositional logic isn’t stretched over, say, twenty-plus minutes, requiring repeated listenings to begin to assimilate. 

I have no idea whether this hunch of mine is musicologically supportable, but let me offer what I think to be a hermeneutic key for the scherzos. When I first heard Bruckner’s Mass No. 3 in F minor, I was roused by what seemed to me to be the Bruckner-scherzo effect at the point in the Creed where the Resurrection of Jesus is confessed (“et resurrexit”), as well as at the closing when we profess faith in the general resurrection (“et expecto resurrectionem”). So, I take the driving brass of the scherzos to be a resurrection-motif. That’s my theory, anyway. 

Now, the Scherzo of the Ninth is the most anguished he wrote, an alternation of heavy menace and light dance. Musically, again typically, it is well in advance of his time. A reviewer has noted how the rhythmic sensibility blossoms in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I hear, though more complex in Bruckner, Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets, a work twenty years in the future and written during the Great War.

Despite its minatory aura, I still think this Scherzo is about the resurrection and the coming Kingdom, which is what Bruckner’s music is always about. Piety, but without sentimentality or shortcuts or measuring to our measure. Objective piety. Being measured. And that is exactly what we need. 

This is God-focused music, expressionism from above. Here is an inimitable musical personality ecstatically offering his subjectivity as an instrument of objectivity. And objectivity, God, Love, means the inhabiting of all the immense tensions and contradictions (the dissonances) of time so that the resurrected life may break through. The menace of this Scherzo is that of the pain of the world, but it is even more the menace that the coming-on of God’s love in the flesh poses to the powers of the world. This is the apocalypse of love. This is profound affirmation of the triumph of love without any evasion of the soul-breaking dissonances of finitude and fallenness, a chromatic traversal through every single difficult moment of history by a love that keeps pressing down from on high in order to raise up.

We hear, indeed we see, the mountains of heaven rising in great steps from the subterranean shriek. It is visceral music. You feel your whole heavy body and your whole heavy spirit beginning to expand in a force inexorable in its love and its perseverance, finding and filling every dark space in us, energizing us with the light massiveness of heaven’s highlands.

That is what Bruckner can do for you.