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Program Notes: Bruckner's Ninth

Updated: Jan 7, 2019

Friday, November 30, 2018, 10:30am

Saturday, December 1, 2018, 8:00pm

John Storgårds, conductor Ingrid Fliter, piano


MENDELSSOHN Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, op. 288 Ingrid Fliter, piano


BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 in D minor 

By Tim Munro

Outwardly, Felix Mendelssohn and Anton Bruckner could not be more different. Mendelssohn, a refined, cosmopolitan, bookish German, born into wealth. Bruckner, an unsophisticated, pious, conservative Austrian, born into a humble home. Mendelssohn, a child prodigy composer and performer, whose musical voice is present from the very first notes of his teenaged Octet.

And Bruckner, a late bloomer who did not find his unique style until well into middle age. Each is represented here by strikingly different works. Mendelssohn’s sparkling First Concerto is concise, crowded with drama. Bruckner’s towering final symphonic cathedral is epic, uncompromising. Yet, scratch the surface and these two are twinned. Both were old-fashioned in their time. Mendelssohn with his outmoded love of Bach, Bruckner with his adoration for Renaissance masters.

Religion was central to both composers: Lutheranism for Mendelssohn (who had strong Jewish roots); Catholicism for the pious Bruckner. And in 1847 a young Anton Bruckner first encountered Felix Mendelssohn’s music, through the oratorio St. Paul. Its effects reverberated in Bruckner’s music for years to come. A critic at the time wrote that St. Paul was “written in the spirit of the great ancients but not according to their letter.”

The very same could have been written about Bruckner. We might hear (faintly, very faintly) Mendelssohn’s fingerprint on Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The deeply personal final movement of Bruckner’s symphony adopts a sequence of notes known as the “Dresden Amen.” Mendelssohn used the same sequence in his Fifth Symphony. This sequence, sung to the word “Amen,” implies a sense of finality. And tragically, neither composer would hear these two symphonies performed in their lifetimes.


Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, op. 25

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn could not abide virtuoso display. Complaining about a popular set of piano variations, he wrote, “They give me as little pleasure as rope dancers or acrobats. I only wish I were not constantly told that the public demands that kind of thing.” Writing his own concertos, Mendelssohn hemmed and hawed, balancing virtuosity with musical integrity. So in the First Piano Concerto, his first mature work in the genre, Mendelssohn simply created his own new form.

He started the drama right away, dispensing with the redundant double introduction. He glued the expected three movements into one, connecting them with brass fanfares. And he brought back the concerto’s opening melody in its finale. Ambitious moves for a 22-year old. When he wrote the work, the young Berlin musician was on a two-year jaunt, taking in the sights and sounds of Europe. The original goal of the journey was to find a future home, but it was soon transformed, as Mendelssohn performed to acclaim in England, painted Swiss mountains, met artists in Italy. And in Munich? There he fell in love. Delphine von Schauroth was an exceptionally gifted pianist and composer. She was universally lauded, wrote Mendelssohn, and “ministers and counts trot around her like domestic animals in the hen yard.” Mendelssohn was besotted. The two met often to “play duets on the piano” (a contemporary euphemism…), but Mendelssohn stopped short of proposing marriage. The two parted, and likely never spoke again. But not before Mendelssohn could dedicate this concerto to her. Right from the opening (“very briskly, with fury”), piano soloist and orchestra are joined passionately. Virtuosity serves the drama, building tension.

The music takes time to settle, to allow beauty to seep in. But nothing will halt the momentum of this lean, dramatic music, not even piano solos, which only help to turn the screw. The pianist’s heart, clearly still racing, struggles to shed the intensity of the first movement. It is the cello section that sings its calming cradle song to the soloist, who soon joins in.

Fitted with a sacred text, this sweet melody could have made a hymn that Bruckner himself would have admired. In a letter to his sister, Mendelssohn said that Schauroth herself had suggested a passage in the concerto “that makes a startling effect.” Was he referring to the magical transition to the second movement? The heavenly fluttering end of the Adagio? What other secrets might be contained within this work? Letters between Schauroth and Mendelssohn have not survived. All that is left of this short, passionate affair is this piano concerto, perhaps a musical love letter to a beloved.

First Performance: October 17, 1831, Munich, Mendelssohn as soloist First SLSO Performance: February 25, 1912, Max Zach conducting with Agnes Hope Pilsbury as soloist Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 22, 2009, Nicholas McGegan conducting with Stephen Hough as soloist Scoring: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings Performance Time approximately: 21 minutes


Symphony No. 9 in D minor

Unfinished Strings tremble at the edge of audibility. A low wind note lands awkwardly, covered by a slow, distant brass fanfare. Nothing is hurried. Bruckner marks the opening of his Ninth Symphony’s first movement “mysterious, solemn.” Slowly, steadily, intensity builds. Suddenly, raw force is unleashed, tearing the fabric of sound. Then silence. In 1896, Anton Bruckner died. Unfinished at his work desk lay the Ninth Symphony, which had cost him a decade of toil, which he had fought with until his final day. Severe diabetes meant that Bruckner struggled with trembling hands, lost teeth, a shaky walk. A debilitating mental illness sapped energy and confidence. And he spent much of these years revising old works, to please supporters, to appease an obsessive nature. But it may have been Bruckner’s own perfectionism that ultimately stood in the way. Years before, he told a student that his final symphony would be in D minor, the same key as his central musical inspiration, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Could it be that Bruckner’s progress was halted by the knowledge that this work would be his last will and testament, the culmination of a lifelong quest?

Life’s work Bruckner’s nine mature symphonies divide opinion. They are long, straining musicians’ stamina and concentration. Their shapes are ambiguous, supported by obsessive repetition, jolted by sudden shifts, halted by unexpected silence. Their harmonies are strange, floating from the known into the unknown. Together they try to answer an elusive question that only Bruckner truly understood. And in the course of three decades of answering, he managed to create a strange, compelling musical universe. Bruckner found himself out of time, out of place. The son of a rural Austrian schoolmaster, this humble, uncomplicated, and unpretentious man was uncomfortable in cosmopolitan Vienna. He stood out for his height and bulky dress, and for the bluntness of his native rural accent. Lacking ambition, Bruckner desired better jobs only to achieve financial stability. Through his entire life, he received no fees for any of his published and performed symphonies. Bruckner lived only to create music and to worship God. Caught on a powerful musical quest, Bruckner continued studies in counterpoint and composition well into his 40s. He rifled through archaic toolboxes, reaching into the past for outmoded techniques and genres. He wrote arias like a baroque composer, choral works like a Renaissance master. Then, in middle age, he turned to the creaky, outmoded genre of the symphony, made unfashionable by the swashbuckling tone poems and heavenstorming solo works of the nineteenth century. He would devote the rest of his energy to this old-fashioned genre.

Bruckner: The obsessive

The second movement of the Ninth Symphony is a scherzo. This word means “joke” or “jest” in Italian, and many scherzos capture playfulness. Not here. To look at Bruckner’s score is to see machine-like repetitions, to see Bruckner’s obsessive markings asking for emphatic attacks, resulting in a sound like tight fists pounded on a heavy door. Numbers seemed to hold answers for Bruckner. He listed and categorized them, whether it was the number of prayers he uttered, or stairs he climbed, or building ornaments he passed, or pretty girls he danced with. And the symphony was Bruckner’s ultimate numerical research laboratory. Here he tested his theories, perfected his treatments. Bruckner logged repetitions, phrase lengths, bar numbers in his scores. He was seeking the ideal, finding the ideal structure to hold his ideas, the ideal harmonies to fit these moments.

Bruckner: The mystic Violins mass on their lowest string with a “rugged, broad” sound. Their first note is expected, but the second and third are alien. Bruckner marks this third movement “mysterious.” Violas, cellos, and basses join, but from a different harmonic universe. All fan out, violins reaching higher, cellos digging lower. Bruckner never intended for the symphony to end with this third movement. He simply died before completing the finale. But it is hard not to hear in this exploration of music’s outer reaches a search for something inexplicable. Something transcendent. As he wrote these notes, Bruckner surely knew that he was dying. Bruckner’s business-like letters give little away about the Ninth Symphony’s intentions. But he told his doctor that the work was dedicated to God, “the majesty of all the majesties.” Indeed, the music of this final movement alludes to Bruckner’s own Te Deum, whose text begins: “We praise thee, O God. All the earth doth worship thee.” The music passes unexpected chords, hovers over “wrong” notes. There are long silences, moments when a flute or an oboe seems to float in thin air. The path may be unclear, but somehow we always find our way back to some sort of solid ground. Bruckner had sketched much of the Ninth Symphony’s fourth movement before he died. Several completions of the finale exist, but these are not commonly performed. As originally intended, the finale returns to the troubled atmosphere of the symphony’s opening, asks anxious questions, flings technical challenges at the orchestra, ends in majesty. So does this three-movement version do justice to Bruckner’s vision? What does it mean to end with the strange visions of the third movement, not the power and victory of the intended fourth? Near the end of the third movement, a screaming crisis lays waste, opening out onto a quiet, radiant vista. Perhaps this soft conclusion to Bruckner’s final complete symphonic movement is enough. It might allow us to conjure an image: of the composer, sitting in contented rest after a long career, with his feet up and a glass of his favorite pilsner in hand.

First Performance: February 11, 1903, Vienna, Ferdinand Löwe conducting First SLSO Performance: January 24, 1969, Ferdinand Leitner conducting Most Recent SLSO Performance: October 17, 1998, Madrid, Hans Vonk conducting

Scoring: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th doubling Wagner tuba), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings Performance Time: approximately 1 hour and 3 minutes

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Creative Partner.


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