Symphony no. 9, mvt. 1 by Anton Bruckner
I probably don’t need to rehash this too much, considering I’ve written at relative length about Bruckner and this symphony a few times, including after my recent trip to Chicago. Suffice it to say, this is about the most earth-shattering music that exists anywhere and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be playing this through headphones on a pregnant woman’s stomach to every unborn child about to enter this world, just to give them something to look forward to…and to spiritually prepare them for the revolt against global capitalism or Satan’s armies, whichever comes first (unless they’re one and the same…OH SHIT!).
It’s pretty obvious that a Bruckner movement was gonna be on this list to anyone who either knows me or has ears (not necessarily a lot of overlap…); why this one and not, say, 8-4 or 7-2 or 9-3 for that matter? Part of it is a similarity it shares with Sibelius 7: the composer completely mastering something formal that he had kinda been working out the whole time. In Bruckner’s case this form is the modified sonata form that his opening movements employ (I like Paul Serotsky’s terms of a “masculine” GROUP and a “feminine” GROUP of themes); Bruckner managed to pick a good time to deliver the most cohesive argument for his idea in that he ended up dead before he finished this piece. But truth be told a lot of the argument in favor of this movement being placed on this lofty perch is the coda (and the chorale that precedes it).
There’s a lot of “loud” music out there. I love damn near all of it. I’m talking blaring awesomeness like “Mars” from The Planets or the end of Shostakovich 7 or the first two minutes of the Honegger Liturgique or a thousand other cool as shit moments. The end of the first movement of Bruckner 9 is loud, but not just in volume. It’s loud in emotional impact. There is no other music that I know of that weighs as much as this coda, and that weight feels like everything that is vibrant and terrifying and noble and evil in the world. It encompasses the entire spectrum of humanity in three fucking minutes.
From the moment the strings start dropping in above that timpani roll, there is a sense that something amazing is about to happen, and when the brass first enter it feels like the voice of all mankind asserting itself…and at first it sounds like we’re about to say something profoundly beautiful. Then the brass speak again and it’s more forceful and more menacing. By the third time we see that this is going to a much darker place than we anticipated. The whole orchestra unites in a rising figure, holds on the dominant, and unleashes absolute hell. The Neapolitan 2nd cuts through the tonic-dominant frenzy less like a hot butter knife and more like Leatherface with completely unrelenting intensity.
I wouldn’t presume to apply a program to this piece that isn’t there, but I can’t shake the idea that the first movement (and the second in a more “Judgment Day” type of vein for that matter) is in some way “redeemed” by the third. The opening movement, as it turns out, is filled with a pervading sense of something dark and powerful, I dare say worldly. It’s the movement Mahler spent his whole compositional career trying to write (and ultimately did in the first movement of HIS 9th in my opinion), all-encompassing and rich in humanity. In all the beauty and misery that entails.
Crank that shit with one of the very best Bruckner interpreters of all time y’all: