Friday, July 04, 2008

What we call the beginning is often the end

And then there are those pieces that are indisputably unfinished. I think in particular of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, which I've been listening to and thinking about a lot recently. And in particular the realisation of the finale, a controversial project.

Where his finished symphonies offer one sense of an incomplete project in their multiple workings of the same material, the surviving sketches for this movement offer another side: the work that can only be experienced as work in progress.

This is where facts, traditions and romanticism collide: the tradition has grown up that the three complete movements are in themselves complete, and therefore it's unnecessary to attempt to complete the fourth. But it's certain that Bruckner didn't think this: on his deathbed, realising he wouldn't live to finish the symphony, he suggested that his Te Deum be used as a substitute finale. So whatever else he may have thought, he definitely didn't consider it as a three-movement piece.

In was amazed when I discovered that there was a playable version of the finale: I grew up, like most people, thinking that nothing existed of it beyond a few scraps, and yet it turns out that there's enough there to show that Bruckner had the design fully formed in his mind, and was probably only weeks from completing a draft score.

It's remarkable how hostile some people seem to be to the idea of this reconstruction. Of course it's to some extent speculative, as it has to be to provide a satisfying listen (you can't listen to an unfinished piece of music and really get much from the fragments in the way you can look at an unfinished painting), but isn't it better to have an idea of what the composer intended rather than cling to a delusion?

Gottfried von Einem, by the way, wrote a piece called "Bruckner Dialogue", which uses the chorale from the finale of the ninth, which seems another alternative. It's certainly far from what Bruckner would have intended, but it does acknowledge the truth that there is an enormous vacuum in the wake of the slow movement. It seems to me better to recognise, and not deny, this absence.

The finished and the incomplete are two extreme ends of a spectrum, and there's a lot of space in between, a strange and forbidding place that nevertheless can offer great rewards to those brave enough to explore it.

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