Ground Rules for the Successful Completion of a Great Work

William Carragan
Vice-President, Bruckner Society of America

Presented at the St. Florianer Brucknertage 2015, Friday, August 15, 2015

In the first part of this paper I shall attempt to establish the goals that a student of a great but unfinished work by a great composer should have in order to create something that will turn out to possess a defensible resemblance to what the composer would have achieved in completing the work. These rules should be considered to be applicable in cases where it is agreed that enough material has been left by the composer to give a good idea of the style and content of the projected movement or movements, and that the material in existence is of a comparable quality to the rest of the composer’s work. Discussion of those issues can be made preliminarily to the beginning of the work of completion, but insights will come during that work which can have an effect on any judgments, either to increase or decrease confidence in the surviving material. In many cases, individual decisions will need to be made, and of course it is inevitable that the result cannot be regarded as the work of the composer alone, or to be what that composer should have written in an ideal world where composers live forever.

The First Goal

With decisions being made following these procedures, the result will be a somewhat artificially constructed grid of surviving sketches fixed in their correct order, unduplicated, in their latest form, with no deletions, at their original pitches, and with gaps of the correct length among them. But would the composer have felt restricted to this situation and these rules? Certainly not. He or she could do whatever he or she wished at any time. But that is not an option for the completer, who in order to be faithful to the presentation of the surviving fragments must look at the problem as one would a crossword puzzle, not daring to change the definitions just to be able to include a favorite word or two. The artificial character of the grid, which will inevitably include adjacent passages composed at different times, means that the result can never be what the composer would have done. But if the sketches are good enough, and if there is enough interest, the completer will go ahead.

A difficulty in numbering stems from the constant revision and occasional extension of early bifolios carried out while the later bifolios were being filled. Upon making extensions Bruckner would then find it necessary to re-copy and re-number the later bifolios, creating a certain amount of ambiguity which possibly can be resolved through study of the paper. On the three bifolios last in sequence, which are commonly accepted as numbers 29, 30, and 32 but probably should be three numbers higher, the upper right corners are so heavily overwritten with different numbers in different inks that the correct designation cannot be reliably recovered from them. But other considerations place these bifolios where all completers use them and must deal with the many problems they present.

By “all of the material” one does not expect that competing versions of the same passage should be presented side by side; decisions will have to be made as to which is the latest version of each part of the movement or movements, and that and that only is what should be used, in its complete form. Still it is possible that earlier versions of certain passages will contain more composed accompanimental detail than later versions, and a judgment can always be made as to whether to include that earlier detail in the later version if it can be accommodated. Conversely all of the music on each selected latest-version sketch should be included unless it is clearly and boldly deleted by the composer in ink. It should hardly be needed to say that the music should be used at the pitch at which it was written, as that pitch as a very important clue as to its proper instrumentation, and as to what the music should be that surrounds it, but it does apparently need to be said. The sequence of the passages can be easily determined if the composer numbered them in one or another way, as Bruckner did in the finale of his Ninth Symphony, or if the texture of the surviving material is more or less continuous, as in the case of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. With Elgar’s Third Symphony, by and large such sequencing indications are not present in the sketches, which makes the completer’s task much more difficult and the result more problematical. In the Bruckner Ninth, for technical reasons most of the gaps can be taken to be of even multiples of sixteen measures, as Bruckner was working on prepared orchestra paper where each four-page bifolio was labeled and pre-ruled with four measures on each page. Thus any gap can be considered as due to one or more of these 16-measure bifolios being missing.

The first of the three goals I have in mind is this, that in order to satisfy the manifest and appropriate curiosity of experts and enthusiasts, whatever the confidence one may have in it, all the surviving material should be presented as the composer left it, each passage in its latest form or version, fully entered with no conjectural deletions, at the tessitura in which it was written by the composer, in the sequence in which the passages were to be used if that can be determined, and with appropriate spacing between the surviving fragments which can be deduced as best one can from the evidence at hand. All of these conditions must be strictly met if one is to say that the result will be either an integral realization or a potential completion, not a fantasy on the themes which the composer left. Of course there is room for such a fantasy in the large arena of concert music, but that is not what I am discussing here.

The Second Goal

Anton Bruckner
Anton Bruckner

The second goal should be to complete the work both horizontally by filling in the gaps, and vertically by making the texture more complex, in order to achieve a continuous texture of sound consistent with the composer’s methods. This process of course needs to be done with discretion, but a certain degree of condign boldness is also required to obtain a sound which will make the sketched material from the composer sound authentic. Inspection of the sketches for Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony shows unpromising beginnings leading to magnificent results, as can be seen in the examples published in Dermot Gault’s important work The New Bruckner. The completer does not have the freedom that the composer had, but still the attempt needs to be made.

When the work is incomplete because of the composer’s retirement or death, as in the cases of the Schubert Tenth Symphony in D major, the Bruckner Ninth, the Mahler Tenth, the Elgar Third, and the Sibelius Eighth, and even Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s Art of Fugue, one can be certain that the composer in finishing the work would have used quite a bit of innovation, going beyond the surviving material in ways difficult to predict. Whereas in considering Schubert’s unfinished piano sonatas and his Seventh and Eighth symphonies, one sees many complete works of more or less the same genre occurring both before and after the incomplete work, which makes completing the piece somewhat more secure. With Bruckner, familiarity with the other major works he produced while he was working on the Ninth, namely Psalm 150 and Helgoland, reveals quite a few very new and fruitful ideas; certainly the Ninth would have developed Bruckner’s gestural repertory even farther. Indeed, each movement of the Ninth shows innovative development. The first movement is the grandest Kopfsatz of them all, yet the mysterious and ominous opening subject is heard only once in the rest of the movement, in an enigmatic and difficult-to-hear canon at the beginning of the development. Surely, one would think, some more use could be made of this gripping music; perhaps that is the job of the completer of the finale. The compact yet complex Scherzo returns in length scale to the relatively short scherzo of the Seventh, yet it has harmonies, or the lack of them, that go far beyond those of the much larger scherzo of the Eighth. And there is that new fast trio in F sharp major, which amazingly uses a considerable amount of the sketch of an earlier slow trio in the same key with a viola solo. As for the adagio in E major and A flat major, what is one to make of a fifth part which begins with the second instead of the first theme? Five-part song form, which Bruckner had inherited from Beethoven and adapted for use in the quintet and six other symphonies, does not call for that, yet there it is, and the later brief but cataclysmic return of the first theme leads to a chord which contains nearly every note of the chromatic scale. If the finale is to go beyond those gestures, and in certain ways it most certainly must, any suggestion of innovation that Bruckner gives in the surviving fragments, whether apparent or buried, needs to be detected, recognized, conserved and developed with diligence.

The Third Goal

The third goal should be to apply any other criterion, whether musical or social, which appears to bear on the nature of the completion, with imagination but also with enough caution so as not to disturb the results of adherence to the first two goals. In the case of the Bruckner Ninth, which is after all why we are here, we can say with considerable security that the ending should be brilliantly positive and triumphant. There are three lines of reasoning that lead to that conclusion. First, there is the undisputable fact that all of Bruckner’s other minor-mode symphonies have abruptly major-mode endings which go very far beyond the formulary Picardy third of the baroque. These are the Study Symphony in F minor, the First, the Nullte in D minor, and the Second, Third, and Eighth. It can even be said to include the Fourth where the finale in all four versions centered in E flat minor, yet ends in a mode which most people recognize as the major. Even the first movement of the Eighth at first ended in C major; the quiet 1890 ending in C minor is of course an anomaly in Bruckner’s writing and can hardly be used as a prototype without substantial justification.

Another line of argument comes from Bruckner’s doctor Richard Heller, who related after Bruckner’s death that the composer had told him that the finale was to conclude with a hymn to the most high God, with the Alleluia of the second theme (Satz) at the climax. Although certain interpretations have been based on the understanding that Satz here means “movement”, indeed that word has many meanings in German and can refer to something as small as a short passage to be inserted, as Bruckner used it in the revision process of the Second Symphony. But it most definitely can also mean “theme”, and here it seems to refer to the gentle dotted-rhythm theme at the beginning of the second group or Gesangsperiode, derived and echoed from the drastic and terrifying unison about 30 bars before, and in the clear rhythm of the word “Alleluia”. Thus the shy and tentative melody as first heard is to be transformed into the majestic and triumphant culmination of the whole work.

Lastly one can suggest that it would be virtually impossible for Bruckner, as a devout Christian, to complete his Ninth Symphony dedicated to his belovèd God in any other way than in unalloyed triumph. It is not that a Christian cannot write a tragic piece. But Bruckner has portrayed in the first three movements and in the sketches for the Finale a soul adrift in a world of apprehension, menace, and terror, in which fearful events originate from the most unlikely places, and in which the edifices erected on earth to provide earth-based protection crumble and disintegrate in catastrophe. According to Christian theology the only remedy is the free and unearned grace which finally comes only through faith, to those who preserve their faith through the torments of life, and the Finale is the musical portrait of that event. The soul as protagonist weathers the most hideous challenges throughout the symphony, not by virtue of its own strength, but through the loving and saving power of God, which if this plan is to be carried out in music, must be manifested at the end of the symphony. Such an interpretation has been challenged in the past, with certain completions offering dark and nuanced conclusions relying on the idea that Bruckner had lost his faith after all. But later research has recovered prayer slips from the night before he died, and a triumphant ending, difficult as it might be to achieve, seems to be the only responsible goal.

These three goals, faithful presentation of the sketches, appropriate filling-out both horizontally and vertically, and a positive and triumphant ending, must all be carried out to achieve anything like a successful completion, if indeed success can be achieved at all. But additionally, the second goal, horizontal and vertical filling-out, cannot be undertaken at the expense of the first goal, an honest presentation of the sketches. Nor can the positive ending be appended without the first two goals having already been attained. The degree to which various completions follow these ground rules must be judged by the listener, not by me. But a comparative timed-analysis table, which I prepared and which was published in the Bruckner Journal in 2013, and which can be viewed on John Berky’s website,, can help. The table gives the details of source material for my completion, for that of the group led by Nicola Samale, and for that by Sébastien Letocart. And when I obtain the scores, I will add the interesting work of Jacques Roelands and Nors Josephson. As should be clear from my discussion above, even a completion that seems successful cannot claim to be fully correct. Indeed there can be no fully correct completion, just completions which avoid the most obvious errors, and there will always be debate on many points. But the finale, even as a fragmented and patched-together assemblage, still has a great deal to tell us about the authentic inspiration and lofty goals of Anton Bruckner, and it is a pity not to take every opportunity offered to become familiar with it and its profound meaning.