The adagio of the Ninth Symphony sounds much more regular than it is. Without fail, the ear hears the five parts of the song form, which has come to be a familiar aspect of the Bruckner brand.
But when one starts to look, one finds that in parts 4 and 5, the locations of the themes do not agree with the dynamic and textural contour. The movement begins with a simple leap of a minor ninth with no accompaniment, which as A1 moves through difficult progressions to D major, and then further to resolution in the tonic E major, all in one sweeping, continuous, inseparable gesture. One may contrast this with the Eighth, where a very restricted melody beginning with only a minor second has a rich and detailed accompaniment: the exact opposite. In the Ninth, as an “answer”, A2 begins with a rising figure with the rhythm of the Marienkadenz, together with further musings on the minor ninth. Then we arrive at a great outburst in which the trombones play a major ninth while the trumpets glitter with the “Cross” motive A3, the first four notes of the Passion hymn Vexilla Regis prodeunt which any Catholic churchgoer at the time would have recognized. It is not clear, however, that Bruckner meant it that way; he was not given to quoting church music in his symphonies. What is known to us, though, is that the music which follows a ghostly echo of that climax was thought of by Bruckner as the “Farewell to Life”. ( Example 2: Abschied vom Leben
This music consists of four short chorale phrases of four notes each for the four tuben, with the upper pair of horns doubling the first tenor tuba in the first and third phrases, while the strings continue the accompanimental texture used with the Cross motive. Short four-note phrases of this character are found at many other places in Bruckner’s music: even as early as in the first theme of the Second, just before the recapitulation in the first movement of the Third, and then near the end of the first movement of the Ninth. But here they are built into a theme of a special significance, as asserted by Bruckner himself, which gives complete assurance to the mind of the listener that this symphony is about “last things”. Thus here again there is a vignette like the “Gebet” at the end of part 1 of the andante of the Fourth, which stands to some extent outside the form as a special feature, though it does have a fragmentary recurrence near the end of the movement, in the hush after the great dissonant climax. Again it is a prayer, and this time the pilgrim is near the end of his journey.
After twelve bars, the rising figure of A2 recurs, and leads to part 2, where the new B1 theme in A flat major is warm, gracious, and comforting, even though it begins with the rhythm of the Farewell to Life. Listeners will also recognize in its first four notes an inversion of the codetta theme of the first movement of the Third Symphony, in turn quoting the “Miserere” of the Gloria of the Mass in D minor (measures 100–103). Then, as in the Second and Third Symphonies, part 2 offers a second theme or B2, a lush and ornate episode in G flat major, densely accompanied and rising to an ecstatic climax with no help needed from the brasses. The writing is so complex that it is difficult to imagine that this section spans only eight measures. B1 returns briefly and the horns take up the theme, but the music drops away to a French sixth chord for the tuben and a despairing flute solo. As we have seen him do before, in part 3 Bruckner develops the first part of the A theme far beyond its treatment in part 1, here continuing with a restatement of A1 by the strings a whole tone higher with the flute playing the theme inverted and entangled with the violins, leading to a striding fortissimo with the opening notes of A1 proclaimed in canon, both upright and inverted, by the brasses. Then quietly an augmented allusion to B2 is made in place of A2, and through a crescendo with repeated iterations of the beginning of A1 the Cross motive climax is reattained, a semitone higher than in part 1. But there is no repetition of it, nor any mention of the Farewell to Life. Instead, part 4 begins immediately with B2, now in A flat, a whole tone higher than before. This time it is extended to ten measures, but then it breaks off and the anomalies begin. In fact they have already begun because part 4 should have started with B1. Instead of that, Part 4 continues with a treatment of fragments of A1. There is a recollection of the descending chorale from the finale of the Eighth, and then against a steady ostinato of eighth notes from the oboes and then the clarinets, the beginning of A1 and its inversion are played again and again as the tension rises to an almost unbearable level. In parts 1 and 3, that sort of treatment of A1 led to a cross-motive climax, but now it breaks off abruptly, leaving the ostinato by itself, and the following material turns out to be B1 in the home key of E major. However, this is not the reprise of B1 after B2 that we heard in part 2; it is instead clearly the beginning of a grand crescendo, where right at the outset the theme is given the complex decoration which we have learned to expect at the beginning of part 5 in six previous song-form adagios. For that reason I have placed the Part 5 designation at this point in my analysis, irrespective of the thematic incongruity; the beginning of Part 5 is what the ear hears. And the crescendo makes one grand sweep, the wind parts becoming ever richer and more complex and insistent, until only 26 measures into part 5, A1 enters in C sharp minor in canon in the brasses. Near the end of this terrifying outburst, the canon breaks off as A1 completes its curve, on a chord which contains all seven notes of the C-sharp harmonic minor scale, complete with its intrinsic augmented second. Then after a fermata which must necessarily be quite long, the rest of the elements of the A group begin to reassert themselves.
( Example 3: Symphony 9
But instead of moving to a fourth statement of the Cross motive, the “Miserere” theme from the D-minor Mass and Third Symphony heads the movement toward quiet resignation in E major and the perilous high B for the four horns in unison.
Thus we see all the formal elements of the five-part song form still present in the adagio of the Ninth, but in the latter parts the ingredients are somewhat out of order and set at odds with each other. It might be possible to regard the A1 section in part 4 as a vignette that occupies two thirds of the part in which it is present, but then there is the fact that part 4 starts with the wrong theme. Nonetheless that is what the ear hears, and that is the only way in which Bruckner can convey the emotional message he has for the sympathetic auditor. This movement, with its alternating moods of agony, divine appeal, revelation, premonition of death, earnest comfort, and prayerful ecstasy, all bound together thematically, reminds me of Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration of 1889. In the Strauss, which after all is coeval with the completion of only the earliest parts of Bruckner’s Ninth, there are the agonies of approaching death, fond recollections of childhood and happier times, and continuing engagement with the still-incomplete efforts of maturity which can only be fully resolved through the transfiguration attending the protagonist’s death. But in Bruckner these humane thoughts are also accompanied by the constant assurance of divine intervention no matter what the state of his life might be at the end.
In the volume Bruckner Studies (Cambridge, 1997), there is an erudite and sympathetic article by Edward Laufer on prolongation methods in the Scherzo and Adagio of the Ninth, with 22 ornate Schenkerian analyses and re-analyses of many passages from those two movements, some of them spreading over two pages. He also presents an overall analysis of the adagio as a sonata form, with the exposition being parts 1 and 2 of the song-form, the development being part 3, and the recapitulation being part 4 and part 5. I have entered Laufer’s analysis on my own analytical table. His sectional account is much less detailed than mine, but the locations of the section divisions are unambiguously stated by him, and the validity of his diagrams does not depend on the structure he proposes. If one accepts parts 1 and 2 as an exposition, and the rest of the movement as a Brucknerian counter-statement or developed recapitulation, one arrives at the structure A B1B2 | A B2A B1A, in which Laufer would say that the recapitulation begins at the recurrence of B2. In no way does such a concept clarify the effect of this movement on the listener, nor are the goals of sonata form such as the “effective expositional closure” of Hepokoski and Darcy achieved here. Indeed, the sonata-form paradigm, with its arrow of sonata process, fits this movement about as well as Balzac’s working-cloak would fit the Venus de Milo. This is not to say anything negative about the Schenkerian analyses which are very penetrating and revealing. Indeed Laufer concludes with some force that his Schenkerian analyses refute Schenker’s own deplorable offhand and pejorative remarks about the compositional methods of his teacher and friend Anton Bruckner.