Sunday, March 13, 2016

Great Chords: Bruckner Ninth

I think I have mentioned before that Bruckner was my Dad's favorite composer. (Mahler was a very close second). I heard Bruckner's music as a very young child and he became one of my favorites as well. Bruckner composed nine symphonies, but he died before he was able to complete the has only three movements instead of the usual four. He was working on the fourth movement at the time of his death in 1896 and had completed a significant amount of work on it, but not enough for it to be finished. There have been several attempts to create a Finale from what Bruckner did leave behind, but that's not the point of this discussion here. I want to talk about one particular chord that stands out from the three completed movements of the ninth symphony. As Tom Service puts it in a wonderful article called "Sex, death, and dissonance:the strange, obsessive world of Anton Bruckner", (The Guardian, April 1, 2014) "For me, this (the 9th Symphony) is Bruckner's boldest compositional achievement. The symphony is the only one of his that's explicitly dedicated to God.In a sense, all of Bruckner's music is a tribute to his devout faith, but the 9th dares something darker, more doubting, more apocalyptic, and more ear-shatteringly aggressive and even deliberately ugly than he had attempted before. The massively loud and dissonant orchestral pile-up of a chord near the end of the third movement is a vision of a despairing abyss that the quiet music that comes after it can't possibly console."
My previous "Great Chords" entry featured the Beethoven Sixth Symphony. As I pointed out in that entry, in any song or piece of music, there occasionally is a chord that stands out...that grabs you....that turns your head. Are you familiar with Jimi Hendrix's great song Purple Haze? It kicks off with a monstrously awesome, kick-ass E7#9..sometimes called the Hendrix Chord. I don't think anyone had every used this chord in a rock n' roll song prior to the release of Are You Experienced in 1967.
Back to Bruckner. 1896. Third movement of his ninth symphony. 38 bars from the end of the movement. Here's what Martyn Becker wrote about it his article "Musings on the ninth symphony and its finale" (2014):
"The vast peak of the climax looms and hope builds: but then there is an unexpected tonal wrench sideways and the orchestral build-up rushes headlong not into a bright major resolution, but into utter catastrophe at its peak. The orchestra blares not salvation but a gigantic, fearsome negating chord that exposes seven dissonant notes from the chromatic scale, including a ‘missed octave’ of C sharp to C natural. It is violent, implacable, terrifying; and the music thunders shakenly and fearfully to a standstill." 

That's the chord I am talking F-sharp, fully diminished 7th chord. Have a listen. This excerpt starts about a minute before the chord sounds, with.a beautiful, urgent build up...but you can't miss the chord when it blares. Bruckner did not have a Fender Stratocaster with over-driving Marshall amplifier and a distortion box like Jimi Hendrix.....but then again, he didn't need it.

So Bruckner died before the symphony was published. Two of his pupils, Ferdinand Lowe and Franz Schalk created the first edition for publishing but they took the liberty of "sanitizing" the harshness of the seemed too disturbing for the they changed it to a less horrifying minor 7th chord. The world did not hear the true chord until 1932, when Alfred Orel edited the original score and published what Bruckner actually wrote.

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