This Week in Music History: The premiere of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (1903)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of what is often dubbed “the first opera…” Spoiler alert: it’s not.


Portrait of Anton Bruckner by Josef Büche

Anton Bruckner set himself an impossible task with his Ninth Symphony, which he did not live to complete. Having dedicated his preceding symphonies to a progressively greater series of authority figures (the Sixth is dedicated to his landlord, and the Seventh and Eighth both to royalty), he chose to dedicate the Ninth to God. “I dedicate my last work to the majesty of all majesties, the beloved God, and hope that he will give me so much time to complete the same,” he is alleged to have said.

Alas, God did not oblige. Having been working on the symphony on and off for some nine years, Bruckner died aged 72 in 1896. The first three movements were finished—although “finished” is always a relative term with Bruckner, who frequently revised his work. They are a fascinating first movement, a scherzo of astonishing contrasts (below), and an epic adagio. But the finale was left incomplete.

Copious sketches of the finale survive, but Bruckner had an unusually piecemeal method of composing and there is no continuous draft of the whole thing, which has made it difficult to produce performable versions—a lot more difficult than in the later, comparable case of Mahler’s Tenth. Several completions of Bruckner’s Ninth do exist, however, and an alternative solution, possibly suggested by Bruckner himself, is to replace the finale with Bruckner’s Te Deum—a different work, for sure, but one also dedicated to God.

Program for the symphony’s world premiere in the Vienna Musikverein, February 11, 1903 (© Anton Walter)

However, the first three movements last around an hour even on their own, and there is a long tradition of performing these three movements alone—as Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra do in the performance here. That was what happened at the premiere, which took place in the Vienna Musikverein on February 11, 1903, more than six years after the composer’s death. The conductor was Ferdinand Löwe, a pupil of Bruckner’s, who had also edited the score…

Lithography of Ferdinand Löwe by R. Fenzl

… Rather harshly. As had happened so often in Bruckner’s career, his score was substantially altered in order to put it a little more in line with convention. Löwe tamed some of Bruckner’s ferocious dissonances, for instance. But subsequent editions have reverted to something closer to Bruckner’s intentions.

Did Löwe have a point? The harshness of his edit aside, it is at least true that the Ninth Symphony sounds profoundly, discomfitingly strange—uncanny, even. But it is surely meant to. After all, what symphony is truly worthy of God himself? “Come and see the works of God: he is terrible in his doing toward the children of men,” says Psalm 66. The terror of God resounds in Bruckner’s feverish Scherzo (above). What could a finale, truly completed, have possibly sounded like?


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