A last will and testament

The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, is to visit Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the first dropping of an atomic bomb during war-time. Obama will visit Japan prior to the end of his presidency later this year. It is not anticipated that he will offer an apology for the dropping of atomic bombs by the Americans on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, actions that resulted in the deaths of more than a quarter million persons – with repercussions to this day.
As his two-term presidency comes to a close, Barack Obama is thinking of the legacy he will leave as the 44th President of the USA. His visit to Japan, and particularly to Hiroshima, is, no doubt, related to what he will consider to be a worthwhile personal legacy. What Obama does between now and the end of his term of office could be considered to be the last will and testimony of his time in the oval office. His legacy is regarded as an important part of the service he has given.
Indeed, that is true of most people. What we leave behind, from a particular singular pursuit, an occupation or position in a household, or at the end of a lifetime’s work of writing, entertaining or some other undertaking, is something we personally value and hope will be of worth to others. We trust that our last will and testament will say something important about or sum-up what our life, or particular aspects of it, has been about.
Certainly, as we enter the twilight years of our lives we particularly think about putting our various affairs in order and we are encouraged by accountants, solicitors, priests and others, to reflect, put pen to paper and, amongst other things, complete a last will and testament. Not on the scale of a President, perhaps, but this document becomes part of the various legacies we may leave.
As, over the years, I have listened to classical music, I have become aware of the seeming fact that some composers have given thought to what their last will and testament could be in terms of their musical history. Perhaps this has not been more clearly realised than in the Ninth Symphony of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner.
This symphony has been described as “Bruckner’s boldest compositional achievement, the only one that’s explicitly dedicated to God.” In a real sense all of Bruckner’s music is a tribute to his devout Christian faith, seen most especially in his masses, motets and other religious music, but, as one critic commented, “the 9th dares to be something darker, more doubting, more apocalyptic, and more ear-shatteringly aggressive and even deliberately ugly than he had attempted before.”
I have recently acquired the completed four-movement version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO). The opening passages of this recording provides a firm idea of what will be the approach to the music – especially to give a foretaste of what is to come with the realised fourth movement. Rattle has commented that Bruckner wrote this symphony at a time when he was “experiencing terror, fear and passion in his life”. So, the music is suitably sober, even a little sombre, as it moves into what would be Bruckner’s, and perhaps the 19th century’s, last statement on the symphonic form.
What we have in this recording is  a pre-eminent orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and one of the foremost British conductors of his generation, Sir Simon Rattle. The recording combines the best features of orchestra and conductor, and a most acceptable recording quality – a spacious recording that enables the various parts of the orchestra to register their contribution with clarity and distinction, even in the loudest and most congested musical passages.
As he has shown with his presentation of the Mahler’s symphonies, Rattle is very much inside the heavyweight music of the Northern European tradition. His dramatic style fits the demands of the composer and his music. He enjoys directing the long, sonorous passages, the quicker, more quirky musical interludes, the arresting climaxes, the bold musical statements and melodious connecting pieces that a Bruckner symphony includes. Combine all this with an orchestra that plays superlatively and one has a recording that can be repeatedly returned to.
This is especially so with the addition of the Samale/Phillips/Cohrs/Mazzuca performing version of the score of the fourth and final movement of Bruckner’s Ninth. It is reported that Bruckner had already outlined at least 90% of the score, so the realisation of the fourth movement has a genuine air of authenticity. Guided by Rattle, the BPO certainly plays the final movement as if it had been in place from the beginning of the symphony’s existence. The performing version should, therefore, present few, if any, problems for the aficionados of this composer.
The highly recommendable, mellow, yet persuasive 1959 version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, with Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, provides the unfinished version of this symphony with a noble, if not resigned, conclusion, after which, in the words of the Penguin Guide, “anything would have been an anti-climax”. It is as if the “vision of a despairing abyss” has been consoled by a quiet moment of transfiguration. Rattle and the BPO, with the addition of the completed fourth movement, seriously challenges this viewpoint. In so doing, it changes the whole perspective on the role and explanation of this symphony in Bruckner’s output.
The cover note of this CD states that Bruckner left a “stark and magnificent torso”, as well as leaving “fragments and sketches for a magnificent finale that would cap his life’s work.” Rattle himself has said that this realisation of the fourth and final movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony “crowns his musical last will and testament with an intense and visionary splendour.”
The third movement Adagio of this symphony contains a searing climax that has the force of a musical atomic explosion which, as Rattle explains, “ends in a dissonance never previously heard in classical music.”The concluding fourth movement musically returns to the beginning of the third movement Adagio in order, according to Rattle, to resolve it with a huge, yet entirely suitable, finale. The third movement’s nobility remains, but its resignation is removed and replaced with a fuller affirmation and intellectual appreciation of his belief in life and God. The music’s dissonance is dissipated, harmony is re-established, obsessiveness is transfigured and the pain of the cosmos is offered healing.
Having made his final statement, Bruckner is more at peace. Simon Rattle has stated that the fourth movement contains music of the type that is “very cold, very lost; a type of music that Bruckner never wrote before.” Notwithstanding, the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, especially the closing pages, “has all the bursting energy of a supernova, and an overarching sense remains that even in the face of adversity and death there will be triumph.”
It seems to me to be of a kind of music to be contemplated by an American President before he visits the formerly devastated Japanese city of Hiroshima – before he concludes the last will and testament of his high office. Perhaps the one note of discord between Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and President Obama’s visit to Japan is that the former has no need of an apology!
This performing four-movement version of the Ninth Symphony has all the ingredients for a musical feast to satisfy even the most fastidious of Brucknerian tastes. It possesses much of the recognisable Gothic cathedral architecture, with “visions of grandeur that are at once ancient and modern”, of Bruckner’s symphonic output. However, the Ninth Symphony concludes with its structure being permeated with the warmth and human happiness with which this composer is able to suffuse his music.
The completed four movement version of the Ninth Symphony is a must for any Bruckner collection – a fitting last will and testament to this colossus of 19th century symphonic composers.

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About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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