Why did Bruckner’s student change his music?

In February 1903, seven years after the composer's death, Bruckner’s Ninth was played in public for the first time, but was it the symphony Bruckner envisaged?

ow Bruckner’s student altered the score to the composer’s Ninth Symphony

The highlight of the 1902-03 concert season in Vienna was undoubtedly the eagerly awaited premiere of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony which took place in the large hall of the Musikverein on 11 February 1903. Organised under the auspices of two of the city’s most influential music organisations, the Vienna Academic Wagner Society and the Vienna Concerts Society, the concert was conducted by the Bruckner pupil and disciple Ferdinand Löwe who had worked intensively with the composer on preparing a published edition of the Fourth Symphony. It attracted a huge audience keen to pay homage to the great composer, who had died in the Austrian capital seven years earlier. 

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A few days prior to the concert, Löwe had unveiled his own piano transcription of the Ninth, which was performed in front of an invited audience in the Musikverein. In preparation for this and the actual orchestral premiere, the organisers published extraordinarily detailed programme notes which informed the audience of the complicated genesis of the work. It was well known that Bruckner had started composing the Ninth back in 1887, but his ambitions to complete it were thrown off course because of a self-imposed pressure to revise some of his earlier symphonies. Nevertheless, by 1894 he had completed the first three movements. Thereafter, he could devote all his attention to composing the Finale. Sadly, declining physical health seriously impeded his ability to do so – although the structure of the Finale was fully in place by the time of his death, some sections of the score remained in a fragmentary state.

Bruckner had already advised his closest friends that in the event of him being unable to complete the movement, he would sanction a performance of the Ninth with his choral Te Deum acting as a substitute Finale. Löwe honoured that suggestion in the 1903 concert, but judiciously placed an interval between the third movement Adagio and the Te Deum, implying that the symphony could perfectly well stand on its own. 

Writing about the concert in the Musical Times, critic Eusebius Mandyczewski commented on the ‘immense enthusiasm’ generated by the music, regarding this as indicative of the huge feelings of veneration among the Viennese public for the recently deceased composer. A young Anton Webern was just as effusive. Writing to his cousin, he declared the performance to be ‘magnificent’ and believed that ‘there could scarcely be anything more beautiful in the whole symphonic literature than the Adagio movement.’

The score of the Ninth was published in the aftermath of the premiere, and the work soon enjoyed widespread dissemination. Löwe continued to champion the symphony, conducting it several times in Vienna and Munich and throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while it was also taken up by several other leading conductors including Richard Strauss, Karl Muck, Artur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner.      

The earliest audiences, however, were largely unaware of the extent to which Löwe had subjected the score to numerous unauthorised alterations of instrumentation and adjustments to the harmony, believing that such modifications would make the music sound more palatable to contemporary audiences. His edition reigned supreme until the musicologist Alfred Orel examined Bruckner’s manuscript in the 1920s and realised how far Löwe had departed from the original.

An extraordinary concert featuring the Munich Philharmonic took place in 1932 with the objective of exposing Löwe’s deceit. Two renditions of the Ninth were given, the first using Löwe’s edition, the second featuring unadulterated Bruckner. Invited to assess the respective merits of the two, the audience emphatically endorsed Bruckner’s original. Thereafter, Löwe’s version was largely discredited.

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