The Finale is “the most significant movement of my life”
- Anton Bruckner, on the Finale of Symphony No. 8
Bruckner worked very hard on the Finale of his Eighth, and was very proud of the results. Unfortunately, not everyone at the time saw it the same as Anton. Very unfortunately, one of the first persons puzzled by this closing movement was Hermann Levi, the conductor who was going to lead the premiere of the original version. That is, before he backed out of his promise to conduct the work. Part of the challenge of composing a convincing Finale in a big Romantic symphony like Bruckner’s is bringing some of the issues raised, in earlier movements, to a satisfactory resolution. This is a monumental work, with big musical ideas taking up 55 minutes of music before the final movement even starts. That is a great deal of musical weight to counterbalance, and it is no wonder Anton put a lot of effort into his solution to the “Finale problem”.
The fourth movement is a Sonata form. It is a bit freer than the first movement and loosely governed by the key relationships of a sonata structure. There is an exposition that spans the first 253 bars of the score and 8:30 seconds of the recording below. This exposition has the three thematic areas that is customary for Bruckner in sonata forms. The connection and contrast between these theme groups and their motives is what holds the sonata for together for Mr. Bruckner. The development section starts out lyrically at the 8:30 mark, and lasts until 14:02 (bars 253-437 in my score). The raucous motives that started the movement announce the recapitulation at bar 437, or 14:03 in the video. You can’t miss the timpani and trumpets pounding out the music that opened the movement at this point. These large sections of the sonata form contain drama, struggle and contrast to equal all that has gone on in the three preceding movements.
The last two and a half minutes of the symphony is worth the price of admission, all by itself. A glorious coda section starts at bar 679 (21:28). This is a musical transfiguration, ever rising, building and steadily growing to its ultimate culmination in C major. This sunny, bright cadence in the parallel major key is the final movement from darkness to light. Amazingly enough, if your ears have enough memory, you can hear motives/thematic snippets from all four movements of the symphony come together in these last two minutes of music. Most importantly, I think you have to resist the temptation to fast forward to the last two minutes and just listen to the end. It doesn’t sound the same if you haven’t experienced the darkness and struggle of the preceding hour and a quarter of music. We have traveled a great deal of emotional ground in the first three movements, some of it pounded into us very loudly, and the ending isn’t quite the same emotional release without living through those struggles.
Another important feature of the coda section is the manner in which we reach the sunny C major tonality. Normally, the strongest way to establish a key area is with the dominant to tonic harmonic motion of a perfect authentic cadence. Here, Bruckner leads us where he wants using a plagal progression, one which goes through the subdominant area to get to the tonic. This is very significant, especially remembering Bruckner’s career as a church organist. The plagal cadence is the sound of the “amen” sung at the end of church hymns. Anton is using this in a very specific way. To quote Mr. Korstvedt one last time, “the tonic major is not wrested from the darkness with Beethovenian might, but granted to us with awesome ease”. This is not victory won over the forces of evil, but salvation granted to us with mercy. It is the musical sound of lux sancta, the holy light. I think this is one of the things that escaped Levi when he first studied the score. If you are looking for heroic victory, you miss the point and the Finale doesn’t seem as convincing. Understanding it as grace granted from a greater power, the ending very satisfactorily wraps up this monumental work.