Bruckner began work on his Ninth Symphony in August 1887. He was still working on it on the day he died, nine years later. Why did it take him so long? For one thing, his physical health was failing; worse still, there was a marked increase in the nervous, obsessive behaviour that had worried his friends in the past. He had also loaded himself with professional distractions: extensive revisions of the First, Second, Third and Eighth symphonies and the Masses in E minor and F minor, and the composition of two substantial choral works: the 150th Psalm and the cantata Helgoland.
Then there was the sheer magnitude of the task in hand. Bruckner meant the Ninth Symphony to be a summingup of his life’s achievements (including quotations from some of his most successful works). There was also an implied tribute to one of his musical gods. In one of his lectures at the Vienna University, Bruckner told the class: ‘I’ll write my last symphony in D minor, just like Beethoven’s Ninth. Beethoven won’t object.’ Friends and colleagues remembered similar remarks. So, where most composers would have shied away from inviting comparison with Beethoven’s mighty Ninth (the ‘Choral’ Symphony), Bruckner actively encouraged it! But there was more to this than arrogance. The dedication of the symphony ‘dem lieben Gott’ (‘to dear God’) shows that Bruckner saw the Ninth as a special expression of his life-long Roman Catholic faith – perhaps not as unquestioning as some have claimed, but certainly a potent guiding force. Richard Heller, Bruckner’s doctor during his last 18 months, felt sure that Bruckner ‘had drawn up a contract with his “dear God”. If He willed that the symphony, which was indeed to be a hymn of praise to God, should be finished, He should give Bruckner the time he needed for his task; if he died too soon and his musical offering was left incomplete, God had only himself to blame.’