Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Musical endings fascinate me. Take, for example, the fact that some musical scores end with a measure of silence like the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata op 7. Why is this? The short answer is hypermeter. Beethoven has set up a phrase structure in which bars are paired. The next-to-last measure with the final tonic chord is the first of the pair so the phrase is not complete without the second. Janacek also ends with a measure of silence sometimes. You can feel the rightness of this if you are sufficiently in tune with the flow of the music. It doesn't work so well placed at the beginning, though. There is a piece for guitar by Claude Vivier that begins with 40 seconds of silence. I was never able to figure out how to communicate this effectively to the audience.

I often find the ending the most difficult part of a piece to deliver effectively. Sometimes the clear structure of the piece makes it easy, but other times you feel the need to spice it up somehow with a crescendo, accents, big ritardando or something. The dances that end Baroque suites are particularly difficult in a modern concert situation because they just don't seem to end dramatically enough for our tastes. Take for example, this Bach gigue:

The gigue starts around 1:52. Listen to the big ritardando and accents that John Williams adds at the end. Another example is the well-known suite in D minor by Robert de Visee. It ends in the gentlest way with a pair of minuets. The last time I performed it I introduced it by telling the audience about de Visee's role at the Royal Court in Versailles where he was chamber musician. He was often asked to play in the king's bedchamber in the evening. So, when I reached the last phrase of the minuets I just pretended to fall asleep in the middle--then woke up with a start and finished the piece. Good for a chuckle from the audience and it solved the ending problem. Here's the piece:

You can see how unsatisfying this quiet ending can be if you are playing the whole suite. Modern performers often switch movements around to end with a sufficiently dramatic one, but I dislike doing that...

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