Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Problem of the Symphonic Finale

Listening to the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 finale this morning got me thinking about symphonic finales in general. The symphony, along with the concerto, is a perennial form, it seems. I think I have posted before on how the concerto just seems to reinvent itself with every generation so we get excellent concertos from Vivaldi to Mozart to Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Berg to Shostakovich to Philip Glass. And somehow, the essential nature of the concerto, the contrast between the individual and the crowd, remains unaltered.

The symphony is a different beast however as it comes with a bit more baggage than the concerto. For one thing, the symphony, while having a pre-existence as an instrumental introduction in an opera, really came into being in the work of Joseph Haydn who put his stamp on it, making its construction a bit more specified than Vivaldi did with the concerto. The ritornello construction of the first movement of the Baroque concerto did not survive into the Classical Era, though the three movements (fast, slow, fast) did. The symphony as Haydn devised it had, in common with the string quartet, four movements: fast, slow, minuet, fast. The particular tempo words might change, the first movement might be an allegro or vivace, the slow movement might be andante or adagio, but the basic format was clear. The idea was that the first movement was characterized by a bit of drama and the working out of themes. It was the most challenging and intellectual movement (this was the 18th century when cleverness was in good odor). The second movement was the most emotional and expressive. The third movement had the character of a dance and the last movement was a joyous and rollicking finale. Sometimes the second and third movements were switched.

So this was the Haydn Classical symphony and a lot of it has lasted until the present day. Philip Glass in particular has been churning out symphonies that Haydn would likely recognize as such. Haydn's colleague Mozart, after writing quite a few brief three movement ones akin to the Italian opera sinfonia, adopted the Haydn model later on. Beethoven, though he lengthened the movements considerably, also followed the Haydn model--with one exception and therein lies the problem. For his last symphony Beethoven completely diverged from the model in the last movement and instead of giving us a rollicking finale he writes a half hour cantata with vocal soloists and chorus. This movement has had admirers and detractors ever since. Schubert's symphonies follow the Haydn model as well and even his last symphony, composed around the time of Beethoven's 9th, or perhaps a bit after, doesn't seem to show any influence from the Beethoven finale. Though long, Schubert's last movement is certainly exuberant. Beethoven seems to have been the first to wrestle with the finale, to the point of trying to re-conceive it entirely.

This seems to have led to a great number of later composers also wrestling with the finale. The basic contradiction seems to be between the urge to write something that is joyous and exuberant or to write something more "important" or "meaningful," showing perhaps the influence of romanticism.

In the case of Berlioz this seems to have taken over the whole work: his Symphonie fantastique is a program of fantastic and bizarre events. Bruckner in his symphonies adopts the length and drama of Beethoven but sticks to purely instrumental finales. Mahler's symphonies follow Beethoven's lead to the extent of not only using vocal forces throughout a symphony, as in the 8th, but continuing to transform the finale from something joyous to something dark and lamenting. His 9th symphony ends with a very long adagio. Instead of a celebration the movement is more of a farewell to existence.

Sibelius wrote some extremely successful symphonies in the early part of the 20th century and for the most part he followed the Haydn model with rather joyous or transcendent finales. He compressed the form into three movements in his 3rd and 5th Symphonies.

Symphonies by Prokofiev and Shostakovich sometimes recreate with considerable success the basic structure of a Haydn symphony; the "Classic" Symphony by Prokofiev and the Symphony No. 1 by Shostakovich are good examples. But Shostakovich in particular roamed rather far away in a couple of instances. His Symphony No. 13 in five movements, sets five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko for bass soloist, bass chorus and orchestra. His next symphony, No. 14, wanders even further: it comprises eleven movements for soprano and bass voices, string orchestra and percussion. It sets poems by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker and Rilke. The Wikipedia article mentions:
The composer himself was initially unsure what to call the work, eventually designating it a symphony rather than a song cycle to emphasise the unity of the work musically and philosophically: most of the poems deal with the subject of mortality (he rejected the title oratorio because the work lacks a chorus; it is not a choral symphony for the same reason).
The problem of the finale really goes back to Beethoven. He struggled with the finale problem in a lot of multi-movement works, not just the symphony. The problem often seems to have been how or whether to give extra weight to the last movement. For Haydn this wasn't a problem because he didn't see the last movement as needing weight. It was a delight and a dessert. But for Beethoven and later composers, they felt the need to end with something more weighty, more serious, more climactic. And so the problem arose. I sometimes wonder if one of the causes of this, shall we call it a neurosis?, was the absolutely superb finale to Mozart's 41st Symphony. In despair at not quite being able to top that masterpiece, every composer since has, out of sheer desperation, tried to find an alternate solution. Hmm, one ponders, ok, I can't do anything more transcendent or magically contrapuntal so why don't I throw in a Big Chorus? Or just drone on drearily until everyone goes home? Or write something three times as long for an orchestra four times bigger?

Damned Mozart!

Ok, now for the musical examples. First, the finale to Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in a particularly whimsical performance by Leonard Bernstein:

The finale to the Symphony No. 41 by Mozart conducted by Jeffrey Tate:

The finale to the "Great C Major" Symphony of Schubert conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Now that monstrosity, the finale to the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, conducted by Daniel Barenboim:

Now let's join Berlioz in a witch's funeral sabbath dance, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel:

This is the finale to the Symphony No. 9 by Mahler conducted by Bernstein:

The finale to the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius conducted by Salonen:

This is the end of Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar" by Shostakovich, Gergiev conducting:

I hope my commentators have something to say!


Jives said...

Lots of info here, but I'll admit that my own compositions tend to be "back-loaded" that is, saving the deepest, most profound music for the last movement. I guess I've always swerved away from, in my own music, the idea of the romping, galloping, final movement. As fun as they are to play, written by other composers, it never suited me to write it. maybe the combined forces of Romanticism and modern angst conspire against that sort of abandon.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jives. There seems to be a kind of long trend in multi-movement works from the 17th century up to now that sees a shift in emphasis from the early movements to the later ones. I remember a suite for Baroque guitar by Robert de Visée that I used to play that ended with a couple of very lightweight minuets. I just couldn't get used to the last movements being so gossamer! But this was quite normal in the 17th and even 18th centuries. But now, you just can't do that! I wrestle with what to do in a final movement myself and I can't say I have found a solution!

Marc said...

Penderecki's Symphony no 7 ('Seven Gates of Jerusalem') 'solves' any issues by beginning its life as an oratorio and then being re-described as a symphony after its premiere. Only first listened earlier in the week & I don't know anything in detail about how it went from oratorio to symphony. It certainly seems coherent to me in its seven parts but, after all, it was a commission for a specific purpose.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't know that piece--will have to have a listen!