Sunday, April 17, 2016

Grand Finales defines "grand finale" as:
the concluding portion of a performance or entertainment, as a musical show, rodeo, etc., usually spectacular and involving most or all of the prior participants.
In popular usage it refers to a particular stunt or device that serves to sum up or wrap up or provide a climactic end to something.

The term comes from music, of course, and specifically to the ending sections of an act in an opera buffa and to the last movement of a symphony. There is an interesting overlap in the two usages in the way Shostakovich tends to construct his last movements. In the finale to an opera buffa, all of the characters are onstage singing together which gives a very nice dramatic and musical climax. A stupendous example is the finale to Act II of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro that I posted about here. In a number of his string quartets Shostakovich does something similar in bringing back several of the themes from previous movements. An example is the String Quartet No. 11 that I blogged about here.

Sibelius found a number of interesting and original ways of handling his last movements and one of my favorites is the ending of his Symphony No. 2 that I blogged about here.

But today I want to take a slightly different perspective on the finale and ask what should it be doing and how that changed from the 18th century to the 20th century. Let's take a very famous example, the last movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, written in 1908-09 or at exactly the moment when, as we noted yesterday, Schoenberg was delivering the coup de grâce to tonality in his piano pieces, op. 11. Mahler's symphony begins in D major and the second and third movements are in C major and A minor but, very unusually, the last movement is in D flat major and it is a lengthy adagio! The tempo marking is Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (very slowly and held back). Let's have a listen:

This is a pretty interesting place for the symphonic finale to end up, with a thirty-minute adagio that fades out into nothingness. There has been a great deal of speculation about the meaning or significance of this movement. Leonard Bernstein, the conductor in the above clip, thought it was about three kinds of death: Mahler's own, of tonality and of Faustian culture. It seems a farewell to something indeed, life or culture or, perhaps, civilization. It is both interesting and disturbing that so much art and music in these years just before the First World War is so deeply pessimistic and foreboding. Perhaps some artists do intuit the future.

What I want to do now is trace the symphonic finale back from this endpoint to where it began. In 1896 Anton Bruckner died leaving incomplete the last movement of his Symphony No. 9. It has a somewhat different character to Mahler's. There have been several attempts at completing the last movement. Here is Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic in the performing version by Samale/Phillips/Cohrs/Mazzuca:

Bruckner while just as grandiose as Mahler, was certainly more of an optimist. Incidentally, this completion, the work of many hands from 1992 right up to 2011, incorporates themes from all the previous movements.

Just a few years before the Bruckner, Antonin Dvořák composed his Symphony No. 9 and the finale is quite different again, being inspired to an extent by his sojourn in the US. The last movement is quite conventional in that it is quick, an allegro and uses the minor to major transformation that Beethoven originated in his Symphony No. 5, in this case from E minor to E major. This is Gustavo Dudamel conducting:

That provides a more conventional kind of finale with lots of energy and powerful themes.

The last symphony to be written by Robert Schumann was his Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish" composed in 1850, and the last movement, labeled "Lebhaft" (lively) corresponds roughly to the Italian allegro. It is the fifth rather than the fourth movement of the symphony and has been described as having the feel of a rustic dance. This is Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The chronology of the symphonies of Mendelssohn is a bit complex, but the Symphony No. 3 "Scottish" is arguably his last as it was the last to be performed, in 1842, and he revised it up until that time. Again, this follows the Beethoven model of not only being a quick movement but also using the movement from minor to major to add more excitement and finality. This is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor: Stefan Sanderling:

The first "romantic" symphony is likely the Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz, composed in 1830, and it too is in five rather than four movements. The last is titled: "Songe d'une nuit du sabbat" (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath) and Berlioz describes it as follows:
He sees himself at a witches' sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath ... Roar of delight at her arrival ... She joins the diabolical orgy ... The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.
This is Leonard Bernstein again, this time conducting the Orchestra National de France:

The normal function of a finale is here subverted, intentionally, by fidelity to the program.

Now we come to perhaps the most famous symphonic finale of all, that to the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven, composed in 1824, which is really not a symphonic finale at all, but rather a kind of cantata. This idea was taken up by Mahler, among others, in his inclusion of vocal soloists and choirs in several symphonies. One particularly influential component of this finale was the reappearance of themes from previous movements--in this case, only to be rejected. Let's listen. The performers are

Anna Samuil (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Michael König (tenor)
René Pape (bass)
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

By the way, I have been focussing so much on the finales of the last symphonies of all these composers because that seems to be where they wanted to make the grandest of statements. This is certainly true of Mozart whose finale to his Symphony No. 41, with its spectacular fugue with five subjects is a tour de force that was unequalled. This is Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the last movement begins around the 31:15 mark:

Some of my readers are sensing where I am going with this. We have looked at a number of finales and it seems as if, the further back we go, the closer we get to a functionally successful one. By that I mean one that in a really thrilling and dynamic way offers a brilliant summation of a multi-movement symphonic work. So often, as we have seen, the composer is simply overwhelmed by the problem and, in an effort to really outdo himself, writes something that is wildly out of proportion to the work or reaching for an elusive transcendence. I think this is where Beethoven erred. He always had a problem with last movements and the one to the 9th is, while remarkably popular, in my opinion one of his crassest and least successful. But I know that I am in an extreme minority. The Mozart is an amazing finale, but again one that almost dwarfs its symphony.

Which brings us to Haydn who wrote not one or two successful finales, but about a hundred! And wow, are they good! He never had the tendency to throw in the kitchen sink or the occasional chorus, nor did he give in to despair or to overreaching. Nope, just brilliant, witty, moving finales that wrap up the symphony in a deeply satisfying way. Here are six examples.

Symphony No. 35, B flat major, Dec. 1, 1767 (the last movement begins at 20:10):

Symphony No. 49, F minor, "La Passione", 1768 (the last movment begins at 19:35):

Symphony No. 44 E minor, "Trauer", 1771:

Symphony No. 82, C major, "The Bear", 1786:

Symphony No. 88, G major, 1787, (which I chose mostly because of Bernstein's non-conducting!):

Symphony no. 92, G major, "Oxford", 1789:

I honestly don't think anyone has ever written a more giddy symphonic movement.

So there you have it, the recent history of Western Civilization, as shown in symphonic finales, and done in reverse order.


David said...

Bryan, thanks for putting the spotlight on the great symphonic endings. When I stop to think of it, I have a real weakness for the "grand finale" complete with quadruple F tuttis, hammering timpani and clashing cymbals.

I wanted to suggest for your consideration two additional finales for your pantheon of endings:

The fourth movement of Carl Nielsen's Symphony #4 (The Inextinguishable) with its unequaled timpani battle. I'm always eager to advance the cause of the unjustly lesser known.


The another 4th of the 4th: the final movement of Brahm's 4th Symphony, which I understand is a passacaglia of 31 variations of the theme (OK, I may have cheated a bit with Google-izing that last bit).

Both of these movements leave me with a desire to hear them again to revel in their message. LvB #9 tends to leave me with more of a sense of having finished an endurance contest.

Bryan Townsend said...

I did seriously think about the Brahms 4th, but I was on a particular trajectory and it didn't quite fit. I had forgotten about the Nielsen 4th. Hadn't heard it for a while so I listened to the last movement after reading your comment and yes, very satisfyingly bombastic with the timpani duel!