November 24, 2013

Classical Beat: In the end, it’s about the ending

By Christopher Hyde

The Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra, University Chorale and five local high school chamber groups recently performed two of the major “unfinished” works in the classical repertoire – the Schubert Symphony No. 8, and the Mozart Requiem.

The Schubert, victim of the unfortunate mnemonic “This is ... the symphony ... that Schubert wrote ... and never finished,” is probably the most famous work in this class, followed by the Requiem, but both Mahler and Beethoven left unfinished 10th symphonies that are sometimes heard in concert.

There have been many attempts to “finish” the Schubert symphony, including a competition that generated 100 scores. Some of them used Schubert’s sketches for the third movement, but none of them is very convincing. Some scholars claim that the work is complete in itself.

Peter Schickele (aka P.D.Q. Bach) spoofed the entire unfinished symphony genre by writing the third and fourth movements of a symphony that could not be completed because the composer had not yet been born.

The whole concept of musical endings needs more examination. Composers, even the greatest, have had considerable trouble figuring out how to end some works. I think of Strauss’ “Perpetual Motion” polka, which just keeps going until the conductor mutters “und so weiter...” Others just fade out.

The pianist of the British comedy act, “Beyond the Fringe,” Dudley Moore, had a wonderful parody of a composer trying to end a piece in traditional return-to-the-tonic style, tossing off 15 or 20 cliche cadences in a row. Something that Erik Satie also liked to do, although he claimed that they should be taken seriously.

The most popular cadence or close is that of most hymn tunes, the perfect cadence, a succession of two chords from the dominant to the tonic (sol-do) and all its many variations – in fact, there are about as many standard forms of cadence as the closings Dudley Moore improvised.

The show-off cadenza, in most classical and Romantic concertos, stems from a practice by performers of interrupting a three-chord cadence in the middle to improvise a solo passage based upon the themes of the previous movement. These once pleased audiences so much that they would applaud the cadenza before the orchestra could play the final chord.

Bruckner is the acknowledged master of the delayed climax. Whereas Schubert seems to want his pieces to go on forever, Bruckner simply doesn’t know how to stop.

Some works are known for their endings. Beethoven’s are often surprising indeed, and even Bach often altered the final chord unexpectedly.

My favorite among endings is that of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite, in which a triumphant melody emerges out of nowhere (although carefully prepared for) and lasts for just a few bars. Among the cleverest is Richard Strauss’s conclusion of “Der Rosenkavalier,” in which a page scampers light-heartedly across the stage to pick up a handkerchief, turning a tragedy into a comedy.

Nowadays composers often eliminate the cadence altogether. Others let the work go on until the audience gets tired of it and walks out. I’m not thinking of “Die Meistersinger,” but of a modern composition that lasted six hours without interruption, rebelling against the stodgy concept of limited length.

 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:classbeat@netscape.net

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