Ending a Piece: the Allure of the Studio Fadeout

August 1, 2018

     I'm in the midst of composing a piece for full orchestra (my first, as it turns out), and the form has largely come together. Over the last few days, I've been lingering over how it should end; not in the larger formal sense, but looking at whether the energy level rises to a bigger finish or diminishes to a calm conclusion. There's a reasonably short repeating phrase in the ending section which builds upon itself, lending credence to a bombastic ending. However, inspiration led me to create an end that winds down rather suddenly after a relatively intense buildup in the previous phrases. After drafting and subsequently scrapping an energetic alternative, I found myself wishing I could just continue the idea ad infinitum with the help of a volume control knob. After all, if the theme is catchy enough, why not keep it going?

 

      I think back to centuries prior, when it seemed that exciting pieces would end in exciting ways and calmer movements or smaller pieces would be content with modest endings. I'm sure there were several exceptions, but the legend of Haydn's Farewell Symphony persisting yet today to me implies that such a drastic departure from common practice energy-wise was quite significant.

 

     For those unaware of the story, Haydn was employed as Kapellmeister (music director) at the Esterházy estate, tasked with rehearsing the orchestra and composing several works, primarily for Prince Nikolaus. During the summer of 1772, Nikolaus had been enjoying his summer estate longer than usual, keeping his entire court with him, including the musicians. The orchestra had largely been away from their wives for the duration of the stay and were anxious to return, so they asked Haydn for help in swaying Prince Nikolaus. Instead of simply asking to return, Haydn produced the Farewell Symphony in F# minor (a highly unusual key for that time) and had it performed for Nikolaus. The unusual key and several strange formal choices were sure to signal that something wasn't quite right, and to drive the point home, some theatrics were included during the final movement. Beginning with a brisk Presto in the expected home key, the movement quickly derails into a whimsical tune that slowly fades away as several instruments finish playing and walk off the stage. Nikolaus clearly heard Haydn's message, as the court returned home from the summer estate on the following day.

 

     This ending was such an engaging and thoughtful surprise that the story surrounding it has survived over two hundred years. Nowadays, though, one could conceivably listen to a program of new music where pieces end as expected, in a total surprise, or at a very wrong time, intentionally or not. This of course begs the question, what does one expect from new music? If a piece ends as you feel it should while in the moment of listening, has it successfully communicated itself to you? If a different piece ends when you least expected it to, was it too busy? Were you paying attention? Did the energy level seem to be heading in the opposite direction? Or was the whole point that it ended unexpectedly?

 

     Maybe there's a definitive answer to these questions, and I'm sure it changes from person to person. After all, we all experience music from different perspectives. For me (and maybe it's a bit of a cop-out), but I feel it depends more on the music. If a piece is constantly trying to surprise me, I'm less likely to be surprised by an abrupt end. On the other hand, if a piece sounds sincere and suddenly veers off course at the very end, maybe that's an indication of a poor conclusion. In short, a piece should be true to itself til the very last note is played, whether that be the height of irreverence or a carefully constructed masterpiece. Unfortunately, I still haven't decided quite how to end this piece yet. We'll see what happens.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

BJH

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