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The relative infrequency of quiet endings in classical compositions

Rick Rogers Published: May 2, 2013

For the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season finale on May 11, the program will feature Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” an elegiac work that rises to a huge climax before fading away in hushed string tones. It’s one of just a  handful of orchestral works that have quiet endings.

With overtures, concertos and, especially, symphonies, most composers seem to go for a dramatic finish. They accomplish this in a variety of ways, from the steady, incessant crescendo (Ravel’s “Bolero”), majestic brass chorales (Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler”), the sustained final chord (Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) or with music’s equivalent of the exclamation point, the accented final chord (Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 7″).

But the repertoire also boasts its share of quiet endings, leaving the listener with a sense of repose, wonder, serenity or questioning. It’s not unlike watching an old Western in which the cowboys ride off into the sunset.

At first glance – perhaps listen would be the more appropriate term – many might assume hushed endings to be less effective when compared to the grandeur of a Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or the flourish of a Brahms “Symphony No. 2.” But good composers have an uncanny way of keeping a listener engaged, regardless of the dynamics they choose.

In “Appalachian Spring,” Copland achieved cohesion by ending the work as he began it, with the now-familiar open chords. Mendelssohn took a similar approach with his overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” its opening chord progression restated by the woodwinds in the final measures.

Some works seem destined to end quietly, among them, Howard Hanson’s “Fourth Symphony,” written as a requiem for his father; Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” with the fading sounds of its choral recessional; or “Neptune the Mystic” from Holst’s “The Planets,” whose score indicates that the final measure is to be repeated until “the sound is lost in the distance.”

Other marvelously effective conclusions include Brahms’ “Third Symphony,” which winds down to a final chord in the winds; Respighi’s “The Fountains of Rome” with its tolling of a distant bell; Shostakovich’s “Fifteenth Symphony,” whose use of triangle, woodblock, bells, snare drum, xylophone and tympani creates a curious effect; and Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake,” whose sound evaporates into the dense mists.

Like Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” where two roads diverged in a wood, composers are presumably sorry they cannot travel both paths as they write the final measures of a work. Yet, every now and then, listeners are undoubtedly glad composers “took the one less traveled,” thereby giving us a chance to admire their skill at handling music’s more subtle moments.