I once did, and doubtless will do again, a program on the many ways composers end their pieces, contrasting big finishes with other kinds. Such a program will necessarily include bombastic endings to Beethoven’s Fifth and Rossini’s William Tell Overture along with the great icebergs of sound at the end of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony and the timpani-stick-breaking conclusion to the Shostakovich Fifth.
This week I thought I’d focus on symphonic finales that are impressive from beginning to end, not just crashing codas but well-imagined entire final movements. This slight redefining of the mission led to different choices of which works to play.
Sibelius and Shostakovich are represented, but different symphonies. I chose a Brahms finale that ends quietly. Beethoven, whose Fifth Symphony sounds to modern ears like a parody of a big finish, isn’t represented at all. But other favorites of the repertory do appear. Let’s discuss them in the order they were composed, though that is not the order in which I will present them.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No. 88, 1787
What a masterpiece in miniature this is! Haydn makes so much music in a little over three minutes. You call this finale ebullient, even chipper. The 88th is one of Haydn’s best-loved symphonies despite no nickname and no connection to the late Paris and London tours.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): “Jupiter” Symphony, 1788.
A mere year later the thirtysomething Mozart excelled his teacher, friend and father figure Papa Haydn with his last and greatest symphonic finale, The “Jupiter” nickname was applied by others. Like the Haydn piece but in Mozart’s own way, a triumph of fugato counterpoint.
Robert Schumann (1810-1836): “Rhenish” Symphony, 1850.
Unconscionably skipping past Beethoven and Schubert, we come to Schumann’s alleged Third Symphony, actually the last in order of composition, a five-movement work so effective I’m surprised the four-movement symphonic format survived it. Because the fourth movement is so gothic the finale is often described as like walking out of a dark cathedral into a sunny day. Hearing it alone you discover it needs no shadowy set-up to shine.
Pytr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): “Little Russian” Symphony, 1872.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are so good that many classical music lovers are insufficiently acquainted with the first three. They’re all good. The Second is a personal favorite. “Little Russian” means “Ukrainian” and some themes come from folk tunes. But what makes this good is Tchaikovsky, happy. The finale contains both his penchant for atomizing themes and something found rarely in his works: syncopation.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Symphony No. 3, 1883.
My favorite Brahms Symphony defies convention. Its finale starts dramatically, quiets down for what seems like a peaceful interlude before a return of the bombast, and never returns to the bombast at all. It ends in a comfortable chair gazing out at a lovely day. Novelists talk about their characters taking over their books; Maybe this music made Brahms relax.
Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921): “Organ Symphony,” 1886.
Saint-Saens is so often represented by his Symphony No. 3, “Organ,” the adventurous explorers of the classical universe are often surprised to learn how good his other symphonies are. But the “Organ” Symphony certainly has its points, including a piano part that is actually bigger than the organ part, a clever architecture that links the four movements into two halves, and a melody that provides its own linkage by appearing in the minor at the start, and in the major at the end. But I had you at “Organ.”
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904): Symphony No. 8, 1890.
Brahms mentored Dvorak, found him a publisher, corrected his proofs. They enjoyed that congenial friendship that comes when two artists are similar enough to get along but different enough not to be rivals. Dvorak’s nine symphonies are all decent but, like Tchaikovsky, his reputation rests mainly on the last three. The Czech fervor in Dvorak’s happiest music is abundantly present in his penultimate finale.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Symphony No. 3, 1907.
The famous big finishes of this Finnish composer are the Second and Fifth, and especially the Fifth, with huge blocks of sound separated by echo-space. But the greatest Sibelius finale, for me, is the Third, which minimally develops an ostinato until everything comes to a halt with a Mi-Re-Do descent into a simple triadic chord with the brass turned up to 11. I fully appreciated it after hearing Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony do it. So will you.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 1, 1925.
Shostakovich produced more than a dozen symphonies. I am a fan of the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and parts of others, but, and it almost hurts to say it because it seems to disrespect his mature works, my favorite is the First, his conservatory graduation piece. Later works were sprawling, sometimes stretching out too far. The First packs many excellent features into a reasonable space, a marvel of concision. The ear can parse the movements several ways, but I choose to apply the term finale to the part of the last movement that begins with a timpani motto.
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963): Symphony “Mathis der Maler,” 1934.
Hindemith wrote an opera on the theme “Mathis der Maler,” about an artist, an actual historical figure, who tries to be apolitical but finds he cannot be silent. The symphony of the same name is not music drawn from the opera, it was written first, conceived as a three-movement symphony, then the music was adapted in the opposite direction. Hindemith was a master of counterpoint and of orchestration, and this was one of his finest works.
Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No. 5, 1944.
The composer of “Peter and the Wolf” wrote seven numbered symphonies plus an excellent Sinfonietta, and some of them, including the Sixth and Seventh, are woefully underappreciated. But the general feeling that the Fifth is the best is probably true, and the finale is excellent. Listen especially for the coda, when the melody drops out entirely, allowing you to savor the busy underlying action before he wraps things up.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Third Symphony, 1946.
Copland wrote several symphonies that weren’t regular symphonies. The Symphony No. 1 was really the “Organ Symphony,” a three-movement concerto, with the organ taken out. The Short Symphony, numbered second, was a symphonic orchestration of a chamber work. The Dance Symphony, drawn from a ballet that was never staged, doesn’t even count as one of his numbered symphonies. Only the Third Symphony was written to be what it was, a full-length symphony in four movements. They even mostly follow the standard format, mostly. There is one interesting architectural feature: the finale starts with a quiet version of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” sometimes called a pre-echo because it leads to be a big rendition that sounds more like the original version. The rest is very big, very stately, very American.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Symphony No. 8, 1956.
The composer of “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” and “The Lark Ascending” is beloved for his pastoral music, and for his Renaissance harmonies, so late in life when he wrote a couple of concise, percussion-filled symphonies, his audiences applauded only politely. Yet his Eighth and Ninth Symphonies are excellent, and even the noisy parts still sound like the composer. This is Vaughan Williams with bells on.
Philip Glass (1937- ): Symphony No. 3 for strings, 1995.
The famous Minimalist has been writing symphonies and concertos in his mature years, though the Minimalist feeling in his early works is still present. The finale of his Third Symphony is as brief as the Haydn finale mentioned above, but packs a lot of energy. It sounds a lot like the toccata in Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony but makes the same effect better and more briefly.
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