The End

Copyright © Fred Flaxman, 1997

The idea for this article came from the very last note of Mahler's "Das Klagende Lied" (Song of Lament). The music just before this note is very soft, meditative, almost hypnotizing. I was starting to really relax after the tenseness, turbulence and raw power of much of the rest of the composition. And then, all of a sudden, it came -- a final, very loud, short, brassy, jolting bang of a chord. It's enough to let Mahler know every time his piece is played. Doesn't matter that he died in 1911.

The recording I was listening to was with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, and the SFS Chorus, directed by Vance George (RCA Victor 09026-68599-2). It is an extraordinarily highly-spirited, superb performance of a most unusual work -- a true "compact discovery."

Mind you, I'm not for a moment claiming that this is one of Mahler's best pieces. I'm not saying it's a must for every collection. I find it too repetitious and disconnected -- particularly the 30-minute-long first movement. But it does have all the great characteristics of Mahler: the opulent orchestration, the soaring lyricism, the tortured seriousness -- all the signs that say this piece couldn't be by anyone else. And yet it was begun when Mahler was only 17.

So what? So this. Did Beethoven sound like Beethoven when he was 17? Not on your life. He sounded like Haydn. Did Schubert's chamber music sound like Schubert when he was 17? No way! He sounded like, well, Haydn. Did Mendelssohn sound like Mendelssohn when he was a teenager? What do you think? I think he sounded like...

Even the greatest composers didn't discover their trademark styles until they were more mature than 17! This realization gives me, at least, new appreciation for the greatness of Mahler. But it doesn't explain how this work inspired a column called "The End."

Here's how. The ending of "Das Klagende Lied" is so unexpected, and yet, so right, it made me start thinking about how classical music pieces, and movements from pieces, conclude. When you think about it, most of them are so unoriginal!

The British composer, Malcolm Arnold, made fun of these typical endings in his hilarious musical spoof called "The Grand, Grand Overture." It concludes with a ridiculously prolonged coda, taking the usual classical ending and going on and on with it for what seems like a good part of the seven-minute piece.

This work, written originally for the first of the annual humor-filled Hoffnung Festivals of London's South Bank, is scored for full symphony orchestra and organ plus three vacuum cleaners, a floor-polisher and four rifles, which, "at the climax of the piece viciously silence their heavy-breathing rivals." This, according to the program notes by Piers Burton-Page which accompany the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's recording on Conifer Classics (75605 51240 2), conducted by Vernon Handley. These notes, however, fail to let us know who plays first vacuum, first rifle, or solo floor-polisher, for that matter. They do mention, though, that "the main theme of the Overture is itself gloriously memorable, one of Arnold's most inspired tunes ever." I second that.

Surely there are other original endings to classical music compositions, I thought, but it was hard for me to think of any. So I consulted my international panel of experts, otherwise known as the Moderated Classical Music List on the Internet.

Andrey Boreyko from Poland suggested a piece by Alfred Schnittke called "Moz-Art à la Haydn (Game with Music for Two Violins, Two Small String Orchestras, Double Bass and Conductor)." He wrote that it is a "kind of instrumental theatre, because musicians are playing and changing their positions" as they play. "Quite difficult to describe," Andrey admitted. "Better to watch." (In addition to the music and the action, there are lighting effects as well.)

At the end of the piece all the musicians leave the stage, playing at the same time, and the conductor continues to conduct until the last sound disappears, and then, he still continues to conduct for about 15-20 seconds of full silence. Andrey says the effect is most unusual and makes a big impression: "We are left with a feeling that the music is still there, with us, but already in a different dimension, unhearable."

Simon Corley from France, with typical Cartesian logic, pointed out that there are really two types of endings. "You've got what I'd call "real" ends," he wrote, "those which correspond to a full stop, a period, in punctuation. This type of ending is often associated with a dramatic event or even death, as in Mahler's 6th Symphony, with the terrible guillotine heavily underlined by an implacable rhythm and a vanishing diminuendo." He also cites Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" -- "the vanishing flute trill followed by the whole orchestra shrieking in a very brief chord."

Simon continues: "But there's a second sort of ending, which is perhaps even more interesting: it would correspond to the ellipsis (...) in punctuation. I think this might not be called a 'real' end, because it opens rather than closes something." One of several examples Simon gives is the ending of Dvorak's 9th Symphony ("From the New World"): "The last chord is beautifully scored, only the woodwinds and brass remaining with a diminuendo after the whole orchestra played the chord."

Other List members came up with more "nominations" than I can possibly include here. I have only enough room to mention a few:

* Scott Morrison wrote: "Speaking of guillotines there is the real (stage) guillotine in the final scene of Poulenc's 'Dialogue des Carmélites' which takes off the head of the heroine after all her Carmélite sisters have preceded her, the choral voices decreasing one by one. And then all is silence on stage, and usually in the audience as well --although sometimes one can hear a gasp or two, and a sniffle or two as well."

* Ives' "2nd Symphony." Charles Dalmas wrote that at the end of the last movement, the trombones stand and play "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," and then the piece ends on a giant tone cluster. "That's got to be up there with the great endings."

* Sibelius' "5th Symphony," the ending of the first movement. As Andrew Hammel wrote, "with those heroic string arpeggios and the brass surging, ebbing, and surging again, (this ending) never fails to thrill."

* Hammel also nominated Debussy's "La Cathédrale Engloutie," a piece which, he wrote, "ends the same way it begins, to great effect."

* J.S. Bach's "Magnificat in D" was selected by Walter Meyer also because the end recaps the opening, "evoking nostalgia for what happened only a little over 20 minutes before!" This is all put to the words "Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper" (As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be).

* Walter also admires the last portion, "Agnus Dei," of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," the martial strains accompanying the "Agnus dei, qui tollis pecata mundi" alternating with the soothing melodies of the "Dona nobis pacem" and the repeated "pacem, pacem." Walter calls this ending his "candidate for some of the most sublime music ever written."

* Rachmaninov's "Variations on a Theme by Paganini" for piano and orchestra was mentioned by several List members. As Ruben Stam from the Netherlands put it: "You expect a grand orchestral free-for-all as in the second and third concertos, but Sergei impishly concludes with a subdued re-statement of the last bar of the original theme." And the piece is over before you realize it.

* Julia Werthimer nominated the ending of Verdi's "Falstaff": the brilliant, unexpected fugue 'Tutto nel mondo e burla.' "It is bold and free and completely different from anything else Verdi ever wrote," she wrote. "Moreover, it must hold a special place in the canon -- how many comic fugues are there? And there is something very touching about the aged composer bidding farewell to his operatic career by saying 'Life is a joke.'"

* And finally, Schubert"s "Unfinished" Symphony. The reason, according to Denis Fodor: despite the sobriquet, it does end.

And now, as far as "Compact Discoveries" is concerned, this is The End. Finished. Period. That's All Folks! Au revoir.

The Internet may not be a superhighway, but it can be a two-way street! Please take a moment to send your e-mail reaction to this piece to the author at


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