Happy Endings: 5 Pieces of Classical Music that Leave You Wanting More
“You know, Miss Ruth was a lady," begins the famous line from the period film Fried Green Tomatoes. "And a lady always knows when to leave.”
The same holds true with musical works. How a piece ends — how it leaves the room, so to speak — will linger in your mind and spirit long after all is said and done.
Here are some of my favorite musical farewells, exit lines and parting shots. Some go out in a proverbial blaze of glory; others are strong, silent types. But all of them leave you with that feeling that you’ve just experienced something amazing.
5. Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
I’ve said it on the air, and I stand by it: The final bars of Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony constitute one of the strangest endings — if not the strangest ending — in the entire orchestral repertoire.
But those bars also pack a punch. They’re bold and inspiring, and you can’t beat that in any currency. They concentrate all the power of the music.
The tune in question is heard for the first time at about minute 1:20 into the video below, which shows a very young Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the symphony’s final movement.
The tune sneaks in, in the lowest instruments of the orchestra and then passes to the horns. As the tune repeats, Sibelius surrounds it in a rich and glorious halo of orchestral sound up to a bold climax at around 3 minutes into the performance.
After veering away from this tune for a few minutes, the music returns to it at around 7:20. Then it’s as though Sibelius wants to give us this tune again, but keeps us waiting for it, delaying and delaying its arrival by taking us through a thicket of dissonant-sounding passages unfolding one after the next.
Leading us this way into a dark forest, Sibelius makes us want the clarity of his bold and soaring theme all the more.
But instead of giving us this tune again in its full glory, as Sibelius did a few minutes into the movement, he brings it back, at 9:38, each dry, punctuated note separated from the next by several moments of silence.
If there were a musical equivalent to the crisp, minimalist lines that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavian design, this ending would be its poster child.
4. Williams: The Lark Ascending
It’s a piece that depicts a lark floating freely, effortlessly on air currents, soaring ever higher into the clear, blue sky. Vaughan Williams’ music is — truly no pun intended — heavenly.
After giving us the bird in the form of the solo violin against the rhapsodic backdrop of the orchestra for most of the piece, Williams ends the piece with the bird alone. The solo violin rises and dips, then rises again, and again, until with its final note the bird ascends out of view.
The piece doesn’t end so much as it transfigures into the ethereal expanse that the music so gloriously depicted, and quietly, almost prayerfully, opens vistas for the soul.
3. Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
It’s one thing to be an astonishing virtuoso on your instrument. It’s another thing to compose music that sets that kind of standard for the other musicians who aspire to play it.
In his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Sergei Rachmaninoff puts the piano soloist and the orchestra through the kinds of devilish contortions that would have made Niccolò Paganini — who, according to legend, channeled his virtuosity from the underworld — grin like the Cheshire Cat.
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody unfolds in wave after wave of frenetic keyboard work and kaleidoscopic orchestration, then a luscious slow variation of shimmering romantic beauty, before an all-out virtuoso assault blazes rapid-fire to a screeching halt.
And after all that sound and fury, the piano and orchestra issue the final few notes sotto voce, like bubbles popping, vanishing into thin air. The piece was here one moment, gone the next.
This ending is brilliant and humorous in that dark, dry, Addams Family kind of way.
2. Strauss: Burleske
There’s a funny moment in an episode in season 2 of the hit TV series Monk. The title character is conducting an interview for a criminal investigation. A coffee maker sits nearby, with one pot of regular coffee and one pot of decaf.
Monk, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, sees that the level of the liquid in each pot is different and pours some of the coffee from the pot with the greater amount into the pot with less coffee.
Another character sees Monk pouring coffee from one pot into the other and calls him out for mixing regular coffee with decaf.
“But they’re even,” Monk responds, noting the liquid levels in both pots.
“But they’re mixed together,” the other character says.
“But they’re even.”
“But they’re mixed together.”
There’s a lengthy silence. Then Monk nabs the last word, “But they’re even,” and immediately changes the subject. Case closed.
This scene reminds me of the witty ending of Richard Strauss’ Burleske for piano and orchestra.
Throughout the piece, the solo piano and the timpani in the orchestra carry on a dialogue, constantly mimicking and responding to each other. Pitting these strange bedfellows together is an odd but brilliant bit of orchestration that only one of the world’s master orchestrators could have pulled off.
And the conceit makes for a witty surprise ending. In the measures immediately leading up to the end of the piece, after all manner of technical craziness, the piano and timpani unfold a lovely, lyrical duet. Then the piano skitters up the keyboard, and the timpani, like a bad little kid pinching a cookie from the cookie jar, grab the last word.
Here’s pianist Martha Argerich with the Berlin Philharmonic, and Claudio Abbado conducting:
1. Stravinsky: The Firebird
As the first of the composer’s three so-called “Russian” ballets, The Firebird was Igor Stravinsky’s big hello to the world. A spellbindingly dazzling score, The Firebird secured Stravinsky’s place in history as one of the world’s genius composers.
If the vigor with which The Firebird bounded onto the scene doesn’t impress you, maybe the way it says goodbye will. After countless sparkling moments for the orchestra, the ballet’s endgame begins quietly, with a simple-sounding tune in the French horn over a shimmering bed of strings.
Listen from 42:59 in this performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Pierre Boulez conducting:
There’s an enormous crescendo, the tempo picks up and, for the final couple of minutes, the brass top the orchestra in a fiery fanfare. This eventually leads to a series of intense chords that, by way of the tension created by their immense dissonance, propel the piece to its spectacular conclusion.
If there is an ending more exhilarating than this one, I’ve not heard it.
Maybe you’ve heard other happy endings to great classical music pieces. If so, please make us happy and share them with us!