The Finale Problem

I recently published a demo recording, produced — against all odds — during the past two months. It’s a piece I composed over a year ago, but you know how it goes with these things: first you have to write the piece, then the players have to practice, then there’s the premiere, then there’s the recording, then the editing / mixing / mastering, and finally you’ve got yourself a recording. Add several months for a pandemic.

A friend I was texting with kindly said that the last movement was his favorite of the three. I thanked him and told him that upon reflection, I felt that that movement was my best solution yet to the Finale Problem.

I’m not talking about Finale the music notation software from MakeMusic, which indeed has a LOT of problems (I’m still eagerly awaiting Tantacrul to drag them.)

So what is the Finale Problem? It’s this: how does one craft a final movement of a multi-movement work that is both satisfying unto itself and conclusive of the entire work?

Here are some options:

  1. Write a short, flitting, breezy last movement that leaves your audience delighted! This is what composers did before anyone realized finales could even be problematic.
  2. Try to bring it all together. As far as I know, Beethoven started this trend, and thus the problem was born. The fifth symphony finale references back to the third movement; the ninth famously brings back strains from all three previous movements. Musical theater composers are big into this for their Act I finales (see: Into the Woods and Les Mis)
  3. Write a grand, sprawling movement that counterbalances everything that came before it. It may or may not reference earlier musical ideas. This was Mahler’s gambit.

My overall approach to finales tends toward the “short & sweet” camp. I think that a large-scale work should accelerate to it’s conclusion — it keeps the whole thing propulsive.

I’m also in the camp that in order to sound like the conclusion of the whole piece, you really want to give a nod to what came before. But a little of this goes a long way. In a grand symphony you can have many themes wend their way in and out of movements (I love this Franckian “cyclical” approach), but in this quintet — clocking in at just 16 minutes — I limited myself to a recapitulation of the first movement’s second theme.

I think it works quite nicely; it breaks up the predominant mood of the movement and recalls what happened before; it’s both unexpected and familiar. But I don’t think that if the movement were played on its own this reminiscence would sound “wrong”. Can’t ask much more from a solution to the Finale Problem than that!