Saturday, November 04, 2017

The "chills and fever" endings of post-romantic symphonies and piano concerti

I discovered the effectiveness of the “chills and fever” ending of a large romantic work probably when I was around 14 years old. 

The first work that I came to associate with that effect was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor, Op. 18, actually barely into the 20th Century as completed in 1901. The famous tune from Frank Sinatra’s “Full Moon and Empty Arms”, originally introduced in the relative E-flat Major as a second theme of a rondo, announces the climax of the work with a Picardy C Major chord as the theme is recapitulated at the end. The work would end with Rachmaninoff’s signature 4-note motif.

I heard the work on a car radio the other day during a day trip and it brings back memories.
However, the idea of ending a cyclical work in a minor key with a parallel major incarnation of a second theme had occurred much earlier.  Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor had done it in 1868, and Tchaikovsky had done the same with the Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat minor in 1875.
In fact, Felix Mendelssohn had done this with the Symphony #3 in A Minor, the “Scotch” was completed as early as 1842.

I wore some records out by playing the conclusions of these favorite works on an old record player with a sapphire needle back in the 1950s. When I got a VM stereo, the piano tone in the inner grooves would be severely distorted.

It had been common for composers to end works minor-key works in major keys before.  But in Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, and in Brahms’s First Symphony the entire finale (except for a slow introduction) is in the Picardy major key.   Brahms had an opportunity to do this with his first Piano Concerto, but the concept of the conclusion has never been that convincing for me.
And the end of the Bach B Minor Mass is quite thrilling, but it is in the relative D Major, not the Picardy B.

Eugen d’Albert’s Piano Concerto #1 in B Minor, covered on this blog before, was completed in 1884 and probably largely composed at ages 18 and 19. It would seem to be one of the most brilliantly conceived large compositions by any teenager since Mozart.  Patterned after the Liszt B Minor Sonata (but adding techniques from large and mature Chopin works like the Op. 61), it tacks on a huge fugal (and almost dodecaphonic) cadenza and brilliant B Major “big tune” coda with may have been known to Rachmaninoff and even Scriabin, who uses a similar concept to build the final climax of his “Divine Poem”.  This is one of those works that is rarely performed and obscure but sounds so familiar even at first hearing. 

Anton Bruckner might be considered the master of thrilling endings, but most of them are based on an opening or primary theme, not the secondary.   There is controversy, covered before, over whether he intended to end the Ninth with a “Hallejuh” theme from the Scherzo, or really intended to superimpose the descending figure from the Beethoven Ninth and the rising theme from his Seventh onto the coda.

Mahler’s Second Symphony actually ends on a relative E-Flat Major, and the Third does end in the Picardy D Major.  Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder starts in E-Flat by ends in a triumphant C Major.

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