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Classical Music

HPM Top Ten List: Great Symphonic Finales

To celebrate the end of the year, a list of great classical music endings!

HPM Top Ten List: Great Symphonic Finales

2014 is almost over, but sometimes endings aren’t so bad! To celebrate the end of the year, here is a list of some great endings in classical music!


10. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter” – IV. Molto allegro

As the great prodigy’s final symphony, this one naturally gets plenty of airtime, and the finale is perhaps the most ambitious of Mozart’s symphonic works. It is best known for the intricate five-part fugato section at the end, where the composer has five different thematic ideas working in conjunction with each other through multiple voices in the orchestra. It is a remarkable moment in the repertoire, and is perhaps the peak of Mozart’s orchestral writing. 

9. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral” – IV. Presto; Allegro molto assai (Alla marcia); Andante maestoso; Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato

This finale is essential for this list not only because of its outstanding size and quality, but also for its frequent association with the holiday season. The “Ode to Joy” theme is sometimes appropriated for Christmas events, and the overall piece is particularly popular in Japan for New Year’s celebrations. Like Mozart’s final symphony, this is an ambitious, monumental work in Beethoven’s oeuvre, and is one of the first symphonies to feature chorus with the orchestra. The text is taken from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which celebrates brotherhood and the joy of mankind’s place in the world.

Autograph of Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy (1785).
Autograph of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy (1785). Public Domain.

8. Modest Mussorgsky; orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition – The Great Gate of Kiev

Though Mussorgsky’s original piano masterpiece is no small achievement, the more popular orchestration by Maurice Ravel has an immense power to it that the solo piano version falls short on, simply due to its technical limitations. Regardless of the instrumentation, the music is still Mussorgsky’s, and he created a spectacular ending to an eclectic and colorful piece of music. This movement also features the Promenade theme that is so prevalent throughout the Exhibition itself, serving as a nice bookend to the piece as a whole. 

7. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – V. Im Tempo des Scherzos

As the longest entry in the list, one would expect that this delivers a colossal ending. Mahler does not disappoint. Like Beethoven, he unified the forces of the orchestra and the chorus in a grand celebration of life. The text, partially written by Mahler himself, speaks of the symphony’s overarching topic, resurrection, powerfully evoked through the composer’s characteristically massive orchestration and predilection for grandeur. 

6. Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome – IV. Pines of the Appian Way

This piece is part of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy, celebrating various aspects of Roman history and culture. Each movement of the Pines of Rome is inspired by locations of pine trees in the city, and depicts these locations at different times of day. This final movement actually recalls the past, as the Appian Way was an important roadway during the era of the Roman Empire. Fittingly, Respighi depicts a long march down the road at dawn, and the piece steadily builds from almost nothing into a triumphant climax.  

5. Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major, Op. 30, “Romantic” – III. Allegro con brio; Molto meno messo; Piu mosso; Animato; Largamente

This was among many pieces commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the group’s 50th anniversary in 1930. Other such works were Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Hanson’s symphony is a cyclic work, meaning there are familiar themes that recur throughout the piece, all of which converge in the sprightly final movement. This lush and vibrant piece is a superb example of the American musical idiom in the early twentieth century.  

4. Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 – IV. Allegro non troppo

Under pressure by the Soviet government, Shostakovich was coerced into adapting his musical style to suit the needs of Stalin’s regime in the late 1930s. The outcome of this was his widely appreciated Symphony No. 5, which was seen as a celebration of the Communist Party and its great achievements. There is some discussion, however, on whether or not Shostakovich might have actually been sneering at them with this music. Indeed, this final movement is certainly celebratory in nature, but it does seem slightly overindulgent, as if the composer might have intentionally written an over-the-top, prideful ending to mock the party without them knowing. Regardless, it is an impressive finale that features Shostakovich’s characteristic intensity.

3. Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem – III. Requiem aeternam

This is certainly the outlier amongst the group, as this is an incredibly subdued and understated ending. Life is not always full of fanfare and triumph, and the tranquil, but occasionally unsettling nature of this movement seems to be an appropriate representation of that, as well as its title meaning “eternal rest” in Latin. This was Britten’s response to the beginning of World War II. 2014 has had its great moments, but no year goes by without tragedy. Perhaps this piece can be a reminder to go into the new year with the misfortunes of the previous year in mind, so that we might remedy our shortcomings.

2. Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra – V. Finale. Presto

The Concerto for Orchestra itself is one of Bartok’s most famous works, and it features many of the distinct qualities that he developed over his career, such as the “night music” idiom, unconventional modes and scales, and folk-inspired melodies. The movements are all so different from one another, and the piece as a whole is an intriguing character study of Bartók’s musical output. This frenetic romp of a finale recalls the rhythmic activity from older pieces like Romanian Folk Dances or the scherzos from his various string quartets. 

1. Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3 – IV. Molto deliberato (Fanfare); Allegro risoluto

The primary melody of this music is likely familiar to most people, as it is Copland’s own Fanfare for the Common Man. This version, however, is much more complex than the original, featuring significant development of the material throughout. Still, it remains an impressive and heroic work heavily steeped in Copland’s familiar “Americana” style, and due to its inception just after the end of WWII, it is often seen as a symphony of victory for the American people.

Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on Houston Public Media Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews...

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