Four Musical Ways to Say Goodbye

goodbyeEarlier in the month, we listened to the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a song cycle about death, renewal, and immortality. Written in the final years of Mahler’s life, Das Lied von der Erde, along with the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1909), were Mahler’s swan songs. (He completed one movement of a Tenth Symphony before his death in 1911). Both completed works leave us with a sense of finality, not with the joyful, celebratory exuberance of Beethoven’s Ninth, but instead quietly fading into a sea of eternal peace. There’s something unsettling, even terrifying about the ending of both, but at the same time there is a sense of liberation in letting go.

We’ll explore Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in a future Listeners’ Club post. But for now, here are four other pieces which say “goodbye” in their own unique ways:

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony

Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is one of music history’s most famous and dramatic “goodbye’s.” It’s music that seems to give up in anguished resignation. Following the exhilaration of the third movement (which ends with such a bang that audiences often can’t help but applaud), the fourth and final movement immediately plunges us into the depths of despair. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere nine days before his death. Some listeners have been tempted to view this symphony as the composer’s suicide note. No historical evidence exists to back up such a romanticized reading. Besides, truly great music is never biographical. It always transcends the literal.

Each movement of the Sixth Symphony features a descending scale. In the final movement’s second theme, this descending motive takes on new prominence. We hear it in the last bars, which are marked, morendo (“dying away”). In the ultimate descent, the instruments of the string section gradually drop out until only the lowest voices are left. When I play this music in the second violin section, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of the music going underwater and remaining unresolved, as the scale line (B, B, A, G, F-sharp) makes it to G, the lowest note on the violin, but can’t go further.

Here is the final movement performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic:

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major, completed in 1895 while Dvořák was in New York, is a musical elegy. It’s music which wistfully revisits distant memories, pays respect, and then rises into blazing triumph.

Shortly after completing the cello concerto, Dvořák learned that his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, had passed away. 30 years earlier he had been in love with Josefina. She had not returned the feelings, and Dvořák ultimately married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna. In the second movement, Dvořák quoted one of his earlier songs, Kez duch muj san”(“Leave me alone”), which had been a favorite of Josefina. (Listen to that beautiful melody here). The third movement, peppered with fiery Czech folk rhythms, appears to be propelling towards a conventional conclusion, when suddenly in the movement’s coda, all of the forward drive dissipates and we find ourselves in a moment of tender introspection (beginning at 35:39 in the clip below). When the soloist, Hanuš Wihan, attempted to add a cadenza in the third movement’s coda, Dvořák would not permit it, writing,

I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.

He went on to offer the following description:

The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . .then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it.

Here is a 1964 recording with Leonard Rose and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy:

Strauss’ Metamorphosen

Richard Strauss’ ultimate musical “goodbye” was the Four Last Songswritten in 1948, a year before his death. But a few years earlier, in 1945, Strauss’ Metamorphosen became a farewell to the pre-war world he had known, and perhaps even the long arc of Romanticism which had begun with Beethoven. The work for string orchestra was begun the day after allied bombing destroyed the Vienna Opera House. It quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, although Strauss claimed that the reference only became apparent to him after the score’s completion. Two verses from Goethe’s poem, Widmung (“Dedication”) also served as inspiration.

Strauss initially attempted to placate the Nazis, partly in an attempt to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He believed he could survive this regime, as he had others before it. A few days after completing Metamorphosen, he wrote,

The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.

Here is a 1973 Staatskapelle Dresden recording, conducted by Rudolf Kempe:

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 two years before the composer’s death, says “goodbye” in a strikingly different way than Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. Amid rapidly failing health and poverty, Bartók wrote this monumental work as a commission for conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.

The final movement soars with exuberance, celebrating the full virtuosic possibilities of the orchestra. Eastern European folk rhythms dance alongside a fugue, one of the most sophisticated musical structures. It’s hard to imagine any music more full of life. The last chord lets out one final, joyful yelp as it reaches for the stars.

Here is the fifth movement of Concerto for Orchestra, from a recording by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

  • Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor,Pathétique” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Strauss’ Metamorphosen at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.

Schubert’s “Great” Ninth Symphony

schubertChairSymphony No. 9…Throughout music history, this title has occupied a mythic place in the collective imagination. The symphonic output of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák, and Mahler culminated with a ninth symphony. In one way or another, all of these works, written in the final years of their composers’ lives, move beyond the ordinary into strange, mysterious and transcendent territory. They stand as awe-inspiring musical revelations.

To be fair, some of these composers wrote slightly more or less than nine symphonies. Anton Bruckner died without completing the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Yet, as the final, soft chords of its “Farewell to Life” Adagio fade away, the symphony feels strangely complete. When Franz Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31, he left behind a piano score for what would have become his Tenth Symphony. Sketched during the final weeks of Schubert’s life, the score wasn’t authenticated until the 1970s. Brian Newbould attempted to complete and orchestrate the symphony (listen here). Gustav Mahler completed the first, haunting Adagio movement of a Tenth Symphony before he died in 1911.

Arnold Schoenberg captured the mythic aura of the “ninth symphony” in this excerpt from an essay about Mahler:

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Which brings us back to Schubert’s Ninth…Sketched during the summer of 1825, a year after the completion of Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C major Symphony was a radical departure from the small-scale elegant charm of Schubert’s earlier classical symphonies. The nickname, “The Great” was intended to differentiate the work from the “Little” Symphony No. 6 in C major. Schubert’s Ninth rose to the new, heroic scale of Beethoven’s symphonies. But while Beethoven’s music developed in bursts of short motivic cells, Schubert, the composer of over 600 songs, tended to perceive music melodically.

Perhaps due to its length and the technical demands it placed on musicians, the Ninth Symphony was neglected in the immediate years after Schubert’s death. It wasn’t until 1838, ten years after the composer’s death, that Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted a performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on March 21, 1839. Schubert’s Ninth Symphony would serve as a profound inspiration for Schumann’s own symphonic aspirations.

A Brief Listeners’ Guide

The first movement opens with an expansive introduction which contains a miniature exposition, development and recapitulation, suggesting Sonata form within the movement’s larger Sonata form structure. The opening theme, which returns triumphantly in the culminating bars of the coda, first emerges as a solitary line played by the horns. As the music develops, allow your ear to drift down to the pizzicato pulse in the low strings. Feel the motion. Stay tuned to the increasing complexity of this sparkling underlying rhythmic motor and the occasional “three against two” rhythms.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is full of musical conversations between groups, or “choirs” of instruments. Listen to the way the theme is passed around the orchestra between 0:56 and 3:32 in the clip below. Consider the personas suggested by each group of instruments. The trombones, long associated with the supernatural, rise to a new level of prominence in this symphony. Up until this point, trombones had usually remained in the background, outlining chords. In the Ninth Symphony, for the first time, the three trombones function melodically, adding a powerful and heroic new voice to the mix (6:24, 8:10 and 11:45 in the recapitulation).

Key relationships are also important in this music. In Schubert’s case these often involve modulations built on thirds. Listen for those incredible moments when we’re suddenly whisked off to a surprising new key (the exposition’s second theme at the 5:14 mark, the beginning of the development section at 5:15 and the passage between 10:38 and 10:47).

Here is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden:

  1. Andante. Allegretto ma non troppo, Più moto (0:00)
  2. Andante con moto (14:42)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro vivace -Trio (30:36)
  4. Allegro vivace (41:33)

The second movement begins with a jaunty melody which alternates between A minor and C major. But just beneath the surface, an interesting drama is about to unfold. The music suggests a subtle sense of impending conflict and danger. At 16:19 we hit a “brick wall” and the music falls back into line. This musical stop sign occurs throughout the movement and each time the music retreats…until it doesn’t. The intense conflict comes to a head at the movement’s climax (23:48), where we’re suddenly thrust over the edge into new, ferocious territory. At this moment, we hear sounds which would have been unimaginable in an elegant classical symphony. When it’s over there’s a terrifying moment of silence…and then the music resumes. As you listen to the conclusion of the second movement, consider whether this ominous sense of conflict has been resolved, or if it has simply subsided to return another day.

The final movement opens with flourishes which may bring to mind the trumpet calls of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Keep listening and you may hear echoes of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…a fitting spiritual connection for two earth shatteringly powerful ninth symphonies.

Featured Recordings

Here are a few prominent recordings of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Please share your thoughts about the music and your own favorite recordings in the comment thread below.