Having never attended a composition class, I can only guess what is taught in one. I assume a lot of attention is given to the craft of composition; things like orchestration, handling various ensembles, the potential of percussion (if the preponderance of new works involving batteries of percussion is anything to go by) and non-percussion instruments. I also imagine that things like texture, structure and harmony get covered. Certainly most new works seem to show an understanding of instrumental (and vocal) techniques and most have some basic sense of a structure. True, contemporary ears, unlike Classical ears, are less willing to exert themselves to recognise complex aural structures, so most new works involve a structure which is either glaringly obvious (such as a superficial cyclical form in which the opening reappears just before the end) or associated with some extra-musical image which is more accessible to modern-day audiences (hence the current passion for film music, where audiences know what is going on because of their familiarity with the movie itself and so project the movie’s structure on to the music they hear). The one thing which does not seem to be taught to new composers is how to end their compositions.
The way a work ends is vital; something which Beethoven clearly recognised as, determined that his audience should not only know that the ending was upon them but also that what they had heard leading up to that point was of great stature and significance, he would hammer his final cadences home with so many repetitions and restatements of dominant/tonic chords that they verge on the farcical (surely nobody can take the closing of the 8th Symphony seriously?). Others – Wagner is a classic example – felt that a short, sharp and decisive cadence is the perfect summation for expansive musical arguments - for me, Charles Villiers Stanford was the master of the decisive Perfect Cadence - while no composer in history was so adept at finding exactly the right way to end his music, providing both summation and peroration, than J S Bach.
Yet, as the 20th century progressed and composers began to place more of an emphasis on the detail within their music, endings fell by the wayside. While in 1879 Widor reserved all his inspiration for the final cadence of his famous Toccata, creating a closing passage so exciting as almost to demand rapturous applause (and nicely expunging the acres of sterile invention which has gone before), 70 years later György Mushel did things entirely the other way round, his Toccata full of stimulating ideas until the very end when, in effect, it simply peters out. (Noel Rawsthorne, who introduced the work to the British public, once recorded it with a spectacular finish full of gushing octaves and glissandi. When I asked him about it, he confessed that he felt the original ending was so weak he decided to improvise a brief but effective postscript to it.)
The cause may well be the tendency for composers now to work to set time limits. I remember Alun Hoddinott telling me about his Sarum Fanfare. He had been commissioned to write the piece and approached it with so little enthusiasm that, as the deadline approached, he had only written half of what was wanted. He then hit on the brilliant idea of simply making up the shortfall by reversing what he had written and tacking it on to the end; creating one of the few musical palindromes. Unfortunately the student he charged with writing it out for publication never thought to transfer the accidentals, so much of the second half includes weird harmonic effects which do not work and, more particularly, an ending which, to be kind to my late professor, redefines the dismal in music.
A particular habit composers have when writing new organ music is simply to stop the piece when the time (or invention) runs out and throw down a hulking great chord. And it is this which got me thinking about the silly endings composers now seem happy to adopt. Attending a very fine recital last night in St Salvator’s Chapel, St Andrews, the organist, Thomas Wilkinson, performed what he told us was the third performance of James MacMillan’s St Andrews Suite. MacMillan is unquestionably one of the most talented new composers on the scene right now, and few would question his ability to write very fine, thought-provoking and intelligent music. The St Andrews Suite is all those things and a lot more besides, but there was more than a hint that the work, commissioned to mark the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of St Andrews, had been produced under rather tight time constraints. The title itself seemed unimaginative (if apt), but the three movements, each very distinctive, were simply listed as I, II and III (which helps nobody at all). The first movement was a scintillating Toccata, the second a somewhat complex Trio (Wilkinson eliciting intakes of admiring breath from the people behind me as his fingers and feet twinkled delicately over the independent strands of musical agility) and the third a kind of jig based on a jaunty little jazz-like theme. This third movement started to head towards the character of the opening Toccata, and I thought that here we had a classic case of a cyclical structure, creating a nice, neat musical circle. However, just as we got into the apparent peroration, Wilkinson stopped and pulled out a fistful of stops (for all its charms, the St Salvator’s organ has such noisy stop action that every registration change sounds as if a broom has fallen over in an adjacent cupboard). He then sat on a big, unrelated chord and I wondered what was going to come next. The answer was…nothing. That was the end. And very disappointing it was, too, somewhat diluting the impact of what had, up to that point been a very satisfying piece.
For me, the most irritating habit young pianists have when playing Bach is to end with a significant diminuendo. When I was a boy, I used to be criticised for adding stops and (occasionally) opening the swell pedal as a Bach Fugue reached its culmination (I still love the occasional admonition in the old Novello edition of Bach Fugues to “add solo tuba” near the end); it seemed natural to me that with all those voices coming in and the texture thickening with every bar, the volume should likewise broaden out. The current fashion is to fade away, ending great works of contrapuntal complexity with a whimper rather than a shout. The blame probably lies with generations of record producers who, faced with young writers who have written a good song but have no idea what to do with it, have made the fade the almost obligatory ending to pop music.
In its place, however, the fade can be very effective. Holst ended his Planets Suite with one of the most inspired fades of all, getting a wordless chorus to fade off into the distance as if disappearing behind the outer reaches of the universe. Of course, in practice this does not always work. I remember the first time we did this with the Malaysian Philharmonic (under James Judd) the decision was to keep the chorus off stage and, to create the fade, put them into the off-stage elevator and close the doors. Only in the dress rehearsal did the folly of this idea reveal itself. The only way to close the doors was to press the button to move the lift up to the next level. Someone duly did this and as we heard the choir fade away into a highly-effective near-silence, Judd smiled with satisfaction, only to have the grin wiped from his face as the lift reached the next level, the doors opened and the chorus emerged still singing. There’s also a famous Albert Hall story about the chorus leading off from the high balcony and disappearing behind the organ. The person in front found a set of double doors and, assuming they led out into the back stage area, pushed through them with her fellow chanteuses behind, only to discover she had led the choir out on to the other side of the organ and back into the auditorium.
Another work in last night’s concert tried a similar trick. Again this was an outstanding piece of new music by a Scottish composer. Edward McGuire has, apparently, written a four-movement piece for various combinations of brass instruments celebrating Outer Space and the Universe, and Bede Williams and his wife, Vicky Williams, gave us the third movement, Orbit, scored for two trumpets. It was a highly-effective piece and played with such clarity and commitment as they did, it had a powerful impact. There were touches of the theatre about it which were highly effective without diminishing the musical impact, the final involving Bede walking off stage like some automaton drawn by its trumpet into the infinite darkness pursued by his wife (a kind of modern-day, sex-reversal Orpheus and Eurydice). The idea, presumably, was that they should keep going until the sound disappeared but, unfortunately, the chapel geography did not allow this, so they hid behind a pulpit and, with remarkable technical skill, reduced their sound to nothing. It inspired a few chuckles from the audience - which we must assume was not McGuire’s intention - and I have to confess it did seem a bit silly.
I am deeply impressed by the quality of new music coming from Scottish composers, and this concert showed two of the very best. I just wish they could find a better way to end their inspired creations.