Calling It a Day

The determination that a given piece of music is “finished” resides in the eye of the beholder, and it’s interesting to consider the varying levels of “doneness” deemed acceptable by composers of the past and present. While many composers (Bach and Mozart, for example) created works that seem to have the “just right” length and pacing for their material, there have always been those that either race to the finish line or else can’t seem to throw in the towel.

Much has been written about the so-called “heavenly length” of Schubert’s slow movements, which to my ear always overstay their sublimity just a bit; in fact, I often get the impression that Schubert’s later symphonies were composed in order to prolong the process of composing, with each successive movement getting longer than the one before it, as if the composer were loath to call it a day.

Curiously, I’ve enjoyed evening-length works by Glass and Feldman that seemed perfectly proportioned and timed despite their considerable length, so the question of doneness is largely one of context. In addition, composers may have a predilection toward a particular level of doneness in their music that coincides with other attitudes and trends currently in the air—with many opulent and overdone works flowing out of 19th-century romanticism, and a great many works today (both minimalist and complexist) just ending or chugging to a halt without a traditional sense of arrival and resolution. In my own works, I have been drawn to accept varying levels of finishing finesse at different times. A little extra oomph during the coda of a piece (like the “second development” section in Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata) can be helpful in the right context, while there are other times where an understated ending in can reveal the sparseness and beauty of an underlying structure, and lend it an unforced quality that can be greatly endearing.

What composers or works stand out to you as being more “well done” (if you’ll forgive me the steak analogy), and which ones strike you as more “rare”? For composers, has your own approach remained relatively consistent? Or has it changed over time, heading in a new direction? I’ve found that my own conception of what constitutes a “finished” work has evolved greatly over time.

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