How many ways are there to end a piece of music? If we take “to end” as referring only to the most obvious musical punctuation, it seems that there are precious few options: despite great variety and nuance, most endings either “fade out” through some manipulation of dynamic, texture, or activity, or else they build to a kind of rhythmic singularity that assertively marks the music’s conclusion.
The true exceptions to these categories are extremely rare; the ending of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, for example, is marked mezzo-forte, following a previous stretch of pianissimo—one of the most unique endings I can think of, yet still perhaps a variation on the “fade out” trope. But as listeners we’re rarely bored, as music is subtle and flexible enough to yield endless possibilities colored with individual character. The sublime unwinding of a Schubert slow movement affects us in an entirely different way than the aching, sighing feeling at the end of a Chopin Nocturne or the “blown away in the wind” effect of many Takemitsu works. This incredible diversity forces one to reconsider the sense in which an ending is merely punctuation; rather, the ending is the culmination of a gestural process that may have been initiated as far back as the piece’s first note.
Once we start looking for the ending of a piece not in its final cadence or section but in its beginning, the question of “how to end it?” becomes much more interesting: a dramatic problem rather than a merely grammatical one.
I find that my own most convincing endings are the ones that reach back far into the piece and seem inevitable, though perhaps unexpected. Conversely, the more tacked-on my endings are, they necessarily resort to some cutesy gesture or coloristic effect, which is a bit like ending a paragraph on any noun, verb, or adjective you like and then slapping a boldface exclamation point on the end.
Endings are about content, not punctuation, and by weaving a compelling story we create needs and expectations in a pattern of fulfillment and postponement. Machaut’s celebrated Rondeau Ma Fin Est Ma Commencement hints at this circular nature of storytelling. The beginning of a story searches for its ending, and in turn the ending must lead us back to the work’s initial premise. The snake must devour its own tail in order to complete itself.