ON FALSE ENDINGS
The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not
reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.
Beethoven didn’t invent the false ending but he did the most with it. If you like the composer’s distinctive devices, then you’ll relish those secondary works which distill them, the ones that can feel as if they’re carried by the composer’s mannerisms. I happen to be fond of the Consecration of the House, an overture that starts off with a truly Beethovenian declamation in five big chords and winds up, depending on how you count, with seven false endings and one real one.
In the Master’s hands, the false ending is teasing rather than frustrating, empowering rather than enervating. The final finale is all the more satisfying because of the extended build-up, the virtuosic delaying tactics, approaches followed by avoidances, the delightful violation of expectations. When it comes, the resolution doesn’t leave the listener exhausted, reaching for a post-coital cigarette, but fortified, virile, empowered. Beethoven’s false endings don’t yank the rug out from under the listener; they are deceptive but never humiliating or disappointing so, when the real ending for which you’ve waited, which you’ve expected every time—when the delayed gratification arrives, it comes almost as a surprise. And it is exhilarating.
Beethoven’s endings contrast with those of earlier composers. How many Baroque pieces expire the way clockwork runs down? Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses, for example, really does sound like an inspired music box, and the finale of a Bach fugue resembles the deceleration at the end of a rollercoaster ride. Those endings bring energies to rest but Beethoven’s generate so much momentum that even the ultimate cadence doesn’t bring it to rest.
Beethoven clearly relished composing false endings and he made the trick his own. Parody only works when there is something distinctive and original to parody. Dudley Moore performed a famous take-off on Beethoven’s false endings in Beyond the Fringe, deftly turning The Colonel Bogey March into a nearly interminable sonata:
Moore’s clever routine ends not with a satisfying resolution but with the audience laughing and the pianist exasperated. It’s funny but the joke does more to confirm than diminish Beethoven’s brilliance. The same goes for Satie’s Beethoven parody, Desiccated Embryo of a Podohthalma.
False endings can be good or funny, but also bad—annoying, manipulative, formulaic. It depends on the talent of the artist. The finale of Brahms’ Second Piano Quartet is a good example of genius emulating genius but there are plenty of instances of composers who only mimic Beethoven. These remind me of the saying that the truth can’t be imitated because an imitated truth ceases to be true. Bad false endings really do end in exasperation rather than exultation. Unlike Moore’s and Satie’s, they sound like unintended and unfunny parodies.
Here’s a non-musical illustration of what I mean by bad false endings. It’s a brisk plot outline of a fairy tale I’ll call The Milkmaid and the Marquis.
Gisela is a young milkmaid working on the estate of Junker von Hengst. This feudal lord, guilty of countless sins, looks on the pretty Gisela as he does on all such. He invites her to leave the dairy and her fellow maids, promising light work in his castle and a fine room all to herself. Content with her fellows, the cows, and wary of the Junker, Gisela modestly declines. The Junker retorts that she cannot refuse and has his men forcibly take her across the drawbridge, under the portcullis, and through the high, iron-studded oak doors. Gisela preserves her virtue by feigning illness. Meanwhile, the other maids and male serfs arm themselves with pitchforks and scythes, storm the castle, overcome the Junker’s men-at-arms, and rescue the girl. During the fight, the Junker falls from the castle’s high wall. No one mourns him. The workers then set up a collective, a kibbutz avant le fait. Not the end.
The local junkers, outraged by what has happened to one of their number and perceiving the threat to themselves, gather together a small army, wrest back the estate, kill many defenders, enslave the milkmaids, and hang ten serfs to make their point. Not the end.
These nobles, now in possession of the childless von Hengst’s land, all want the Hessian Elector to turn it over to them. After much intrigue, petitioning, back-stabbing, attempted bribery, the Elector decides it would be best to give the estate to none of these treacherous men. Instead, he bestows it on his trusted advisor, the Marquis of Marburg. The Marquis, about to take up the post of ambassador to the French court, puts his eldest son Otto in charge of his new property. This decent and pious young man is ignored by his neighbors and greeted with resentment by the laborers on the estate. Seeing their deplorable condition, Otto quickly improves it. He doesn’t fail to take note of the lovely Gisela and finds occasions to talk with her. Smitten, in due course he asks her to marry him. Not the end.
While Gisela loves the dashing and decent Otto, she thinks of her friends and how things were during the short-lived collective and says she’ll agree to marry him only on the condition that he free the milkmaids and serfs and turn the estate back over to them. Otto, saying that he cannot give away his father’s land, agrees only to let the workers manage things. There is great rejoicing followed by a splendid wedding ceremony and three days of celebrating. Not long after, Gisela becomes pregnant. More rejoicing ensues, but it’s not the end.
When they learn of the new arrangements on the coveted lands, the surrounding junkers are again scandalized and outraged. As the Marquis is away in Paris, they put their objections to the Elector, arguing that, as neither the Marquis nor his son are managing it, the land should be forfeited. Each advances his own claim. The Elector forwards the case to his high court. Lawyers devise complicated briefs, many precedents are cited, arguments expounded. The Court decides in favor of Otto on the ground of the authority granted him by the absent Marquis, the legal landowner. There’s rejoicing on the estate, but it’s still not the end.
The furious and frustrated junkers tear up the decree and lay siege to Otto’s castle. With the aid of the other milkmaids, the pregnant Gisela manages to escape from the castle without telling her husband, knowing he would have prevented her. She has many terrifying adventures on the road to Marburg but arrives safely. Here she finds her father-in-law returned from his embassy but grievously ill. At first, he is horrified by his son’s actions—marrying a common milkmaid, giving up management of his estate—but Gisela speaks to the old man with dignity, also gently, deferentially, and intelligently. The Marquis sees her worth and also his first grandchild growing inside her. When she appeals for his help to raise the unlawful siege, the Marquis sends a considerable force of mercenaries to accompany her. These professionals quickly end the siege and arrest the junkers. Not the end.
While the old Marquis accepted his daughter-in-law and agreed to raise the siege, he cannot reconcile himself the unheard-of arrangements on the estate. He sends a courier commanding his son to take proper charge and reimpose serfdom. Otto rushes to Marburg to talk his father into rescinding the order. They argue and so heatedly that it ends with the furious Marquis, made irascible by illness, disinheriting Otto and sending him away. Not the end.
Gisela and Otto, feeling under threat on all sides, flee to Saxony with their infant daughter Gretchen and very little money. Many tears are shed at their departure. The milkmaids are inconsolable. A day later, a strict overseer with a burly escort arrives at the estate with orders from the Marquis to break the spirit of the maids and laborers. Not the end.
In Saxony, the young family live in poverty. Otto hires himself out as a day laborer while Gisela takes in laundry and looks after Gretchen. Though penury is harsh, they are sustained by their love for one another and their child. Not the end.
One day, a knight arrives at the Saxon hovel and explains that he is one of a dozen men sent by the Marquis to search for Otto and Gisela and bring them back. Then he tells them that the old Marquis is gravely ill and how, on his deathbed, the old man declared to the priest, “Pray that the Lord will find it as easy to forgive me as it is for me to forgive my son. But to forgive myself—that is impossible.” They all hasten to Marburg arriving the day before the old man’s death, just in time for Otto’s patrimony to be publicly restored by his father and, two days later, to assume the property, rights, privileges, and title of the Marquis of Marburg. Not the end.
As soon as they have secured their position in Marburg, Otto and Gisela return to the estate. Otto sends the cruel overseer and his thugs packing, re-establishes the collective, and declares an end to serfdom on all his lands. The milkmaids embrace Gisela, curtsey to Otto, and make a fuss over little Gretchen. Cheers, but still not the end.
Then the Reformation begins. That’s not the end either.
Then come the religious wars.
Again, not the end.
Like audiences eagerly awaiting that final cadence and satisfying resolution, religious Westerners are drawn to eschatological finales. The Millerites were precise about it; they were certain the world would end on October 22, 1844. But the Millerites are only one in a long list running from the Essenes in the First Century to some apocalyptic sect of last week. There was hardly a year in the last century somebody didn’t think would be the last. 2000 was a particularly popular candidate, just as 1000 had been, thanks to the allure of round, millennial numbers and the decimal system. In a sense, every ending is a false one, save for the last.
We demand endings, conclusions, denouements, and not just in music and fairy tales and religion. In most things, beginnings and middles are necessary but don’t suffice. We crave that ending, too, whether it proves to be happy or sad. In drama, happy or sad is a matter of when the curtain falls. Tragedies conclude unhappily and the unhappiest ending is the small apocalypse of a family’s end, as in Hamlet. But Shakespeare misses nothing. Fortinbras, Hamlet’s action-figure double, shows up at the close of Act Five to pick up the pieces and continue Danish history. Comedies end happily which means with the continuation or founding of families, with the triumph of life. The Athenians’ democratic form of story-telling is rooted in two biological facts: the one that got us here, and the one that ushers us out. But if the cameras keep rolling—if we see Fortinbras arguing with his ministers over the next year’s budget or the Spartans and Athenians going at each other only a day after Lysistrata’s orgy of repopulating—the sense of an ending would be lost, happiness and sadness both dissipated.
History is a drama full of false endings we try to recast as real ones, dramatic ones: the surrender on the battleship, the Wall coming down, the revolutionaries marching triumphantly through the liberated capital amid cheering crowds. It seems we need two things, an ending and life going on. The false ending supplies both.
With the Eroica, Beethoven stretched the symphony’s length and scope, starting with an arresting summons then a middle of transformed themes, changes of key and shifts of mood, codas, transpositions, variations, funereal andantes, jovial scherzi. He also moved the center of gravity from the first to the fourth movement, nowhere more spectacularly than in his final symphony, a last testament abounding in false endings that culminate in an invigorating, hopeful one calling for a moral, spiritual, and political resolution reaching far beyond the concert hall. It ends with a kiss for all the world.