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Many kinds of musical compositions are divided into distinct sections called "movements." The finale is the last movement of a composition. Finale is also the name for the last section of an opera or operatic act. An operatic finale itself is often divided into sections, and lasts much longer than an aria or any single number.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the finales of instrumental pieces were almost always in fast, or relatively fast, tempos, and their endings were usually loud. Composers wanted there to be no doubt about when their pieces were over, and they wanted them to end with a bang, or at least with some sort of satisfyingly emphatic (or happy, or triumphant) musical statement. The goal — artistic, philosophical, and commercial — was to leave the listener feeling uplifted and enthusiastic. It wasn't until Tchaikovsky wrote his Sixth Symphony, the so-called Pathétique, in 1893, that a composer closed a symphony with a slow movement (the piece ends softly, as well). In the twentieth century, composers have been much more willing to leave their listeners depressed or disconcerted: countless twentieth-century finales end slowly and softly.

While this liberation from the cliché of the Big Bang has resulted in many beautiful and moving endings, it has also spawned one of the clichés of twentieth-century music: the finale that dies away into nothingness, symbolizing uncertainty, or the meaninglessness of life, or the meaninglessness of uncertainty, or the certainty of death, or the death of certainty, or ... something. Given the realities of two world wars, unending atrocities, and the continuing possibilities for atomic annihilation, pessimistic reflections in musical composition and philosophy have been natural, and perhaps inevitable. But a cliché is a cliché, and there's a danger when an inclination becomes an obligation. Nowhere is it written, after all, that for music to be good it must be joyless. In music as in life, it is neither dishonest nor philosophically disgraceful to find a little happiness along the way, whether at the beginning, the middle, or the end.

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.