Ending vs. Finishing

Haydn is perhaps most famous today for his sophisticated musical wit. Many young musicians encounter him for the first time in the context of his “Surprise” Symphony, with its explosive fortissimo just when you least expect it. (I recall playing this melody with my 6th grade band, and even to us modern kids, comedically conditioned as we were by TV jesters like Steve Urkel, it was a quite a hoot.)

Perhaps the most lengthy musical analysis yet to be found in the OHWM is RT’s 13-page discussion of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33 No.2, “The Joke” (pp.542-555). As he’s quick to admit, dissecting any act of humor is bound to quash the very quality it aims to explain. Nonetheless, since musical conventions have shifted considerably since Haydn’s time and some of his comedic gestures might not be immediately comprehended today, as they were likely to have been in the late 18th century, I found his thorough explanation quite helpful. Items that benefited from RT’s sure-footed analysis include Haydn’s clever motivic and harmonic manipulations in the first movement, and his parodies of “uncouth village musicians” in the second. The humor of these musical stratagems were, shockingly, actually enhanced through analysis.

But the big joke of the quartet, the witticism that gives the piece its title, comes at the very end. Haydn’s parting jest needs no explanation, no translation, even to listeners in 2010. He makes you think the piece is ending, only to give you more; then, when you think that more is coming, he ends the piece. The clip below demonstrates the comedic currency this gesture still carries for modern audiences (starting around 2:45). RT writes: “And so whenever this ending is performed, it takes the audience an extra second or so to recover its wits and realize that the piece is indeed over. The result is an inevitable giggle – the same giggle that overtakes a prestidigitator’s audience when it realizes that it had been ‘had.’ Haydn’s titular joke is thus not an ‘anecdote’ but a ‘practical joke,’ the product of misdirection.” (II, 553)

The humor in this closing passage comes in defying the listeners’ expectations by manipulating when we think the piece is going to end. It’s quite a sophisticated procedure, really, even though we get the joke without having to make a Schenkerian graph of it. A useful distinction when trying to analyze the anatomy of this joke can be gleaned from musical phenomenology (a great place to start here is Thomas Clifton’s classic 1983 book, Music as Heard). Clifton argues that there’s a profound difference between “ending” and “finishing” in a piece of music. All compositions, of course, end (though Satie’s Vexations comes close to defying this), but not all pieces finish. To end is simply to bring sound to a close, to run out of notes on the score, to put the baton down, and to go to the after-concert party to chat about the show over a brew. To finish, on the other hand, involves an important phenomenological component: does the piece feel like it’s over? Does it close its internal processes and provide some feeling of satisfactory conclusion? Looking at the distinction between ending and closing can be fascinating; Tchaikovsky, for instance, very often FINISHES. But Sibelius, on the other hand, is often quite illusive about the way he closes his symphonies; many of his works end instead of finish. There’s a world of irony and humor (and plenty other affects) bound up in this procedure, a fact that Haydn manipulated to get his audiences, and his musicians, giggling. And we’re still giggling today.


  1. Elaine Fine says:

    I believe that the humor in Haydn’s Opus 33 is aimed at the musicians who were playing it rather than the audience, who, during Haydn’s time would have been the household help and family members of the musicians. It is the musicians who tend to crack up when counting the grand pauses at the end of the “Joke” quartet, and it is the musicians who get a kick out of making the tasteless slides in the Scherzo. Don’t forget the biggest joke of all: perhaps the first viola joke in the slow movement. The viola and cello get to play the tune all alone.

    There is a wealth of cultural information connected with this quartet and with all of Opus 33, not the least of which is that these are the specific quartets that inspired Mozart to return to quartet writing and to write his six “Haydn” Quartets.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Thank you for the important reminder, Elaine. RT doesn’t go into much detail on the performance aspects of the piece (ie. that is signifies to performers, too), so I’m really glad you brought this up. I’ve never played the piece myself (alas, I’m a bassist) but I’m sure it’s incredibly fun.

      It is significant that Haydn’s patrons, the Esterhazys, were quite musically literate; in addition to the help and the families of musicians, the noble family would have probably heard this music as audience members as well. I agree that the humor was most definitely aimed at the musicians, but certain effects have a different comedic resonance for audiences. All the grand pauses at the end are sure to incite giggles from the musicians, who have to sit up there with a straight face coordinating entrances. But at least they know what’s going to happen next; they can’t be misdirected. The audience is totally in the dark on some of these gestures. Humor functions differently for musician and audience, therefore; the one group finds it funny because they know, the other finds it funny because they don’t.

  2. Robin Wallace says:

    Haydn’s most memorable ending, I think, is the finale of Symphony no. 90. This is definitely public music, and a good modern conductor can confuse the audience even further by hamming up the false ending. Haydn obviously expected the audience to begin to applaud, then be taken aback by the pp (I think) continuation.

    1. Elaine Fine says:

      There is a Haydn Symphony (could it be “Il distratto?”) that has all the first violins tune their G Strings down to F sharp (or it could be F) until the very near the end of the last movement when they all tune up their strings at once. It is hilarious.

      1. Robin Wallace says:

        That’s no.60. It was based on the music for a play called “Il distratto,” hence the name and the unusual features, of which this is the most extreme.

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