What is a... Coda?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Coda?
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What do fugues and dogs have in common? Answer: they both have tails. Confused? Then let me explain that the Italian for ‘tail’ is ‘coda’. So now we’re clear. A coda is a ‘tail-piece’: an extra bit added onto the end of a musical work, or a movement from a work, in order to… Well, in order to what? One of the functions of a dog’s tail is to aid balance. But with music it’s not so clear-cut. Many of Bach’s fugues or Mozart’s symphonic first movements seem balanced enough without the coda. The proportions of the various sections complement each other effectively, and the music has usually come back firmly to the home key by the time the coda begins. If this were a building it would be like adding an annex – one which on aesthetic grounds would probably be denied planning permission. 

All of which is a useful reminder that, however much commentators may talk about ‘architecture’ in music, buildings and musical works are very different entities – sweeping one’s eye across the front of Blenheim Palace and voyaging with Beethoven through the first movement of the Eroica Symphony are only superficially similar. The music creates an energy, a momentum, which doesn’t simply stop when the harmony comes back to base, any more than Usain Bolt stops the moment he reaches the finish line. Some kind of rounding off – of ‘earthing’ the energy – is needed. In a fugue, Bach may only need a couple of bars to achieve this, but the effect can be as uplifting as an athlete’s air-punch – if you’ve ever played Bach’s D minor Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Klavier the image may have struck you already. 

After Bach, composers began to discover ways of extending and enriching the ‘air-punch’ experience – the huge coda of the Eroica first movement is one of the most thrilling examples – or of using it to reflect back on the main body of the movement in some new, possibly unexpected way. The codas of Schumann’s songs are often like ‘postludes’: reflective commentaries on what we’ve heard, as in the Dichterliebe cycle. A coda can also bring a dramatic reversal. As we near the end of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony we seem to be heading for a triumphant conclusion in the major key. But then back comes the baleful ‘Fate’ motif in the minor, and the coda, with a masterly acceleration, hurtles towards the abyss.

This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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