Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Schenkerian Look at Hugo Wolf's "In der Frühe”

Hugo Wolf’s song “In der Frühe” contains elements that contribute to both a sense of ambiguity and coherence, trepidation and fear, and hopefulness and optimism. The ways in which the tonality is brought out (and obscured) plays an important role in the formal organization of the song. This paper will explore, 1) the organizational methods that Wolf employs, 2) the ways in which Wolf creates ambiguity in the song, 3) the ways in which Wolf creates a sense of coherence (despite this ambiguity), and 4) how the above elements contribute to the satisfactory ending in C major. In the process it will become evident that these musical devices are intimately linked to the text of Eduard Mörike’s poem.

First, it is important to understand how Wolf has organized his song. Deborah Stein reads the piece as being in two different sections, designating the first page as the “ambiguity phase” and the second page as the “clarification phase.”* I will simply refer to these two sections as A and B respectively. From a harmonic standpoint it can be difficult to make any sort of connection between the A and B sections. The wandering harmonies and chromaticism of A appear to have no relation to the more predictable harmonic structure of B. My analysis will argue otherwise. Stein links the first prolongation of D (vocal line in mm. 6-7) to the final structural tonic C in m. 18. I have chosen to analyze the piece as two independent sections. It is my assertion that the prolongation of D in mm. 6-7 is short lived (not remaining active from mm. 6-17 as Stein claims) and it is therefore the cycle of intervals in the two sections that bridges the gap between A and B.

In addition, a simple ^2^1 line is not ideal. To validate Stein's idea of D (mm. 6-7) resolving to C (m. 18), scale degree 3 would need to make an appearance at a structurally important point in the song. The only instance of scale degree 3 that could possibly qualify as structural is in m. 2 (supported by a C-minor triad). However, I remain unconvinced. This and other points of coherence will be addressed later.

From a Schenkerian point of view, the organization of this song is much more about interval cycles than it is about structural descending lines. For example, the piano accompaniment of the A section clearly prolongs C minor (mm. 1-2), G minor (mm. 6-7) and D minor (mm. 8-9). Can the same be said of the vocal line in these measures? It is clear that the vocal line in mm. 1-2 is prolonging, or at the very least outlining, G minor. A similar things happens in mm. 6-7 which prolongs D minor, and in mm. 8-9 which prolongs A minor. With this in mind it then becomes clear that there is a slight disparity between the vocal line and the piano accompaniment. It does not justify a label of polytonality but, highlighting this disparity creates a fifth relationship between vocal and piano (i.e. the piano carries the “tonic” and the vocal the minor dominant). This fifth relationship is also brought out in the piano accompaniment alone, progressing from C minor to G minor to D minor. And, the primary motive of the song (ascending thirds) begins on G in mm. 1-2 and is later shifted to D a fifth away in mm. 6-10. The fifth relationship therefore unfolds “three-dimensionally” (see example 1). This is one way in which Wolf has chosen to organized the A section and the presence of this fifth relationship will become more significant when the B section is analyzed.

By tracing the vocal line of the A section an interesting organizational element emerges. Assuming that the song is in C minor for the duration of the A section, a ^2^3^2 upper-neighbor figure can be coaxed out at the end of the vocal phrases. That is, the D in m. 2 (mir), an implied E-flat in m. 4 (Kam-mer-fen-ster), and D in m. 9 (Nacht-ge-spenster). The final D in m. 9 is subsequently transferred to a different register (an octave higher) at the beginning of the B section. This register transfer is significant when thought of in terms of the text. If the A section is fearful and riddled with doubt, the B section is hopeful and optimistic. Shifting the melody up an octave (and changing the mode to major) represents this new found optimism. The downward pull exerted on the D that begins the B section is eventually resolved to the structural tonic in m. 18. I have chosen to analyze the A and B sections independently, although, an argument can be made for a ^2^3^2^1 line (not necessarily an Urlinie) that runs through the entire piece.

The organization of the B section is more straightforward than that of A. The narrator's mind begins to wander in m. 9 and beginning in m. 11 the key centers do the same. Beginning in D major, the song then progresses through F major, A-flat major and finally C major. This fact recalls the importance of interval cycles in this piece. Similar to the A section which is organized around fifth-relationships, the B section relies heavily on third relationships to get to the ultimate goal of C major. The counterpoint that occurs under these pitches is the interval of a sixth which itself can be viewed as an inverted third (see example 2). Since descending lines are not of primary importance in this song, any Schenkerian graph is going to appear jumpy and disjunct (particularly because there is frequent voice crossing between the vocal and piano accompaniment).

Where the A section employs unclear harmonic structure, the B section does the complete opposite. Wolf's harmonic language in the B section is consistent throughout. The progression I – #iio – IV – V – I dominates here and the only harmonic variety comes in the form of movement through the prolonged half-diminished seventh arpeggiation (D – F – A flat – C).

The preceding has outlined some of the organizational principles of the A and B sections viewed as independent entities. It is worth mentioning that there are also organizational elements that pervade the entire piece, from beginning to end. For example, up until now the presence of important third relationships has been relegated to the B section only. However, looking at the motivic content of the song it becomes clear that an important third relationship has been present all along (beginning in the first measure). The soprano line in the piano accompaniment begins on G, moves to an F sharp(lower neighbor), back to G and ascends through A-natural up a third to B-flat. A more detailed analysis of this element of the song will be addressed later. For now it is important to realize that this ascending third motive in the A section is also present in B, and that its presence in A foreshadows what is arguably the most important element in the song.

The previously mentioned disparity between the vocal and piano accompaniment of A has a counterpart in the linear contour of both of these voices; another element that pervades the entire piece. Close examination of the score reveals that every instance of the ascending third motive in the piano is countered, simultaneously, by a descending line in the vocal part (the only exceptions being mm. 3-5, and the sustained G in the closing measures of the vocal line). This aspect of the song once again points to the duality between trepidation and hopefulness. In the simplest terms, the descending vocal line represents trepidation and the ascending thirds in the piano represent hopefulness. These two elements duel throughout the song and it is only in the final measures that the ascents prevail.

Up until this point the discussion has been limited to the ways in which the A and B sections are organized independently and how some organizational principles are consistent throughout the entire song. Clearly this song is in a constant struggle with itself. It is simultaneously attempting to remain ambiguous and create a sense of coherence. I will first address how the song's organization creates ambiguity in terms of key center. As mentioned above, there is a fifth relationship between the vocal line and the piano accompaniment in the A section (mm. 1-2, 6-7, 8-9). This disparity makes it difficult to determine what specific pitch is being prolonged. For example, in mm. 1-2, the pedal C in the piano makes it abundantly clear that this is the important pitch. However, the vocal line contains no C! So, the challenge becomes determining which is the most important. A similar thing occurs in mm. 6-7. A G pedal in the piano is at odds with the clearly prolonged D minor melody. G is not a good candidate for prolongation in the vocal line (as it is only present as an embellishing leap from D after passing through C-sharp). Finally, the D pedal in mm. 8-9 duels with the prolonged A in the vocal part. These disparities subtly blur, and obscure the solidly grounded pedal points in the A section. It is not a case of polytonality but, at the same time it is clear that these measures can be analyzed as centered around two distinct and specific focal pitches.

In creating a Schenkerian sketch of this song certain problems arise. As mentioned, it appears that both “tonic” (piano) and minor dominant (vocal) are being prolonged in the A section. Determining the pitch of most structural importance in these measures is difficult. It is also important to note that the dueling ascents and descents between the piano and vocal lines makes it difficult to determine which should take precedence when sketching the piece. What is more, there is no clear (stepwise) Urlinie, either descending or ascending. It is my assertion that the vocal line D in m. 11 ultimately resolves to C in m. 18. Arguing that this D remains “active” throughout the B section is a stretch however, given that the song passes through multiple keys (some that do not contain a D-natural) before finally settling on C major.

The same element that created ambiguity in the A section also lends itself, in part, to what makes this section coalesce in a coherent way. The obvious pedal points traverse the circle of fifths beginning with C and moving to G and then D. This fact keeps the listeners attention and allows the ear to hear a firmly grounded tonic (although temporary). The compositional choice of moving from C in m. 1 to D in m. 8 is not coincidental. It all leads to Stein's “clarification phase” in m. 11. The prolonged D minor (piano) section ends with the narrator's “mind [beginning] to wander,” followed by a one measure link that employs an unusual resolution of a German augmented-sixth (belonging to D minor) at the downbeat of m. 11. The mode is altered to major here and it becomes clear that D major has been the goal of the A section material the entire time. Also, the competing tonic (piano) and minor dominant (vocal) that was prevalent in the A section are reconciled in B. That is, the piano and vocal begin to prolong the same pitch (i.e. D in mm. 11-13, A-flat in mm. 16-17, and C in m.18).

In addition to providing the necessary impetus that leads from C minor (m. 1) to D major (m. 11), the ascending fifth movement of the A section foreshadows the upcoming ascending third motion in B (an important point of continuity between the two sections). As previously mentioned, the ascending third motive is present throughout the entire song. It is not until the B section however that this motion by third really begins to take on a life of its own. The “three dimensional” nature of the fifth idea in A is expanded upon, employing a “four dimensional” ascending third motive in B. These four dimensions are outlined as follows:

1) All musical details are progressively “shifted up” by third (made clear by the changes of key signature). 2) The motives themselves (in the soprano line of the accompaniment) span the distance of a third. That is, F-sharp to A in mm. 11-13, A to C in mm. 14-15, C to E-flat in mm. 16-17, and E to G in mm. 18-21. 3) Each time the motive ascends it does so by the interval of a third, i.e. F-sharp in m. 11, A in m. 14, C in m. 16, and E in m. 18. This is different from the A section. In A, when the motive ascends it does so by fifth (i.e. from G in mm. 1-2 to D in mm. 6-10). 4) Each presentation of the motive begins on the third scale degree of what is the “temporary tonic.” These facts reinforce the idea that the primary structural force in this song is that of interval cycles/content and not structural descending lines.

The above mentioned elements illustrate how Wolf has created a simultaneous sense of ambiguity and coherence but, how do these elements ultimately lead to an ending in C major, and how is this final key convincing? The obvious fact is that the song begins in C minor and ends in C major. The route that the song takes to get from C minor to C major unfolds as follows:

C minor (m. 1) G minor (m. 6) D minor (m. 8)

D major (m. 11) F major (m. 14) A-flat major (m. 16) C major (m. 18)

The first three keys are related by fifth and the remaining are related by third. The A section takes advantage of tonic/dominant relationships in terms of the linear motion of the bass line. The link (m. 10) continues to emphasize D which is then transferred up an octave. The linear motion of the bass line continues throughout the B section creating a long-spanning arpeggiation of an F-sharp half-diminished seventh; simultaneously highlighting the importance of thirds in the song and leading the tonality back to C major.

C major is a convincing and conclusive ending for another reason. First, upon hearing the ending of the song, it could be argued that the A section was trying to get down to scale degree 1 (C) but never could. As previously mentioned, the vocal phrases of A end with a descent to scale degree 2 (D) twice. Wolf waits until m. 18 to finally settle on C and in doing so creates a sense of released tension. Where the A section fails to reach its goal the B section succeeds.

Finally, what conclusions can be drawn regarding the structural organization of the song? The following summarizes the answer to this question: 1) Given that the prolongation of D in mm. 6-7 is short lived, I see no real connection between these measures and the structural tonic in m. 18. 2) The song is clearly in two sections and it is more the cycle of intervals that unify them than any structural descending line. 3) The A section is structured around fifth relationships (three dimensional) and B is structured by third relationships (four dimensional). The two are not always mutually exclusive. These relationships are a feature that unifies both sections. 4) An argument can be made for a ^2^3^2^1 line (not necessarily an Urlinie) that underlies the entire song. ^2^3^2 is contained within A and ^1 within B. 5) Harmonic ambiguity pervades the A section. B is very clear harmonically. 6) There is a duality between the ascending piano accompaniment and the descending vocal line which represents the general mood of the text. 7) The quasi-polytonal arrangement of A is subordinated in B (i.e. the pitch being prolonged in B is the same in both the piano and vocal parts). 8) An ending in C major is aurally satisfying because the A section follows the circle of fifths and the B section leads logically back to C through an F-sharp half diminished seventh arpeggiation.

*Deborah Stein, Hugo Wolf's Lieder and Extensions of Tonality (University of Rochester Press, 1991), 193-202.

***If you are interested in seeing my Schenkerian sketches of this piece please leave a comment letting me know***

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