Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Three Analyses from Schubert's Winterreise

“Letzte Hoffnung”

In Schubert's “Letzte Hoffnung” many musical elements contribute to a sense of instability, fragility, apprehension, and fear of the wanderer. Of particular interest is the ambiguous meter (in the introduction), chromaticism, descending vocal lines of increasing, expanding intervals, rhythmic augmentation and diminution and dynamic contrast. More generally, modal mixture and ambiguous harmony contribute to the mood of this piece. The following illustrates these points and shows how the music emphasizes the meaning of the Müller's text.

Concerning meter, the introduction to “Letzte Hoffnung” sets the stage for what can be expected throughout the song. The first note of the song begins on an upbeat (C-flat). This simple act affects the introduction as a whole, giving the listener a sense that he/she is untethered. It is appropriate also because it contributes to the aimless wandering and the “lost in thought” mental state of the narrator. Also, the “falling” nature of this introduction is stated again and again throughout the song and is possibly the most striking example of text painting in the song.

Chromaticism is an important element in this song. As stated above, the first note is a chromatic C-flat. These opening measures contradict the “expected” harmony that is implied by the key signature. D fully-diminished seventh chords are the primary harmony in the introduction and the only sense of the actual key (E-flat major) is found at the fermata in m. 4. As is revealed later in the song, this brief pause is actually a half cadence on B-flat major. Without a score to study, this half cadence would likely go unnoticed, as its function is obscured by the preceding chromaticism. Other noteworthy moments of chromaticism include the F-sharps in m. 12 and the French augmented-sixths in mm. 22-23.

The F-sharps in m. 12 are the first time in the song in which all of the sounding voices are in unison and octaves. Barring the solitary F-sharp in m. 8, it is also the first time that this pitch appears. In addition, this measure is the first to relax the rhythmic momentum. Up until, and immediately after m. 12 the rhythm is active and moving quickly. Since m. 12 is emphasized in two ways some significance must be applied to this pitch. In analyzing the text at this moment, it becomes clear why Schubert is drawing so much attention to this measure. “I often stand lost in thought” is accentuated through rhythmic augmentation (Schubert “puts on the brakes,” the wanderer is no longer walking, he is simply standing and thinking) and a thinned out texture (the emphasis and intensity of these bare octaves represent a moment of clarity in the wanderers thinking).

A similar effect is created in mm. 22-23, although here the rhythmic figure is a diminution, not an augmentation. The first presentation of the right-hand in m. 22 features vertically aligned dyads (B-flat/F and A/F). The second statement of this figure (m. 23) is presented as broken chords and the rhythmic values are halved. Both of these compositional techniques are combined to emphasize the powerful meaning of the text (“I tremble violently”). The French-augmented sixth chords of m. 22 indicate the wanderer's increased level of panic, while the broken chords in the right hand (m. 23) represent the literal trembling (quasi-tremolo effect) of the leaf on the tree and the wanderer himself.

The wanderer goes through many states of mind in this song. Simple anxiety turns to fear, which in turn leads to panic, and finally grief upon the arrival of the final couplet. Descending intervallic leaps in the vocal line illustrate the concept of fear becoming a realization of dashed hopes. Measure 26 contains the largest vocal descending leap up to that point (a major-sixth from E-flat to G-flat). This is quickly followed by a descending leap of an octave in m. 27. It is no coincidence that these vocal figures occur where they do. This is the precise moment in the piece when the wanderer realizes that his fate in dependent (albeit a delusion) on one single leaf on the tree. If the leaf falls, all hope will be lost. There is never a definitive confirmation that the leaf did indeed fall to the ground. It is implied however because upon the arrival of mm. 32-33, the wanderer “fall[s] to the ground and weep[s].” It is at this moment that the descending vocal line reaches the widest interval in the song (a major-thirteenth from G-flat to C-flat). The descending intervals found in mm. 26-27 foreshadow the falling hopes of the wanderer. The initial vocal descending leaps (falling leaf) occur quickly with no notes “filling in” the descent. The same can not be said of the final descent which represents the wanderer's lost hope. This final statement of the descent spans two measures and is filled in with passing tones. The “drawn out” nature of this descent, made even more powerful by the shorter descents heard in the previous measures, captures perfectly the slow, agonizing torture that the wanderer in experiencing. Finally, a quasi-lamento bass is found in these measures only, driving home the idea of unfathomable sadness.

The notion of prolongation in the vocal line can also be applied to other areas of the song. As stated above, the F-sharps in m. 12 represent a moment of repose, or reflection, as the wanderer stands (not walks) lost I thought. A very similar phenomenon occurs in m. 35, immediately following the confirmation of lost hope. The lamento bass figure reaches its destination here and the accompanimental rhythm is drastically altered (aside from m. 12, this is the only instance of rhythmic augmentation in the entire song). This, combined with a return to a piano dynamic marking, is the moment in the song when the wanderer is no longer fearful, but grieving. His grief is confirmed further upon the last two beats of the song where the “grief motive” (although hidden in an inner voice) is combined with an “amen” cadence (IV – I), as if to say definitively, “all hope is lost.”

Contrast of dynamics and articulation play a large role in the dramatic effect of this song (interpreted very convincingly on the Peter Pears/Benjamin Britten recording). Pianissimo coupled with Pears' vocal inflection in the opening measures represents the wanderer's first stage of anxiety. The quasi-recitative of the third vocal phrase (mm. 14-22) indicates the wanderer's increased anxiety and sets the stage for the fear and panic to come. The arrival of the forte dynamic at m. 32 reveals emphatically that the wanderer's hopes are dashed. This is followed by the grief stricken piano dynamic at m. 35. It is at this point that the wanderer is resigned to his fate. He will no longer resist his grief. Finally, in m. 42, there is a “three-pronged” approach that clearly confirms the wanderer's grief: 1) Schubert's inclusion of the grief motive, 2) Peter Pears' highly inflected vocal delivery, and 3) the downbeat of m. 43 reveals the strongest instance of V – I heard thus far. This cadence is meant to solidify the notion that the wanderer will always be grieved.

Melodic permutations pervade the entire song. There is an overriding “third motive” that is transformed in various ways. This idea of consecutive thirds is presented in the first two notes of the song. In fact, the majority of this “falling leaf” introduction is nothing but thirds. The first entry of the vocal line continues what the piano accompaniment started (C-flat – A-flat – C-flat). The first two vocal phrases adhere to this descending third idea. The entry of the quasi-recitative in m. 14 is the first permutation of the melody. Here the interval is that of an ascending third. This ascending third idea is broken again upon the arrival of m. 26. The ascending third becomes an ascending perfect fourth. Measure 39 transforms the ascending fourth into an ascending sixth and finally, in m. 42 the ascent spans the interval of a tritone in order to facilitate the following grief motive. Altering the intervallic content by gradual expansion is one more way in which Schubert is able to take the listener on a journey from anxiety to fear to increased panic to terror and ultimately to grief. Finally, it is not a surprise that these vocal transformations arrive, in the last two measures of the vocal line at the grief motive.

In addition to the above instances of text painting, the relationship of text to music is particularly interesting at mm. 14-15, at the beginning of the recitative section. The text, “staring at a single leaf” is represented in the vocal line by the repeated B-natural. At no other moment in the song does a note repeat itself so often (six times). The text painting is obvious here; the wanderer simultaneously stares at a single leaf and sings a single note.

“Der Wegweiser”

In “Der Wegweiser,” the wanderer has begun to question why he is traveling. An unknown pressure drives him onward and this idea is reflected in the music. Other actions and thoughts of the wanderer are present including his walking, restlessness, hesitancy, hopelessness and fear. The following illustrates how these emotions and actions are expressed musically.

This song, probably more than any other in the cycle, deals with the seemingly aimless wandering of the narrator. The “walking motive” in this song is even more prominent than was heard in previous songs (e.g. Gute Nacht and Auf dem Flusse). Excluding mm. 28-32 the walking motive is present, in one form or another, throughout the entire song (note the alteration of the walking motive in mm. 16-19. “Snowy, rocky heights” are embodied in these ascending dotted-sixteenth/thirty-second note figures). The omission of the walking motive in mm. 28-32 is not a random event. There is a very reasonable explanation for it, which will be described next.

As was the case in “Letzte Hoffnung,” a thinned out texture and simplified harmony represent a moment of repose on the part of the wanderer. Furthermore, the rhythmic momentum in “Letzte Hoffnung” is interrupted as the wanderer stops and thinks. This is paralleled in “Der Wegweiser” as he, once again, stops to question “what foolish desire drives me into the wilderness?” After questioning himself, the walking (and walking motive) resumes. This is an important point of continuity in the cycle. Since the walking motive is a thread that runs through the majority of the songs, it is interesting to note when and why it is present or absent. It can be understood, particularly in the case of “Letzte Hoffnung” and “Der Wegweiser,” that the disappearance of the walking motive signifies a moment of self reflection and questioned motives of the part of the wanderer.

Continuing with the idea of self reflection or questioning, the seeming extra measure (m. 5) can be viewed in a similar light. The text makes it clear that the wanderer is “shun[ning] the paths that other travelers take.” Once again he is questioning himself (“why do I shun the paths[...]”) and once again the walking motive and rhythmic momentum is interrupted. In this case the extra measure represents not only the wanderer's inward questioning but also his reluctance to take the path of other travelers. It can be viewed as a breathless pause of self reflection. The same phenomenon occurs in mm. 39-40, although this time the harmony is more striking (unresolved Ger+6). This moment will be addressed in more detail next.

The unison/octave doubling among the voice and accompaniment in mm. 28-32 is the first and only time in the song that the walking motive disappears. Following the wanderer's question, “what foolish desire drives me into the wilderness?,” his walking resumes (m. 33). There is no real sense of key in these measures. The harmony is simply two measures of B-major, two measures of B-minor, followed by a descent to B-flat in the soprano voice of the accompaniment. The arrival of B-flat signifies a return to the key of G-minor in m. 37 although without a score there is no real context to let the listener know for sure. The following chords in mm. 38-39 provide another clue that the harmony is returning to G-minor. The Ger+6 of m. 38 “belongs” to the key of G-minor. It resolves as expected to a cadential 6/4 in m. 39. Similar to the first presentation of delay in m. 5, the cadential 6/4 does not resolve to the tonic until after a short pause at the beginning of m. 40. After the wanderer's self reflection in mm. 28-32 it takes him a moment (mm. 33-39) to compose himself and “get back on track.” (m. 40).

The restlessness of the narrator is expressed most powerfully in mm. 51-54. The text/music relationship is working on three separate levels in these measures. The first is melodic. The conjunct motion and repeated vocal pitches that Schubert has set the listener up to hear goes away in these measures. Wild vocal leaps become the norm, which is characteristic of the text, “I wander on, relentlessly, restless, yet seeking rest.” It is clear that the sudden shift in vocal style is meant to express the agitation of the wanderer. The second text/music relation concerns the harmony in these measures. The beginning of this agitated vocal style is elided with a pivot-chord modulation at the last chord of m. 51. The minor dominant (v of F-minor) becomes the iv chord of the home key of G-minor. The rest that the wanderer is seeking is emphasized by two consecutive measures of cadential 6/4 chords. The prolongation of these chords and the state of mind of the wanderer are analogous. The wanderer and the harmony are both seeking rest in these measures. The latter seeks the resting place of the tonic triad which it eventually finds at the downbeat of m. 54. Finally, the third way in which the music relates to the text is, in part, an interpretational choice on the part of the performers. Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten go to great lengths in these measures to emphasize the crescendo (representative of restlessness). They are also sensitive to the piano dynamic marking at the downbeat of m. 54 (signifying a moment of rest, albeit brief).

The tension is elevated in mm. 57-64 and is released in mm. 65-67. This tension is achieved through Schubert's use of melody, harmony and dynamics. The stagnation of the melody in these measures screams for some sort of motion. Interestingly, the melodic motion that is achieved occurs vertically across several measures (mm. 57-64). Stacked in thirds, a G-diminished triad, one of the most tension filled chords at a composer's disposal, is revealed. The harmony expresses the tension filled text in a slightly more complex way. These measures are bursting with chromaticism and secondary dominant and secondary leading-tone chords. Analyzing this passage in G-minor, the downbeat of m. 57 is a viio7/V which resolves as expected to V; chromatic, but nothing too unusual. This is followed by a V7/ii at m. 59. This is where the resolutions become unexpected, and in turn, tension filled. The harmonic rhythm in this section is one chord per measure. The harmony of m. 59-64 is as follows: V7/ii - viio7/VII - iii6/4 (modal mixture) - viio6/5/VII - #iv6/4 (!) - V7/V. This unusual and unexpected chord progression is finally resolved in a predictable way at the downbeat of m. 65 when the V7/V resolves to V, progresses through i - N6 - cadential 6/4 - and finally i. The unusual spelling of the chord in m. 63 is quite mysterious. D-flat is in the vocal line and an enharmonic respelling of this pitch (C-sharp) is in the accompaniment. One possible explanation for why Schubert chose to spell the chord in this way lies in the following measure (m. 64). The C-sharp is maintained in the same voice/register in this measure becoming the third of the secondary A7 chord. In spelling m. 63 in this way, the right hand of accompaniment need only change one note, G-sharp becomes G-natural. It is likely that this spelling was used to reduce any confusion that may arise for the accompanist.

The outer-voice “pincer” motive that runs through mm. 69-75 is interesting on many levels. This is a moment of high tension in the song. Chromatic movement in the accompaniment against the static movement in the vocal line creates a sense of stress that must be released. This is of course very similar to the tension, hopelessness and fear (mm. 57-64) and the subsequent release of this tension (mm. 65-67) that was mentioned above. In that case, the tension was primarily created through dissonant chords that do not resolve as expected. The pincer motive on the other hand creates tension through chromatic, stepwise ascents and descents in the accompaniment. The chromatic motion is pitted against a static vocal line adding to its dramatic effect.

A nearly identical release of tension is found in both the harmonic progression in mm. 65-67 and the pincer motive at mm. 75-77. However, the latter approaches the chord of resolution (V6/5) in a more elegant way. The pincer motive, over the course of six measures, slowly converges upon the most dissonant members of the V6/5 chord at the downbeat of m. 75. It is only after arriving at m. 75 that the tension of the previous measures is resolved. Here we see the typical half-step resolution of the leading tone, and the chordal seventh resolving down by step. The convergence of the pincer motive upon the tritone of the dominant is one way in which Schubert is prolonging the tension. The progression in mm. 69-74 builds tension and is “released” on the most unstable interval of all, the tritone. It is only after this progression that the music can finally relax (which is made more clear by the dynamic markings of forte < > piano and pianissimo in mm. 75-77).

The concluding measures of this song can be interpreted in many ways. The first and only instance of a rhythmic augmentation in this song is found in the last measures (78-83). “Travel[ing] a road from which no one has returned” is represented by this slowed rhythm. The psychological effect produced is one of either reluctance (as was mentioned earlier by the seeming extra measures of m. 5 and 40) or acceptance of the wanderer's fate. I prefer the latter interpretation. We have already seen/heard previously in the song that the wanderer is reluctant or hesitant to walk “the paths that other travelers take.” Therefore, it is a more conclusive ending to interpret these final measures as something other than reluctance. He is resigned to his fate. He must keep walking. He is physically and mentally drained at this point in the cycle and the slowed rhythm in these final measures represent somewhat of a slow “death march” to the grave.

“Im Dorfe”

“Im Dorfe” is unique to the cycle in that it is the only one composed in 12/8 meter (although some theorists, Arnold Feil for example, have claimed that this song goes to a different, unnotated meter). The structural organization of “Im Dorfe” is that of a two-part poem which has been placed into a three-part musical form. This is made possible because Müller's first stanza is considerably longer than the second, allowing Schubert to break the text into three distinct sections. Although the musical form is in three parts, the content of the poem is still two-part. This means that the first stanza is more reflective. The wanderer is simply describing what he sees, thinks and hears. The second stanza features a shift from simple observation to spoken, first person declamation of the wanderer (e.g. “drive me away[...], don't let me rest[...], I am through with dreams[...]).

The introduction to “Im Dorfe” is not typical. It does not set up the key or give the listener any clues as to the melodic or motivic content that will follow (this introduction is very similar to Schubert's “Die Stadt” and achieves a similar psychological effect of the unknown). There is virtually no distinction between the introduction and the the rest of the song as far as the primary accompanimental figures are concerned. This means that the introduction proceeds on, undisturbed through the entrance of the voice (also similar to “Die Stadt”).

Since the introductory material does not effectively set up the key or provide any clues as to the melodic or motivic content, it must be interpreted in a different way. Aside from a few brief moments, this tremolo motive in the left-hand of the accompaniment is always present. It is not a great stretch of the imagination to interpret this tremolo as the literal “rattling of chains” or “sleeping, snoring people in their beds.” Similarly, the rhythmic consistency of the right-hand in the accompaniment can been viewed as representing the “barking dogs.” The question then becomes, what is the meaning of the absence of the tremolo motive at the arrival of the B section?

The B section (m. 20) represents the beginning of morning. Therefore, the townspeople are no longer sleeping, or snoring. This is the most intuitive reasoning behind why the tremolo motive disappears. Similarly, the beginning of the B section is the point in which the wanderer is no longer speaking of the dogs. Their chains are no longer rattling. This becomes more evident when, at the beginning of the A' section the dogs return, along with the tremolo motive.

Other interesting moments of text painting are found in this song regarding the tremolo motive. The tremolo action is relegated to the left-hand throughout the song. However, this is broken upon the arrival of m. 12. It is at this point that the tremolo and rhythmic block-chords of the accompaniment trade voices (quasi-stimmtausch). Why is this significant? It lies in the relationship between the text and the music. The music prior to m. 12 represents the sleeping townspeople. It can therefore be asserted that left-hand tremolo, in its low register, is the primary musical device that paints this picture. The arrival of m. 12 marks the division between sleeping and dreaming. The text, “dreaming of things they do not have” is, as mentioned above, elided with the arrival of a register shift and voice trading in the accompaniment. Just as the music of mm. 1-12 represent the sleepers, the higher register of the tremolo in mm. 12-17 combined with a reduction in dynamic level (piano to pianissimo) evokes a dreamlike state. This in one of the ingenious ways in which Schubert uses subtle timbre and register shifts to highlight the action of the text. Continuing with this line of reasoning, the disappearance of the right-hand tremolo motive in m. 18 is also worth noting. It disappears precisely at the moment when, “with early morning it is all vanished.” This is probably the most obvious instance of text-painting in the entire song.

Other moments of text-painting can be found that are not associated with the tremolo motive. An excellent example occurs in mm. 41-42. Once again the texture and rhythm of the accompaniment is altered and it is revealed, for the first time, that the rhythm has been significantly augmented. “Why should I linger among the sleepers?” is represented by the lingering, slow rhythm. It is also very important to note that, as was seen in “Letzte Hoffnung” and “Der Wegweiser” the disappearance of the walking motive signifies a moment of self reflection and questioned motives on the part of the wanderer. There is no walking motive in “Im Dorfe,” but the disappearance of the predominant accompanimental rhythm still signifies a moment of self questioning and repose. The walking motive in “Der Wegweiser” disappears as the wanderer questions himself, as if he has forgotten why he is on this journey. The slow rhythm and disappearance of the tremolo motive in mm. 41-42 of “Im Dorfe” occurs as the wanderer questions “why should I linger[...].” Just like “Der Wegweiser,” these measures allude to the idea that the wanderer has temporarily forgotten, or blocked out the sounds of the dogs and their rattling chains. The restatement of, “why should I linger among the sleepers” that occurs in mm. 46-50 is elongated musically. In doing so, Schubert is able to emphasize one final time the uncertainty and questioned motives of the wanderer. Finally, it is interesting to note that the loudest dynamic level in this song is only piano. Combine this with the pervasive simple and undecorated melody and an argument can be made that these elements are present in order to not disturb the “sleepers.”

Adding more generally to the performance choices mentioned above, the Peter Pears/Benjamin Britten recording compared with that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Jörg Demus it is clear that both approach the music differently. Pears, perhaps because he is not as technically proficient as Fischer-Dieskau, favors a highly inflected vocal style. He makes excellent use of the dynamics printed on the page and at times exceeds them for dramatic effect. Also nearly every instance of the grief motive is accentuated by Pears. Fischer-Dieskau on the other hand delivers, in general, a more subdued performance. This adds something to the subtlety of the text but at the same time some of the forcefulness and power of the text is lost. Regarding Britten and Demus, in general Britten's style is more “heavy-handed.” His playing is more forceful than Demus' and is a nice balance to Pears' highly inflected style.

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