Dichterliebe, Op. 48, No. 1 - 'In Wunderschönen Monat Mai' (Schumann)

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Harmonic Ambivalence through Transference: Schumann’s In Wunderschönen Monat Mai

Brooks Popwell – April 30, 2010

(Note: please refer to the following link for referenced graphs and musical examples - [1] )

Schumann’s Dichterliebe cycle portrays the psychological unfolding of disappointed love. Although the text set in the opening song contains no hint of the bitter turmoil awaiting the poet, Schumann’s harmonic and voice-leading procedures skillfully underlay this brief opening movement with a bitter twinge of doubt.

The following background graph illustrates the higher-level relationships between the work’s conflicting major and minor modalities:

(see ex. 1)

The two stanzas of the poem are set more or less identically, with minor alterations to foreground details such as note length or repetition. Note the absence of a completed Urlinie, in spite of the Ursatz parallelism in mss. 5 and 16. The head tone presented as the first note of the piano accompaniment, although present over unrelated harmonies, is prolonged and resumed throughout the movement.

The portion of the graph following the barline sketches the opening of the second song. Here, the incomplete cadential motion to III that ended the second movement is resolved by the clear V-I movement of the bass. This delayed clarification of the song’s modality adds to Schumann’s carefully crafted aural confusion.

Note that the entire midsection of the movement consists of inner voice motions activated by the octave leap from the A presented in mss. 5 and 16. Such a chiastic structure reinforces the song’s aura of insecurity; the climactic D-major arrival of mss. 13 and 24 is immediately undercut by a resumption of the initial bass tone, C-sharp. Thus the general outer-/inner-voice shape of the piece suggests an exuberant but ill-founded burst of passion.

In order to see more clearly the melodic component to Schumann’s jumbled modality, we must examine the foreground upper-voice lines. Note the following graph, which retains both piano and vocal lines:

(see ex. 2)

In this analysis, Schumann’s main tool for blurring the melodic implications of his writing proves to be superimposition of the inner voice. Each attempted progression from the upper-voice C-sharp and B to the tonic A is interrupted by an octave leap of the F-sharp from the inner voices’ arpeggiation.

This high F-sharp leap initiates a third-progression of its own, stealing the thunder from the key of A major and clearly underscoring the minor modality. Observe that this inner voice continues to stress F-sharp minor by an immediate reversion to the alto register, where it completes the neighbor motion through G-sharp. A complex dual-natured texture results, suggested by this zigzag inner-voice motion around a destabilized main line to the eventual A-major. It is as though the poet, beginning carefree daydreams about his beloved (in a sturdy A-major), feels bombarded from all sides by premonitions of hard times to come (in F-sharp minor).

Now that we have scanned the outline of Schumann’s structural plan, we must consider the real-time unfolding of these harmonic events. Schumann’s careful use of placement heightens the text-music relationships already established by general tonality. First, consider the opening measures of the song:

(see ex. 3)

The initial C-sharp pickup immediately throws the listener a metrical obscurity. Where is the first downbeat of the movement? Until the clear change of direction from the soprano G-sharp to F-sharp, we cannot tell whether the beginning C-sharp was a syncopation—and this descent is delayed until the last note of the bar.

The second note of the piece adds a harmonic layer to the confusion created in the opening. Schumann chooses a semitone as the first perceived interval of the song, denying the listener a consonant establishment of tonal center. Furthermore, because the upper note of the half-step is in the lower bass register, a leading-tone over tonic is immediately suggested.

As an interesting side-note, this split-second hint of D major is more than a clever harmonic red herring. Motion to D major does figure prominently in this movement, providing the arrival for the inner-voice motion of the middle section. Even in the next movement’s initial resolution to A major, an unfolding to D from the retained upper-voice B gives the impression of a plagal cadence, hearkening back to the cadential function of D in the previous song. (Although the D functions locally in mss. 13 and 24 as a chromatic neighbor to the more locally important C-sharp major chord, it can be viewed in the foreground as an unfinished descent to A.) In a sense, Schumann’s immediate presentation of an intermediate scale degree tempers (at least subliminally) the shocking ambiguity of the opening.

Returning to a play-by-play experience of ms. 1, we find that C-sharp/D is immediately followed by an augmented fifth, creating a muddy harmony that most pianists unwisely cancel out by a pedal flutter. The root of the chord, B, is relegated to metrically weak positions in the inner voices.

Remarkably, Schumann crafts a single initial bar of arpeggiation into a highly evocative picture of uncertainty. Nonetheless, even if the composer had presented B minor in a straightforward way, the function of the chord in the overall progression reveals the core component of the song’s harmonic uncertainty. This initial chord serves as an intermediate harmony in both F-sharp minor and A major, and its role as first point of departure sets the stage for Schumann’s carefully planned reversals later in the movement.

By the second bar, the listener discovers that B minor is merely a neighbor to C-sharp major, but Schumann repeats the progress again in measures 3-4. At this point, the chromatic motion from D to C-sharp itself becomes significant, confirming that half-step motions will shape the piece on more than a surface level (where they already figured prominently, e.g., C#/D in ms. 1, beat 1; A-sharp/B in ms. 1, beat 1; F-sharp/E-sharp in ms. 1, beat 4).

Second, the entry of the text contains several important musical colorings:

(see ex. 4)

These two opening lines are the same in both stanzas, and Schumann each line identically, consistent with their descriptive nature. The voice enters with the identical suspension as found in the opening piano line. This suggests a continuation of the iv-V harmony in F-sharp minor, but Schumann changes the C-sharp an eighth-note early and reverses the motion of the line ascending a minor third to D. At the same time, he introduces a B in the low bass for the first time. He places the B on a weak beat, a clear premonition of cadential motion that is confirmed by the following E octave.

The cumulative effect of these reversals is a sunny change from the foreboding dominant of F-sharp minor that flanked the introduction. The setting colors wunderschönen with a tender dissonance and establishes the carefree mood of the poet. This section even features a subtle motivic inversion that recasts the expressive leap/descent in the piano introduction as a leap and descent on monat mai. From a voice-leading perspective, this motive performs the inverse operation from the opening, reaching below the main progression to A to approach tonic leisurely from below.

Several more details of text painting contribute to this middle section. Yet another sudden harmonic shift signals the transition to the third and fourth lines of text:

(see ex. 5)

These two bars contain voice-leading that parallels the opening piano introduction. Similar iv6-V-I progressions move the line to the subdominant resting-point of D major, discussed beforehand. The interesting feature of the writing here is the expressive link that colorfully enables the modulations of this section. Once again, Schumann employs chromatic motion to achieve the changes, introducing a startling G-natural (to cancel the preceding leading tone) in ms. 9 and a chromatic descent through B-natural in ms. 11.

These harmonic events correspond to the text they portray. “It was there in my heart that love broke forth,” says the poet, and the sudden chromatic shift precisely corresponds with the text, like a finger pointing to the place of tender memory. Schumann’s choice to relegate the inner voice prolongations and modulations to this section also lend the text a breathless, hurrying quality that fits the poet’s recollection of his rapture.

In another significant point of structure, the progressions in mss. 9-10 mirror the specific chord content and chromatic motion of the opening progression, not the softened alternative progression of mss. 5-6. This translates to a subtle foreshadowing that builds anticipation through this section; these progressions, unlike their predecessor in the opening piano, achieve their tonicizations. As a result, when Schumann reintroduces the opening motion to C-sharp on the heels of the sequence in mss. 9-12, he suggests that this cadence will successfully introduce F-sharp minor.

However, the harmonic rhythm of this final cadential pattern provides a clue that this C-sharp minor chord will likewise remain unresolved. Instead of allowing the cadence in mss. 11-12 to stand separate from the third pattern, Schumann fuses them, allowing the D major chord of ms. 12 to supply the chromatic upper neighbor to C-sharp. This fusion stretches out the chromatic motion (which previously occupied one bar in mss. 9 and 11), putting the brakes on the forward momentum built throughout the sequence.

The psychological implications of these techniques are profound. We can imagine the poet, excited to a frenzy by thoughts of his newfound love (inner-voice motions to D major), suddenly reminded of the gnawing sense of uncertainty (resumption of C-sharp major in bass). Anxious to bury these thoughts, he quickly curbs his enthusiasm (slowed harmonic motion and avoided tonic). A final structural highlight of Schumann’s text-painting occurs at the restart of the introductory material. The motion from the established tonic of A (mss. 6, 8) climbs all the way back to the level of the superimposed inner voice (F-sharp, ms. 12). In the same measure, the piano reclaims this tonal space from the voice and introduces a chromatically altered G-sharp. This single note sets the beginning introduction in motion, providing a seamless transition from the outer- to inner-voice motions of the song.

Having surveyed the piece’s text-music relationships, one last word ought to be said regarding the unusual ending of the work. The final chord is a stark dominant, ending with the seventh in the soprano. Such an inconclusive ending clearly links the movement to the next song, which indeed appears to begin with the long-awaited F-sharp minor harmonies.

The complete first measure of the second song, however (see the background graph), reveals that what appeared to be an inner-voice descent to F-sharp was an unfolding bass line in a higher register. Schumann cleverly employs the often-repeated head tone, C-sharp, as an apparent dominant in F-sharp minor (suggested so palpably by the dominant seventh chord heard just previously), only to again harmonize the note as scale-degree 3 over A.

As a result of Schumann’s clever resolution to A major in the second song of Dichterleibe, the premonitions of F-sharp minor are finally brushed aside with resolution. The poet casts off self-doubt and worrisome premonitions and delights in his newfound love. In light of such a turbulent beginning, however, we can be certain that there is more going on in “the wonderful month of May” than the poet would care to acknowledge.