SCHUBERT AND ROMANTIC IRONY
Yet for all the structural excellence and expressivity of An die ferne Geliebte, the lied remained for Beethoven a minor genre. The first major composer for whom it was a major genre—hence the composer through whom the lied became a major (and an indispensable) genre in any history of European “art” music—was Schubert, as already implied in the previous chapter. A full understanding of Schubert's romanticism is impossible without understanding how his lieder newly negotiated the relationship of “I” and “We.”
In investigating them, we shall reencounter many of the same devices (particularly harmonic devices) that we have already associated with the subjective and spiritual side of romanticism, only this time they will be approached by way of Volkstümlichkeit. To attempt to assign priority here—to decide whether Schubert's songs “influenced” his instrumental music or the other way around—would be fruitless, and it would miss the point. Take, for a first example, Lachen und Weinen (Ex. 3-6), composed in 1823 to a poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866). In overall form and character it is simple, sincere, and as volkstümlich as you please, but the antithesis at the heart of the poem—“Laughing and Crying,” apparently unmotivated but of course motivated by love—is expressed by artful modal mixtures of a kind that eventually became absolutely basic to Schubert's harmonic idiom. Compare, for example, the beginnings of the exposition (Ex. 3-7a) and recapitulation (Ex. 3-7b) in the first movement of the G-major String Quartet, which we already know to be one of Schubert's harmonically most adventurous compositions.
The quartet shows the same reversal as the song: the initial switch from major to minor comes back as minor-to-major. Nor is the switch in either case just a static exchange. The initial mode switch in the song sends the melody off into an asymmetrical pair of phrases that include an “affective” dominant-ninth chord and an “entranced” flat submediant. The corresponding reversed switch in the second half of the song sends the melody off into an equally asymmetrical phrase that cadences on the subdominant, approached by a “V of IV” that thoroughly destabilizes the tonic. At these points subjectivity (the “I”) comes graphically to the fore, but in a way that can only be appreciated in dialectical, even ironic opposition to the folkish “We” with which each stanza begins (and ends). When absorbed into the “absolute” medium of the string quartet, these effects retain their expressive potency, but are no longer limited in their connotation to the simple emotional opposites defined by the poem.
Or take the opening of “Am Meer” (“By the sea”), a song composed for the Schwanengesang collection in 1828 to words by Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), the most outlandishly subjective and ironic of all romantic poets (Ex. 3-8a); or else take the opening of Die Allmacht (“The Almighty”), a majestic hymn composed in 1825 to words by the composer's friend Johann Ladislaus Pyrker (Ex. 3-8b). These songs give off an aura of the sublime—in Wordsworth's unimprovable lines, “The sense of God, or whatsoe'er is dim/Or vast in its own being”5 —obtained by juxtaposing the tonic in brusque unruly fashion with chromatic chords of a kind that normally precede the dominant.
Approached this way, such chords, in the words of the famous music theorist Heinrich Schenker, “plunge into the very midst of spiritual experience.”6 Indeed, in “Am Meer,” a song of truly bizarre imagery (the lover's tears, a metaphor for sexual intercourse, when imbibed become a deadly soul poison), the uncanny chord comes first, so that the song begins with a shiver of uncanny subjectivity. It evokes or exposes Innigkeit in a spectacularly violent way, suggesting (in Kerman's words now) “everything in the world that is inward, sentient, and arcane.”7 More literally, perhaps, but also more chillingly, the unprepared augmented sixth chord in Am Meer might seem to symbolize the poisoned kiss itself.
Without the eccentric context provided by the poem, one thinks, such a progression could have no meaning at all. But then one hears the very opening of the Quintet in C major (Ex. 3-8c), composed the same year as “Am Meer,” and one has to think again. The same kind of uncanny juxtaposition materializes—even uncannier, because the diminished seventh proceeds not to the dominant, as in Die Allmacht, but circles right back to the tonic, the oscillations of E and E♭ hair-raisingly evoking modal mixture of the most destabilizing kind, with all its emotional implications intact. Yet it materializes in an imaginatively open-ended context, all the more arcane for its being wordless.
In which context did such arcane eloquence originate? Impossible—tantalizingly, blessedly impossible—to say. The combination of an extreme subjective expressive immediacy and an unspecified or “objectless” context is what gave rise to the sublime romantic notion of “absolute music”—one of the most potent, but also one of the most widely misunderstood, of all romantic concepts. Schubert's opening gesture in the quintet, more vividly than almost any other single idea that could be quoted in an example, gives an inkling of what one later composer (Richard Wagner) would mean when he spoke of music as “saying the unsayable,”8 or what another later composer (Felix Mendelssohn) would mean when he said that the meaning of music is not too indefinite for translation into words, but far too definite.9
What these admittedly extreme examples also show is that by the end of his career, Schubert no longer distinguished between the possibilities of the lied and those of the more “artistic” genres against which the lied, as Kerman reminds us, had originally rebelled. This is not to say that Schubert did not share the general views of his time where the relative importance of genres was concerned. One of his most frequently quoted letters is the one to his friend Franz von Schober (30 November 1823) in which, with reference to the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (“The beautiful miller maid”), now regarded as one of his masterpieces, he complained that “since my opera I have composed nothing but a few songs to Müller.”10 (The poet of the cycle, Wilhelm Müller, was probably moved to write it by the implied pun on his own name, which means “miller.”) The opera (Fierabras) has been forgotten, but at the time it seemed to Schubert the more important work by far.
Still, there was nothing in the realm of harmonic invention, formal experiment, psychological nuance or even keyboard virtuosity, that was “too good” for a Schubert lied—with one conspicuous exception. Vocal (or “operatic”) floridity remained forbidden to the genre. Occasional cadential ornaments aside, there is never a hint of coloratura. On the rare occasions where Schubert allots more than two notes to a syllable of text, it is almost always for the sake of invoking some “preverbal” form of vocal expression—like the moan of pain that accompanies the word “Weh” (woe) in “Wasserfluth” (“The water current”), the fifth song in that gloomiest of song cycles, Die Winterreise (Ex. 3-9). The basic vocal idiom is always that of the Volksweise (folk tune), the “natural” music representing the “We,” inflected by eccentric details of melody, harmony, or accompaniment that at extreme moments allow the “I” to intrude.
The only exceptions to this rule are for the sake of irony, a sake that can justify the suspension of any rule. Irony—saying one thing and meaning another—is sometimes regarded (especially by poets who specialize in it) as being somehow inaccessible to music. W. H. Auden, one of the great poets of the twentieth century, writing in collaboration with Chester Kallman, once permitted himself to assert that
since music, generally speaking, can express only one thing at a time, it is ill adapted to verses which express mixed or ambiguous feelings, and prefers poems which either express one emotional state or successively contrast two states.11
Beginning with Schubert, though, there is scarcely a composer of song (or opera) who did not contradict this blunt dictum on practically every page, for irony (with its stronger relative, sarcasm) is one of the romantic artist's most indispensable tools. Even if Auden and Kallman's basic premise were true, that music “can express only one thing at a time,” music in conjunction with a text can easily express “mixed or ambiguous feelings,” or downright contradictory ones, with breathtaking and often heartrending effect. But of course we have already seen that Auden and Kallman's basic premise is untrue. Just recall all the harmonic “puns” encountered in the previous chapter—for example between the dominant-seventh chord, which resolves straightforwardly by fifth progression, and the “German sixth,” which resolves obliquely by half step—and the ways in which Schubert is able to exploit such ambivalences in order to express an enormous range of ambiguous feelings even in the absence of words.
In “Der Müller und der Bach” (“The miller and the brook”), the next-to-last song in Die schöne Müllerin, irony works on a number of levels that together make this ostensibly pretty song an agonizing heartbreaker. This cycle is an especially “novelistic” one. It follows one of the stereotypical novel plots: boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy loses girl to a rival. The denouement is tragic: thwarted in love, the hero kills himself; and “The Miller and the Brook” records the very moment when the fatal decision is made.
Like Goethe's Erlkönig, the poem features the folkloric device of nature-made-animate: the journeyman miller and the brook engage in a dialogue. Only this time the device is not “naive.” The poet does not affect belief in the reality of the brook's voice; it is clearly delusional, turning the song into a typically novelistic interior dialogue. That is the first, purely textual, irony. The second irony consists in the unusually florid (=“pretty”) style of the setting, with its decorative melodic curlicues at cadences that do not always carry particularly charged words. Clearly, the youth is putting on tragic airs, at least at first (Ex. 3-10a).
The youth sings of his broken heart; the brook offers consolation (Ex. 3-10b), not only in its cheery babbling (the pianist's right hand!), but by a typical mode switch into the major. At the youth's reentry the mode switches back, but the brook's babbling continues: a synthesis. When the youth takes up the brook's major mode at the very last line, however, it marks no return to a solaced mood, but marks instead the moment at which his will to live is vanquished by his grief, which must find relief at any cost (Ex. 3-10c). And this, of course, is the third, most poignant irony. Comparison with Lachen und Weinen (Ex. 3-6) will drive the point home. In that song, as in “The Miller and the Brook” up to the last stanza, the mode symbolism is straightforward: major is happy, minor is sad. At the end of “The Miller and the Brook,” however, minor is sad and major is sadder. As before (for example, in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, discussed in chapter 1), as always, the irony comes about through a mastery of conventional codes that is so sure as to permit their idiosyncratic manipulation.
That mastery of irony, coupled with an unparalleled capacity to find the psychological or “interior” dimension in the poems he put to music, set Schubert apart from his songwriting contemporaries from the very beginning of his songwriting career. At first, like most composers of lieder, he worked within the limits of the volkstümlich lyric as established by Goethe. Two of his early hits, both written during his teens, were settings of the very poems given above as Goethean models together with their settings by Reichardt.
Schubert's Heidenröslein and his Erlkönig were both composed in 1815, when he was all of eighteen years old. They are a perennial classroom pair. The former illustrates the “strophic” type of setting favored by Goethe and his chosen musicians, in which only a single model musical stanza is composed and reused, just as in a folk song, as many times as the poem has stanzas, fulfilling the romantic ideal of naturalness. The latter exemplifies the more artistic kind of setting that Goethe claimed to despise, in which the musical setting follows the poem's meaning rather than its form, proceeding straight through without regular internal repetitions, each verse inspiring its own musical counterpart. There is no good single term to cover this kind of setting, since as a type it is defined basically by what it does not do, namely set the text “strophically.” What it does do has to be separately described each time or else presented without comment, since part of the point of avoiding the strophic style was to make the setting sui generis—that is, constituting a class of its own. This, too, was a romantic ideal: Herder himself was obsessed with the notion of being sui generis to the point of inventing a German equivalent, urwüchsig (roughly, “growing from scratch”), from which he derived the rather monstrous abstract noun Urwüchsigkeit to define the quality of uniqueness that he valued above all. He applied these terms first of all to languages and language communities, of course, rather than to individuals. For urwüchsig lied settings “nonstrophic” would be as good (or bad) a term as any. What has in fact become standard is the equally clumsy and uninformative “through-composed,” a direct translation of the German durchkomponiert.
While it is customary to say that the strophic form is “natural” and the through-composed is “artistic” (and while we are following custom here), there is no reason why strophic settings could not be artistic in the highest degree. Schubert's Heidenröslein (Ex. 3-11) seems as natural (or “artless”) an imitation folk song as could be desired, distinguished above all by the memorable perkiness of its thrice-repeated strain. But Goethe's poem (see above) has a booby-trap in the form of an asymmetrical five-line stanza (rhyme-scheme ab/aab). Schubert found a wonderful solution to the problem of making the melody reflect the parallelism of the two unequal half verses and at the same time making the three-line group (terzet) as coherent a unit as the two-line group (couplet).
The couplet does what comes “naturally.” Its two lines each occupy two measures, and each of the four measures contains a single harmony, the whole describing a perfect cadence: . The “artistic” challenge comes with the terzet, where it becomes necessary to invent a three-stage harmonic design. First, by inflecting the C (the third of the ii chord) to C♯ on its second appearance (m. 6), Schubert turns it into a of V, a more restless harmony; next, by ending the second line of the terzet with a deceptive cadence (iii instead of V, the expected resolution), Schubert makes a third phrase (=line) necessary. Moreover, the five-line verse now ends with a half cadence on V, and it is left to the two-line refrain (mm. 11–14) to route the harmony back to the tonic. Thus the three cadences (couplet-terzet-refrain) together comprise an unshakably stable I-V-I progression, imparting a like shapeliness and stability to the stanza despite its asymmetry.
But now take an even closer look, at the placement of the harmonies not only with respect to one another, but also with respect to the words. In the second and the third stanzas (the ones supposedly left “to chance” or “to take care of themselves” in strophic settings), the tensest (most chromatic and dissonant) harmony—the “ of V”—coincides with the promise and then the delivery of the rose's painful retaliation (“Ich steche dich,” “… und stach”). Formal strategy and poetic meaning have thoroughly interpenetrated, as in only the most “artful” poems and songs. The eighteen-year-old Schubert was already a past master of art-concealing art.
(5) William Wordsworth, Prelude (1805), XIII.
(6) Heinrich Schenker, Der Tonwille (1921), quoted in Joseph Kerman, “A Romantic Detail in Schubert's Schwanengesang,” Musical Quarterly XLVIII (1962): 36.
(7) Kerman, “A Romantic Detail,” p. 40.
(8) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. III, trans. W. Ashton Ellis (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1907), p. 96.
(9) Felix Mendelssohn to Marc-André Souchay, 15 October 1842; Felix Mendelssohn, Letters, ed. G. Selden-Goth (New York: Vienna House, 1973), p. 314.
(10) O. E. Deutsch, ed., Franz Schubert's Letters and Other Writings, trans. V. Savile (New York: Vienna House, 1974), p. 75.
(11) W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, “Introduction,” An Elizabethan Song Book, ed. Noah Greenberg (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955), p. xvii.
- Citation (MLA):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003006.xml>.
- Citation (APA):
- Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003006.xml
- Citation (Chicago):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003006.xml