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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

Heidenröslein was written in August 1815, Erlkönig in December. In between came sixty other songs, three choruses, a piano sonata, a set of twelve dances, a cantata, and an opera. By then Schubert was a seasoned composer of dramatic ballads; Erlkönig was his seventeenth essay in that genre. His earlier settings had relied a great deal on operatic devices, particularly the use of recitative for the narrator's lines. In Erlkönig, recitative has shrunk down to just a single line: the horrifying final one in which the child's death is revealed. Elsewhere the momentum is maintained at considerable cost to the poor pianist's right arm, to which the horse's incessant hoofbeats are assigned. (That triplet pulse, although never before so boldly rendered, was already traditional in setting this poem: compare Reichardt in Ex. 3-3.)

Besides the horse, there are four “roles” in this narration, each characterized in relief against the unremitting gallop—the increasingly distraught child, the desperately consoling father, the grimly deadpan narrator who sets the scene and tells the outcome, and, of course, the sinisterly beguiling title character. It is when the Elf King sings that the pianist gets a bit of relief, owing to Schubert's uncanny knack for ironic characterization. The sweet crooning of the sprite—sweet, that is, until he loses patience at the end of his third speech—so occupies the attention of the terrified but fascinated child that the hoofbeats fade into the background, only to return with redoubled force at each panicked outcry from child to father. That insidious ironic sweetness—experienced, as it were, from the threatened child's perspective—is much scarier than any conventional spookiness (like Reichardt's monotone chant) could be.

What keeps the dramatic pressure so high is not just the relentless (and potentially monotonous) rhythm, but also the tonal scheme. The Elf King, of course, always sings in major keys, in contrast with the horror music surrounding his interventions. They are, first, the relative major (B♭), then the subdominant major (C), and finally the inevitable submediant (E♭), poised strategically for a return to the tonic. In the long horrific middle of the song, however, from the Elf King's first appeal to the child until his last, successive cadences are pitched hair-raisingly on ascending half steps. Using capital letters to represent major keys and lower case for minor, the unprecedented progression of tonics is B♭–b–C–c♯–d–E♭.

Also perhaps unprecedented is the level of dissonance at the boy's outcries, “Mein Vater! Mein Vater!” At these points the harmony could be described as a dominant ninth chord with the root assigned to the pianist's horsy right hand. The voice has the ninth, pitched above, and the left hand has the seventh, pitched below. The result is a virtual “tone cluster” (D against E♭ and C the first time; E against F and D the second time; finally F against G♭ and E♭). Ex. 3-12 shows the end of the Elf King's first appeal (in B♭), the child's dissonant recoil to the sound of hoofbeats, and the modulations to B minor (father) and C major (the Elf King's second try). As in the case of the cycles of thirds investigated in the previous chapter, the harmonic logic of these progressions, within the rules of composition Schubert was taught, can certainly be demonstrated. That logic, however, is not what appeals so strongly to the listener's imagination; rather it is the calculated impression (or illusion) of wild abandon. The mark of a successful innovation, on the terms of the game as Schubert and his contemporaries played it, was to be at the same time novel and intelligible. That is a difficult assignment, here carried off by the eighteen-year-old Schubert seemingly at the prompting of a spontaneous (hence effortless) inspiration.

Representations of Consciousness

ex. 3-12 Franz Schubert, Erlkönig, mm. 66-85

Even Goethe, finally, was impressed with this song. Schubert sent him a copy in 1816 with a request for permission to dedicate the song to the poet, but received no reply. The poet was no doubt offended by the young composer's impudent failure to respect the poem's stanza structure—just the thing we post-romantics tend to value most highly in the song today. Fourteen years later, and two years after Schubert's death, a young singer, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804–60; soon to become the most famous dramatic soprano in Europe), sang it in the aged Goethe's presence and bowled him over. “I had already heard this song, and it meant nothing to me,” Goethe's literary assistant and biographer Johann Peter Eckermann recorded him saying, “but sung like this, it conjures up a great picture before my eyes.”12

Another song that ineluctably conjures up a picture is Gretchen am Spinnrade (“Little Margaret at the spinning wheel”), a famous set piece extracted from Goethe's dramatic poem Faust. Schubert's first masterpiece, it was written over a year earlier than Erlkönig, in 1814, when the composer was only seventeen. It is not a “still” but a “moving picture” that is conjured, a dramatic scene. On one level of motion, the “micro” level, we have the spinning wheel, rendered in wonderful detail: the oscillating right hand figure, marked sempre ligato, shows the wheel turning; the left hand thumb, marked sempre staccato, suggests its clicking; and the occasional pickups in the bass represent Gretchen's foot on the pedal (Ex. 3-13a). But this static representation turns dynamic, and we come to the “macro” level of depiction, when Gretchen, remembering Faust's kiss, momentarily forgets to spin, and the piano falls silent, only to start up again with the foot-on-pedal figure (Ex. 3-13b).

As in Erlkönig, what really keeps this scene in motion, far beyond the mechanism of mere scenic description, is the fluidly mobile tonal scheme, more an aspect of narration—and then? and then?—than depiction. The music begins and ends stably in D minor—or so it seems. On closer inspection, we notice a significant lack. The initial D-minor chord, whose figurations establish the picture of the spinning wheel, is never confirmed as tonic by a cadence. (The apparent V–I progressions in the bass, representing the working of the foot pedal, are not accompanied by changing cadential harmonies; they take place entirely within the continuously sounding tonic.)

In fact, the first chord that follows the tonic is a chord that destabilizes it: C major (m. 7), relative to which the first chord is not i but ii. The ostensible key of C is confirmed (albeit very weakly) by a cadence in m. 11, but slips back to the original tonic by m. 13. Still, though, there has been no strong cadence to D minor; the dominant harmony on the weak beat of m. 12 that pulls the music back toward D is lacking its crucial third, that is, the leading tone. The key of D minor is more solidly established than before, but still very weakly.

The original tonic is reestablished in m. 30 to accommodate the textual refrain (“Meine ruh ist hin…”), and only now is the chord of D minor preceded (in m. 29) by its fully expressed dominant. From here to the end of the song the key of D minor will return only with the refrain. Each time, moreover, Schubert will exploit the refrain's tonally open-ended character to launch anew modulation as Gretchen's memory ranges back over the events she is reliving. Most of the next section, in which she recalls Faust's physical presence and his kiss, moves as before through A minor to F major, but at m. 55 begins an intensifying progression similar to the one noted in the middle of Erlkönig, in which tonicizing cadences occur on successive steps of a scale—here G, A♭, and B♭, the last finally enhanced with an electric G♯ and resolved as an augmented sixth to the original dominant (enhanced with a shocking ninth) for the culminating recollection of the kiss.

All during this passage, the representation of the spinning wheel has been losing definition. The first thing to go (beginning in m. 51) is the click-click-click of the left thumb; later (m. 66), as we know, the turning figure itself is stilled. As Charles Rosen observes, the actual object of Schubert's representation “is not the spinning but Gretchen's consciousness of it,” just as the actual object of representation in Erlkönig was not the Elf King “as he really is” (there is, after all, no such thing—or so we think) but the child's consciousness of him.13

In both cases, consciousness of the “objective” surroundings (spinning wheel, hoofbeats) recedes as the “subjective” vision grows more vivid. The representation of “inwardness” as it interacts with and triumphs over the perception of external reality is the true romantic dimension here, the source of the music's uncanny power. “Objective” representation, whether of spinning wheels or horses’ hooves, was old hat, esthetically uninteresting in itself; its “subjective” manipulation is the startling new effect, prompted in Schubert's imagination by those “inward” aspects of the poem to which he was uniquely attentive.

To return to Gretchen: after the next refrain (mm. 73 ff), the music goes off on another “intensifying progression,” with successive cadences on E♭ (m. 86), F (m. 88), G (m. 90), and finally—after a long digression over a dominant pedal—on A (m. 97), treated immediately as the dominant of the original key, which allows the song to end with a final tonic refrain. What we have gone through (along with Gretchen, so to speak), is an extended “stream of consciousness” represented by the widely ranging harmony, its cadential processes and goals kept weakly defined on the surface (but, of course, at all times firmly directed and controlled from behind the scenes). A deliberately attenuated tonal coherence serves the purposes of psychological realism. The generic language of tonal harmony, one often hears it said, has been subverted in the interests of specific portraiture.

But of course that's only how things look. In fact, nothing has been subverted. Rather, a new task, that of representing a unique human exercise of memory in musical terms, has given rise to a new technique, a new way of using an existing vocabulary. Indeed, it was a musical need (tonal closure), one that no poet has reason to heed, that prompted Schubert to end his setting with a final refrain, absent in the original poem. Schubert's use of a refrain shows the way in which “strophic” and “through-composed” procedures, often presented as mutually exclusive stances or alternatives, actually work in harness, allowing individual lieder to assume a great variety of shapes, and turning the tension between the “shapely” (ontic) and the “dynamically progressing” (gignetic) aspects of form to expressive account.

From this earliest Schubert lied masterpiece let us jump to one of the latest—Der Doppelgänger (“The double,” from the Schwanengesang cycle)—for a last look at Schubert s transformation of the genre (Ex. 3-14). It is one of the few songs in which Schubert tackled the burgeoning “urban” romantic theme of mental disintegration, presented by poets of a post-Goethe generation without the sugar-coating of nature painting or folklore, and by composers who set their work without a reassuring veneer of Volkstümlichkeit. Without that veneer, which leaves open an interpretive escape hatch (was it really the Elf King? was it the child's delusion? was it marsh gas after all?), psychological realism—the reality of psychological disturbance brought about by the stress of urban living—is confronted head-on.

Representations of Consciousness

ex. 3-13a Franz Schubert, Gretchen am Spinnrade, mm. 1-17

Representations of Consciousness

ex. 3-13b Franz Schubert, Gretchen am Spinnrade, mm. 63-75

The poet most closely associated with the depiction of extreme or neurotic mental states triggered by thwarted desire was Heinrich Heine, Schubert's exact though much longer-lived contemporary. More precisely, as the Schubert scholar Richard Kramer points out, Heine ruminates ironically on the “bitter aftertaste”14 of love, rather than on the more familiar romantic theme of ecstatic anticipation, as for example in Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Der Doppelgänger, from Heine's Buch der Lieder (“Songbook,” 1827), the only book of his that Schubert lived to see, opened up a theme that would haunt romantic artists to the end of the century, and indeed beyond, as a metaphor for existential loneliness: the theme of dissociation, “out of body” experience. The poet, returning to the scene of an unhappy love, encounters a stranger who turns out to be himself, endlessly replaying the futile exertions of the past.

The mood of the poem is obsessional, to say the least, and so it may not completely surprise us that, just this once, Schubert chose the old-fashioned ground-bass form for his setting (Ex. 3-14). Here it functions not only as formal unifier but as metaphor. The four notes outlined by the outer voices in the chords played before the voice enters contain a very unstable interval, the diminished fourth A♯-D, that perpetually forces an obligatory resolution of the D (only “hearable” in B minor as an appoggiatura) to C♯. The motive, turned into an ostinato that continually forces the same resolution, figures the compulsively repetitive behavior the poem describes. Running through the song like an idée fixe, an incessant thought, it provides a frame for the voice's breathless phrases in quasi-recitative. (Schubert reused the motive, which he seems to have derived, diminished fourth and all, from the subject of the C♯-minor fugue in Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, to evoke a sense of uncanny awe in the Agnus Dei from his Mass in E♭ major, also the product of his last year, in which the motive modulates terrifyingly from the relative minor to the frightful, flat-filled parallel minor.)

There are two fixed and two variable notes in the ostinato. The B and the D are unalterable, whereas the A♯ and C♯, once their functions have become accustomed and predictable, are often lowered from their normal positions in the scale of B minor—the A♯ to a “modal” A and the C♯ to a “Phrygian” C—to enhance the effect of weirdness and abnormality. It is on one of the eerie Phrygian alterations, of course, that the singer recognizes his own horrifying image in the stranger—a German sixth (m. 41) that if normally resolved would lead out of the tonic key to its subdominant (as almost happens at the very end: one could, if one tried, hear the last two measures as a half cadence on the dominant in E minor). The chord does not proceed normally, however, but rather (in m. 42) resolves as an appoggiatura to a French sixth chord that serves as an altered dominant of B.

But now, in a fashion that anticipates one of the bedrock tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis, confrontation with—and acknowledgment of—the specter from the past brings relief (albeit temporary) from the obsessional pattern: the basso ostinato is replaced in mm. 42–54, corresponding to the lines addressed directly to the uncanny double, by another pattern that first rises by semitones and then briefly escapes to the major mediant. (The psychoanalytic resonance should neither disconcert nor be discounted as anachronistic; Freud repeatedly confessed his debt to the psychological insights of the romantic poets.)


(12) Otto Erich Deutsch, Schubert: A Documentary Biography (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1946), p. 906.

(13) Charles Rosen, “Schubert's Inflections of Classical Form,” in The Cambridge Companion to Schubert, ed. C. Gibbs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 77.

(14) Richard Kramer, Distant Cycles: Schubert and the Conceiving of Song (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 126.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003007.xml