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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Critics
Richard Taruskin

Schumann most clearly and convincingly aimed at this complexity in his character pieces for piano and his songs, the private genres in which Schubert had set the standard. He was very conscious of Schubert as a forebear—exceptionally so for the time, when most German composers sought preceptors chiefly in Beethoven and (lately) in Bach, and were striving mightily to build a national repertory in the “public” forms of symphony and oratorio. Schumann venerated the great Bs, too, and emulated them in his large orchestral and choral works, which he wrote with increasing frequency as his career progressed, and especially after he succeeded Mendelssohn and Hiller as music director at Düsseldorf in 1849.

At the outset of his career, though, in his Davidsbündler period, Schumann was among the few who found special inspiration in Schubert, in whom he saw a sort of musical novelist. In a letter to Friedrich Wieck, Schumann compared Schubert directly to the popular romantic novelist Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763–1825), who wrote under the pseudonym Jean Paul. The comparison is especially revealing because Schumann is known to have secretly modeled some of his early piano pieces on favorite passages in works by Jean Paul, especially Die Flegeljahre (“years of indiscretion”), a long bildungsroman (novel of coming-of-age) in four volumes with which many young romantics ardently identified. Schumann's own identification with this novel was such that he consciously modeled the personalities of his literary alter egos, Eusebius and Florestan, on the twin brothers Walt and Vult, the novel's joint heroes.

More generally, if literary music was Schumann's ideal, he could have found no better model for it than Jean Paul's musicalized literature, in which musical experiences and occasions often trigger major Erlebnisse (emotional epiphanies, transcendental moments) in the novels. Jean Paul was a skilled amateur pianist who habitually put himself in the mood to write by improvising Sturm und Drang fantasias at the keyboard. Thus, music of a particular free-flowing style congenial to the romantic temperament may even have helped the writer find his unique and fascinating literary voice, with its apparently meandering, erratically digressive manner.

So this is what Schumann meant when he wrote to Wieck that “when I play Schubert, it is as though I were reading a composed novel of Jean Paul.”5 What was most remarkable in Schubert, he went on, was his “psychological” quality: “What a diary is to others, in which they set down their momentary feelings, etc., music paper really was to Schubert, to which he entrusted his every mood, and his whole soul, musical through-and-through, wrote notes where others use words.” Schumann's choice of words (“momentary feelings”) was surely an allusion, conscious or not, to Schubert's Moments musicaux, and we will find in Schumann a similar preoccupation with harmonic nuance and ambiguity. Indeed, prompted by Schubert's example, Schumann went further and became the master of the unconsummated harmonic gesture, one of the most potent of all romantic “musico-literary” effects.

Since we have approached Schumann by way of Schubert, it would make sense to look first at one of his song cycles (“novels in song”), in which he successfully emulated Schubert's most characteristic achievement—so successfully that it is fair to call Schumann's the only cycles that truly rival Schubert's in stature and in frequency of performance. Fully five of them were written in a single year, 1840, during which Schumann produced an astonishing sum of 140 lieder. The great “song year” was also the year of his marriage to Clara Wieck, who was about to reach majority, after years of legal travail.

As Schumann's Florestan once said, “I do not like those whose life is not in unison with their works.”6 Schumann's commitment to art song, that is to composing endless variations on the theme of love, can hardly be read any other way than in light of Florestan's dictum. But whether it was a case of art spontaneously imitating life, as romantic doctrine would have it, or one of life imitating art in conformity with romantic doctrine, is more difficult to say. Hardest of all to decide is how much significance such biographical resonance should be accorded in our appreciation of the works. That is an unsettled, and unsettleable, debate of long standing. We will engage the issue, but don't expect solutions.

Variations on the theme of love must include some sad ones, of course, and this already casts some doubt, in the present instance, on the simple proposition that an artist's works, no matter how romantic, are the direct outgrowth and expression of lived experience. Indeed, the outstanding product of 1840, Schumann's year of long-deferred conjugal bliss, was Dichterliebe (“Poet's love”), op. 48, a set of love songs to lyrics by Heinrich Heine that trace the most dismal emotional trajectory imaginable, a painful saga of unrequited love.

Literary Music

fig. 6-3 Heinrich Heine as drawn by Wilhelm Hensel, 1829.

Dismal, yes, but not tragic, the way Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin is tragic, for the cycle ends not with suicide but (as Heine tells us) with renunciation and (as Schumann tells us) with eventual healing. Heine was the great master of emotional ambivalence, and that made him the perfect partner for Schumann. From chapter 2, we may recall Heine as the author of the weird ironic poems that drew from Schubert, in the last year of his life, some of his most extravagant harmonic vagaries. Schumann was the first composer to set Heine's verse in quantity.

The sixteen songs in Dichterliebe (out of twenty originally composed in a single feverish week at the end of May) are all settings of poems from Heine's early collection, Lyrisches Intermezzo, which contains sixty-six poems. Schumann's selection begins with Heine's no. 1 and ends with Heine's no. 66, so that the cycle can be viewed as a sort of condensation of the book. Ex. 6-1 amounts to a condensation of that condensation, sampling the first pair of songs, the last song, and two Erlebnisse from within the cycle.

The first song, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (“In the ravishing month of May”), is an especially good candidate for reading as a direct translation of lived experience, since it concerns longing that is felt during the very month in which Schumann, then longing for union with Clara, is known to have composed the song. A question, though: exactly what difference does it make to the listener to know these facts? And another: are the feelings of fictional characters, as embodied in art, less real than those of their creators? Whatever our response to these questions—hence whatever the “source” of the emotion expressed in the song (whether Schumann's life, Heine's life, or that of the fictional “poet” of the title)—the task of the “literary” musician remains the same. It is to find a musical embodiment of the emotion that will complement, and hopefully intensify, the verbal one, thus to arouse a sympathetic vibration in the beholder (for it is ultimately the beholder's life that is of greatest concern—at least to the beholder).

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ex. 6-1a Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe, Op. 47 , no. 1 (“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”)

The nature of that embodiment is apparent from the very first downbeat, in which the entering left hand creates a strident dissonance, a major seventh, against the tied upbeat in the right. That dissonance we immediately recognize as a suspension. (We may even wish to call it an “unprepared” suspension since it is not preceded by a consonance between the parts, but only by a single note in one.) We know how a suspension must resolve. Therefore, we feel a “longing” to hear a B—a longing that by a common convention we may wish to ascribe to the C♯ itself, thence to the singer of the song (even though he has not sung anything as yet). Nor is our longing immediately satisfied: the dissonant note is held over an arpeggiation of five tones, three of them also dissonant against C♯, during which the suspension, the first harmonic gesture in the song, remains unconsummated.

To dispose of a common objection to “musico-literary” interpretation: our longing to hear the B is admittedly created not by the sounds alone and unassisted, but in response to cultural conditioning (that is, what we have learned from our previous experience with suspensions). That only makes the device more apt, since the association of amorous longing with springtime (on an analogy, stated in the poem itself, with the burgeoning of plant life, or in conditioned response to hearing the songs of the returning birds) is also a cultural construction, not an instinct. (Humans, after all, unlike most animals, do not experience natural “heat,” or seasonal periods of sexual appetite.) These are not meaningful objections; it is no news to anybody that human beings live and act in a state of culture, not unmediated nature.

The local resolution of C♯ to B occurs during a larger progression that could be viewed as complementary in function: a B minor triad in first inversion moves to a dominant seventh on C♯. The repetition of this progression in mm. 3–4 produces another sort of frustrated longing, through another “unconsummated harmonic gesture,” as the dominant seventh fails to resolve to its implied tonic, F♯. The song's key signature, that of F♯ minor, corroborates that aural impression. Even without looking at the music (but all the more keenly if we happen to be looking) we are conditioned to interpret the progression as iv6–V7 in F♯ minor.

In m. 5, where the voice enters, another frustrating oscillation between dominant and subdominant seems to get underway. But the vocal phrase reroutes the progression toward a cadence in A major, also a possible reading of the key signature. Now we are conditioned retrospectively to interpret the B minor triad as a pivot, changing its function from minor subdominant to major supertonic. This new implied cadence—ii6–V7–I—is confirmed in measure 6. It seems to identify the “real” key of the piece as A major, and the piano's four-bar prelude as a feint.

But lest we be lulled prematurely into a false sense of tonal security, let us recall that if the opening bars were a harmonic feint, then the dominant seventh of F♯ minor is still unresolved. It is still an unconsummated harmonic gesture, and still hangs over our perception of the apparent “perfect” cadence in m. 6, coloring it with a pesky sense of ambiguity (of possible “III-ness”) that renders it fragile. And in fact it turns out to be impermanent. The voice repeats the cadence on A in m. 8, but then moves on (m. 10) to a cadence on B minor, achieved through an appoggiatura (another “longing” tone—and look what an assortment of appoggiaturas show up to second it in the piano part!), and finally (m. 12) to a cadence on D major to finish up the stanza, approached through another appoggiatura, G-natural, that actually contradicts the key signature. If D major is in fact the tonic of this song, then everything up to now has been a feint.

The returning piano figuration in m. 12 (in which the G♯-F♯ effectively cancels the voice's G-natural, which had proceeded to F♯ in the same register) shows the excursion to D major to have been the harmonic feint. D major in root position links up smoothly with the inverted B-minor chord from before, and the interrupted cadence—or rather, the unconsummated oscillation—of iv6 and V7 in F♯ minor is resumed to link the two strophes, the second being a harmonic replay of the first, repeating at the end (over the very word Verlangen, “desire”) the unconfirmed—and unconfirmable—excursion to D major.

So what, then, is the function of the D-major triad, on which the voice makes its illusory cadence? Like the inverted B-minor triad—the other chord with D in the bass—it is a pivot that links the signature-sharing keys of F♯ minor and A major, and preempts their cadential fulfillment. The voice part begins and ends on harmonic pivots, hovering perpetually on a cusp between two keys, both sanctioned by the signature but neither cadentially confirmed. Since a pivot is by definition a harmony with a dual (or multiple) function within a piece or progression, the tonality of the song thus hovers undecidedly—and undecidably—in an unprecedented “in between” region, fraught with ambiguity in the most genuine and literal sense of the word. Which key is it in? Both and neither.

In its refusal to settle the matter of keys, the entire song thus prolongs a single unconsummated harmonic gesture—expressed most dramatically by the piano's forever-oscillating, never-cadencing ritornello—that finds its “objective correlative” (its fixed semantic counterpart) on the literary plane. That final line, “my longing and desire,” has the last word in a profoundly musical sense, made palpable by the very last note in the song—a B that in context functions as an unresolved, unconsummated seventh. After it dies away the air veritably tingles with the longing and desire it has created/symbolized/embodied.

Of course this is only the first song in a cycle of sixteen. We can hope, like the singer (as we are left imagining him), that resolution and consummation will come in the next song (Ex. 6-1b). That is not only an emotional but an esthetic plus: the unresolved seventh demands that the cycle continue, heightening the sense of “organic” unity that binds it into an artistic whole transcending the sum of its parts.

But does resolution come? The first harmony in the second song consists of two notes: A and C♯. They are both part of the F♯-minor chord the first song leaves us longing for, but the defining root is missing. The same two notes are equally members of the A-major triad, the first song's undecidable alternative tonic. Thus Schumann has found another way to defer an unequivocal statement—which accords perfectly with the sense of the second song, which is one big “if.” As the bass moves down the scale, the full F♯-minor triad is sounded briefly on the second beat. But this is no unequivocal statement: the chord occurs in a weak rhythmic position, and the bass moves right on down to D—the first song's dread pivot note. The “if” remains resolved.

It is never resolved at all in the poem, and yet we notice that eventually the song does cadence firmly—and repeatedly—on A, the “wrong” goal, disconfirming the first song's closing gesture and perhaps telegraphing the ultimate frustration of the poet's amorous longing. But do these cadences on A really give an answer, even if “wrong”? Does the music of the second song dispel the disquieting ambiguities of the first? A closer look at the relationship between the voice and the accompaniment shows that ambiguities remain, and that Schumann has merely found another way to leave harmonic gestures unconsummated.

Each of the singer's phrases contains two lines of the poem. Each verse couplet, though punctuated with commas rather than periods to maintain a sense of rhetorical urgency, contains a complete sentence, and each of them is punctuated in the setting, as we have seen, by a cadence. But the voice part ends every time on the supertonic, over a dominant chord, extended with a fermata. Every one of the singer's gestures, even the last, is thus demonstratively left unconsummated, preserving the open-endedness of the “if.” Harmonic closure comes only in the accompaniment, pianissimo, like an echo—or perhaps a reflected thought, suggesting imaginary fulfillment of the singer's iffy wish.

Literary Music

ex. 6-1b Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe, Op. 47, no. 2 (Aus meinen Thränen)

Like Schubert before him, Schumann had a special genius for expressing in music a condition contrary to fact—the most subjective (hence romantic) thing that music can do. And so we are prepared to grasp the irony with which the most seemingly definite and unequivocally consummated musical gestures in the cycle are undermined, turning consummation itself into a species of unconsummation. This paradoxical effect is the one for which Heine was especially famous; and the most famous example of all examples of it is the huge complaint called “Ich grolle nicht” (“I'm not complaining”), which Schumann set as the seventh song in Dichterliebe. Ex. 6-1c shows its second half.

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ex. 6-1c Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe, Op. 47, no. 7 (“Ich grolle nicht”), mm. 16-end

In this emotional turning point, the disillusioned poet lashes out at the love object who has rejected him. The poem is a rant, ably seconded by the pounding repeated chords in the pianist's right hand with their regular accents, and by the operatic ascent to the high note (famously an afterthought entered in proofs, but what of that?) to match the most extravagant poetic metaphor of the poet's rage. The setting is full of uncommonly straightforward word painting, sometimes verging on the corny (like the six-beat dilation on the word längst, “long”). All of this belaboring of the obvious can only be a signal that none of it is true.

Literary Music

fig. 6-4 Program of a subscription concert given in Düsseldorf (20 February 1851) at which Robert Schumann conducted Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Clara Schumann played Weber's Concertstück (Concert Piece) in F Minor under her husband's baton. As was usual at the time, there are songs and piano solos between the orchestral offerings, including Schumann's “Ich grolle nicht.”

And so the harmony confirms. The description of the poet's dream, in which the surface mood is what the Germans call Schadenfreude (gloating at another's misfortune), is undermined by the tortured harmony (every chord containing a dissonance!) that shows it is the singer, not the one figuratively sung to, who is truly elend (miserable). The most complete unmasking of the surface pretense, of course, comes right at the end, where the final refrain (Schumann's idea) is accompanied by the baldest IV-V-I imaginable, followed by a ranting postlude that does nothing except insist on the finality of the cadence, and capped by a quite gratuitously banged out . The most definite tonal assertion in the whole cycle accompanies its most flagrant lie—“I'm not complaining,” indeed! If the truth is ambiguous, the implication seems to be, only ambiguity can be true.

In song no. 12, of which the first half is given in Ex. 6-1d, nature becomes animate in good volkstümlich fashion. But Heine and Schumann remain incorrigibly urbane artists. Their folklikeness is never innocent. It continually veers over into the Schubertian twilight world of morbid self-absorption, an adamantly bourgeois domain. The harmony described by the piano's first arpeggio is an old Schubertian ploy, most familiar to us from the Moments musicaux (Ex. 2-6), a German sixth that is homophonous with a dominant seventh and hence contains the promise of double meaning. Its first alternative resolution (that is, the first instance of “doubleness”) comes in measure 9, at the moment when the flowers first speak to the poet from “their world” (meaning, of course, from his own “inner space”). Their actual words are set off later by a slower tempo and a modulation to the key of the diatonic submediant, itself an instance of doubleness since the German sixth occurs on the chromaticized (“flat”) submediant, through which safe return to the tonic is made two measures later.

Literary Music

ex. 6-1d Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe, Op. 47, no. 12 (Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen), mm. 1-9

As so often happens in Dichterliebe, the voice part in this song ends on an unconsummated dominant, to be resolved “inwardly,” in the accompaniment. That resolution takes place through one of the longest of the many extended piano postludes in the cycle. The postlude begins with a recapitulation of the piano's opening phrase, which had already recurred as a ritornello between the verses, thus suggesting that the poet's pensive stroll continues. But now he wanders wordlessly. It is as if Schumann were invoking Heine's own famous dictum, “When words fail, music speaks.” By seeming to supplement musically the poet's uncompleted thought, the composer invites the listener to complete them imaginatively, as a poet might do by ending a line with an ellipsis (“…”).

The listener's imagination is called upon again, even more urgently and explicitly, at the very end of the cycle. The last song—in which the love born at the beginning of the cycle, having died, is buried—is bitter and angry, another rant. The singer mocks his own grief with a parody of a merry song, and puffs it up with hyperbolic comparisons between love's coffin and the most enormous things he can think of (beer casks, bridges, cathedrals). Only at the end does the mood begin to soften. But the voice drops out (as usual, on an unconsummated harmony) before the change of mood is consummated. It is transferred first to the “thought music” in the piano, where we are at first surprised to hear a reprise of the postlude from no. 12, putting us back, as it were, in the summer garden for more tranquil recollection (Ex. 6-1e).

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ex. 6-1e Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe, Op. 47, no. 16 (“Die alten, bösen Lieder”), mm. 53-67

But then (m. 59) we are more than surprised; we may even be confused to hear what sounds like another song start up, but without the singer. This extra song is short but (unlike many of the actual songs in the cycle) melodically and harmonically complete. It does not allude to any previous song in the cycle. The texture, homophonic rather than arpeggiated, ineluctably suggests words, which we must supply (or at least whose import we must divine) in our imagination, influenced in part, to be sure, by the sensuous qualities of the music, but also, perhaps more strongly, by our own “take” on the situations conveyed by the whole cycle to this point.

So it is not just the beholder's imagination that is engaged, but the beholder's subjectivity, meaning the beholder's own unique combination of experience and inclination. As early as 1794, when the idea of the “esthetic” was new and romanticism was green, Friedrich Schiller commented on the need for this act of completion on the part of the beholder, and the way that it enriches the experience of art, when he wrote that “the real and express content that the poet puts in his work remains always finite; the possible content that he allows us to contribute is an infinite quality.”7

By “poet,” of course, Schiller meant to include all artists, and he surely meant to imply that all art inevitably shared the property to which he called attention. Nevertheless, once the idea was abroad there were many artists who were not content to leave the property latent or implicit. Romantic artists who wished most fully to realize Schiller's idea were the ones most inclined to leave important things deliberately unsaid. Among composers it was Schumann, with his boundlessly varied unconsummated gestures, who realized it in the highest and most principled degree. That is what the notion of “literary music,” in the profoundest sense, connoted.


(5) Quoted in Edward Lippman, “Theory and Practice in Schumann's Aesthetics,” JAMS XVII (1964): 329.

(6) Schumann, Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker, Vol. I (Leipzig, 1854), p. 18.

(7) Friedrich Schiller, review of Friedrich Mattheson's landscape poetry, quoted in Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 93.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Sep. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Critics. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006003.xml