Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Schubert: Winterreise, Part 3

I want to look at a couple of individual songs in the cycle. The title, though I'm sure you know, means "Winter Journey". The poems make frequent use of winter metaphors to express the mood of the lover--bleak as a rule. In "Letzte Hoffnung" ("Last Hope"), the lover is watching the last few leaves clinging to a tree. He fixes on one and imagines that if it does not fall, then there is still hope. How true it is, when we are in the depths of love's despair, we imagine any kind of crazy scenario that might get us back with our beloved.

(Refer back to my first post on this cycle for complete performances. The complete score can be found here.)

The piano part brilliantly captures the fluttering of the last few leaves on a tree, shaken by a passing breeze.

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The piano's constant syncopation (the entry always on the offbeat) provides a good part of the effect, the rest comes from the harmony. The key is E flat as we know from the three flat key signature and also from the final chord. But there is not much to clue us into that at the beginning. Remember that a fundamental principle of tonal music as it was practiced from around 1600 is that we get confirmation of the key pretty early in a piece--usually right away. And confirmation means that we get a perfect authentic cadence. This principle was followed very strongly in all Classical era music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In order for us to know that we are in E flat we need that cadence: B flat, D, F (and usually A flat) followed by E flat, G, B flat. But what do we hear? C flat and A flat? Which is the enharmonic equivalent of B to G sharp! So what we are actually hearing in the first measure (plus upbeat) is a dominant chord with a minor 9th--and we hear it from the top down, meaning that we hear that minor 9th first. On the downbeat of the second measure we do get our V7 chord, which is enough to indicate the key--but we have not had a tonic yet, so things are still up in the air. When do we get that elusive tonic? Not until the end of the first phrase in the voice, the downbeat of the fourth measure of the second system, where we get a nice clear V-I cadence. Let's have a listen:


Schubert achieves this uniquely uneasy mood of mixed trembling hope and agitated despair largely through the unstable harmonies, always turning in slightly puzzling directions. For the line, taken at a slower tempo, when the leaf falls and his hope is gone, he turns to E flat minor. The voice and the piano cadence together, the simplest V - I in E flat, at the end, but then the piano has an unsettling little coda:

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As soon as the tonic is reached the piano inflects to the Neapolitan with F flat - E flat and then hints at A flat major with its vii┬║: G, B flat, D flat, F flat. After tonicizing A flat with its V6/5, we get a plagal cadence A flat to E flat!

It is really Schubert who lays out a lot of the harmonic devices that the 19th century will use. But this song, with its almost pointillistic piano part, hints at the 20th century.

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