Saturday, September 1, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Robert Schumann, Part 4

A few days ago I put up a post introducing Schumann's Dichterliebe, the poet's love. This is a remarkable cycle of songs that is particularly remarkable for expressing the longing and desire for fulfillment, but the impossibility of it in the music itself. I want to have a closer look at the first song because it can show us some of the ways that Schumann uses harmony. Let's listen to it again:

Charles Rosen, in his fascinating book on The Romantic Generation likens this song to a fragment, beginning in the middle and ending incomplete... The first time you hear it, it just sounds like a nice song about spring, but the more you listen to it, the more unsettling it is. For one thing, the more you listen, the less sure you are of what key it is in. D major? A major? F# minor? Here is a link to the first edition of the score. This very brief song, less than two minutes long, is beautiful and unsettling all at the same time--I believe that is the traditional definition of 'sublime'? Here is the score to the song:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Rosen says the song starts in the middle because the first note, on piano, is a C sharp held over into the next bar and as soon as the bass enters, we realize it is an unprepared suspension. The first interval is therefore a very dissonant major seventh. But what is that harmony? It sounds a bit like D major, but as the bar unfolds, a lot more like B minor with an A# leading tone. Turns out it is B minor in first inversion, which in A major is a II6 chord. In F# minor, our other candidate for tonic, it is a IV6 chord. Neither possibility establishes the key very clearly. The next bar is more promising as it pretty clearly lays out a dominant 7th harmony. The only problem is that, instead of proceeding to the tonic, an F# minor chord, instead the piano moves back to the B minor, II6 chord. This progression II6, V7, repeats, then the voice enters with that same C# unprepared suspension. But now, instead of the phrase taking us to V7 in F# minor, it instead takes us to A major, via its V7! Here the listener heaves a small sigh of relief: "ah, now I sense what key we are in!" This is right at the 19 to 20 second mark in the recording above, on the words "Monat Mai". The third and fourth lines of the song take us to suspensions in the voice: 4-3 in B minor on "Herzen" and 4-3 in D major on the "gangen" of "gegangen". Then all of this repeats. Finally, the piano has a brief postlude that ends on the V7 of F# minor! Begins in the middle and ends in the middle. A piece that is probably in F# minor, but that contains not one single full cadence in that key! The only full cadence is a momentary one in A major, that happens twice.

Obviously you could write an entire book on Dichterliebe and devote a couple of chapters to this song. Schumann, coming out of centuries in which the basic principles of counterpoint (how suspensions work) and harmony (how the cadence locates the tonic key) were developed, can play with them to have our expectations suspended, extended and in so doing, to embody in music, the sensations of romantic longing.

I now want to make a comparison of the kind that my readers may have grown to expect: how is Dichterliebe like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? The former is a song cycle and the latter the first so-called "concept album" which seems to mean that the whole is unified in some way. Obviously the only real unifying feature in Sgt. Pepper's is the reprise of the first, title, song. But similarly, in Dichterliebe the only real repeat is the quotation of the postlude to the twelfth song in the postlude to the last song. Schumann's cycle has many aspects that are open rather than closed and so does the Beatles' album. "A Day in the Life", the final song in Sgt. Pepper's falls outside the cycle of the album. The harmonic scheme in both Schumann and the Beatles is somewhat ambiguous. "A Day in the Life" begins in G major but ends with an E major chord. Both the title songs are more or less in G major.

Both sets of songs come out of a cultural context that the composers use to expand or defeat expectations. The context for Schumann is the very long one of Western counterpoint and harmony; for the Beatles it is the much briefer one of popular music since the end of the Second World War. They use many of the conventions both lyrical and musical, but are constantly improving and extending them. I certainly don't want to go overboard here by comparing chalk and cheese, but it is intriguing to set these two sets of songs side by side.

Schumann, while using no obvious links between songs except for the two postludes, has an evolving harmonic scheme, not to mention a kind of 'family resemblance' among melodic motives. One song, such as "Im wunderschoenen Monat Mai", ends with a dominant chord that seems to be resolved in the first notes of the next song--not quite as the key turns out to be A major, not F# minor. But the relationship is intentional. Sgt. Pepper's on the other hand, just doesn't function in this way. As with other Beatles albums, the songs are well-crafted, but fall in different genres: rock, music hall, Indian and so on. Great songs, but not conceived as a musical whole. What the album did succeed in were its true aims of a great leap forward in packaging and the idea of the band members appearing in a new persona, both ideas that have been used ever since by others. Musically, the songs are not related, apart from the reprise, and there is no narrative flow as there is with Schumann.

UPDATE: Just one small detail to add: when Schumann was writing Dichterliebe he was thirty years old and when Sgt. Pepper's was being recorded, John Lennon was a slightly younger twenty-seven years old.

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