The Wonderful Month of May

This isn’t the post I promised, but I didn’t want to let the month of May pass without sharing my thoughts on a rather timely Schumann song, the first of his Dichterliebe cycle, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (“In the wonderful month of May”). One or two readers may even find this song particularly timely.

The score can be found on IMSLP. Here is a recording sung by Christine Schäfer, otherwise known for intense twentieth-century repertory such as Berg and Boulez.

Now, I could almost get away with claiming that this was the post I meant to write, and that I had simply mixed up Schubert and Schumann. It’s arguably easy to do: their names share an initial syllable, they’re both German Romantic composers of…a bunch of things, including piano music, Lieder, chamber music, and symphonies; and Schumann was one of the first to “discover” Schubert (notably the “Great” C-major symphony), on one occasion writing one of his own works with a pen that Schubert had allegedly used.

But no one would actually believe me if I claimed that.

Not even if I pointed out that this post, like its would-have-been-predecessor, is also going to feature Schenker prominently. Even more specifically, is going to feature my disagreement with an analysis by Schenker.

All of that being, of course, a coincidence as timely as this song, and the other main coincidence of this soon-to-be-past month (about which more…next month).

The text of the song, a poem by Heinrich Heine, is:

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,

als alle Knospen sprangen

da ist in meinem Herzen

die Liebe aufgegangen.

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,

als alle Vögel sangen,

da hab’ ich ihr gestanden

mein Sehnen und Verlangen.

Which means, approximately (bearing in mind that translating poetry is hard):

In the wonderful month of May,

as all the buds were springing,

there within my heart,

love was arising

In the wonderful month of May

as all the birds were singing

to her I confessed

my longing and desiring

It is a spectacularly poignant thought, juxtaposing the optimistic beauties of spring – in particular, the innocent life-affirmations of other organisms – with an implicit reference to struggle, and the possibility that these ‘longings’ and ‘desirings’ may remain unfulfilled. (Personally, I would have preferred that the pronoun ihr, “her”, have been ihnen, “them”, i.e. the birds – making the exact nature of those struggles and wants a bit more ambiguous; when a speaker in a nineteenth-century poem says “her” in such a context, we know all too well what is going on.) It is, at any rate, exactly up Robert Schumann’s alley.

I mentioned the possibility of unfulfillment above, but in point of fact that sense as I perceive it may well derive mostly from Schumann’s musical setting. The most striking feature of the song, surely, is that it does not end on the tonic – whatever you think the tonic is (more on that very shortly). It ends on the dominant of F-sharp minor, which is (just about) where it began, that troubled key serving as a sort of frame to the apparent springtime smiles of the A-major sung portion in between. The dominant of F-sharp minor, complete with a “seventh”, i.e. the fourth degree (B-natural). This quite obviously puts to rest any ignorant notion that a piece is required to end on the tonic in order to be “classically tonal”; no one, after all, thinks Schumann is an “atonal” composer.

(To prematurely put all my cards – back? – on the table, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “classical tonality” in the first place; but if you want to take a first step down the yellow-brick road that leads to that conclusion, look no further than here.)

Now to the interesting question – what key is this song in? The correct answer is F-sharp minor. I now present my analysis, which as usual is presented from a generalized Westergaardian point of view that interacts with Traditional Schenkerian concepts (and, in particular, Schenkerian-style analytical notation). (A distinct theory of my own lurks behind the scenes.)

At the background level (example (a)) we have only the beginning of an Urlinie – the primary tone \hat{5}, c\sharp ^2 , is established, prolonged, and (just) departed for what we may as well take to be \hat{4} (that is, structural \hat{4}, \hat{4} of the would-be fundamental line). Poetically this signifies non-fulfillment, of course, but more than that: tentativeness, hesitation, and uncertainty. We do not know the end of the story. Dare we even start down this particular path?

I chose my words carefully: we have only the beginning of an Urlinie. Not (heaven forbid), “the Urlinie of this piece is \hat{5}  – \hat{4}”. An Urlinie (fundamental line) by definition can only start on a tonic triad pitch (\hat{3},  \hat{5}, or \hat{8}), descend by step, and arrive on \hat{1}. This statement is not some kind of empirical prediction about what musical pieces do; it is the definition of a certain notion of completeness, closure, fulfillment. When the background shows anything other than a proper Ursatz (fundamental structure), we have incompleteness, openness, unfulfillment.

Which sometimes happens. Even in music of the “tonal era”, such as this piece. Thus, neither is the Ursatz some kind of definition of “tonality”, whether “classical” or otherwise. It is, rather, more or less what Schenker thought it was – the manifestation of what he called “organic coherence”. For him, of course, it was an aesthetic principle that pieces should display this structure in its fully realized form (which is no doubt why he reads this piece differently than I do – more on that below). But not everyone, and not every composer, shares this aesthetic principle, certainly not in so rigidly dogmatic a form as it was put forth by Schenker in his later period. It is possible to have a more general, more open, more comprehensive aesthetic orientation, while still possessing full understanding of the power and importance of the particular effect that Schenker regarded as the sine qua non of the “musical artwork”.

Thus, sometimes the background will not display an Ursatz, but only a fragment of one. This, on my reading, is the situation here.

But is my reading the right one? Schenker himself analyzes this piece (or rather, the first eight measures of it) in Figure 110 c), 2 of Free Composition:


Thus, he thinks the piece is in A major. The appeal of this is obvious: there is a clear cadence in A major, in m.6, repeated in m.8.

But how does this A-major relate to the F#-minor material at the beginning? This analysis is presented in a section of the book dealing with what Schenker calls the auxiliary cadence. The situations encompassed by this term – this section of the book, at any rate – are those in which the fundamental structure (or a “transferred” manifestation thereof at a later level) does not begin in a tonic configuration (Stufe).

For Schenker the “C#-major harmony” at the beginning is III of A major supporting \hat{3}, taking the place of I. In some sense, then, it’s “not even” the dominant of F# minor, although one could argue that F# minor is still implicit given how it progresses. I don’t think Schenker would argue that; I actually suspect that he doesn’t want to ackowledge F# minor at all.

However, there is no other key in which the first four bars, by themselves, can sensibly be interpreted. So let’s apply the principle of charity, and treat Schenker’s analysis as acknowledging this, but regarding the F#-minor tonality as ultimately subordinate to a larger A-major one. What does such an analysis entail, and what’s the case for it?

It amounts to regarding the first four bars as introductory, with the song “really” beginning at (the pickup to) m. 5. This point of view is not crazy: that is, after all, where the voice enters. Furthermore, it is only when the voice exits that the piano, on its own, returns to F# minor (mm. 13ff and 23ff). To consider this F#-minor material as a kind of dangling poetic commentary, repeated at various crucial points, on what is fundamentally an A-major song is to take a perspective not completely without foundation.

However, I actually think the song is more unified and cohesive than that. The entrance of the voice right before m.5 strikes me as a continuation, rather than a destination, of the piano material. (To be sure, m.6 sounds like an arrival, but m.5 doesn’t.) Everything that happens subsequently – most particularly, the descent c\sharp ^2 - b^1 - a^1 – is perfectly consistent with an overall F#-minor tonality established at the beginning; that a piece in a minor key would soon land on the relative major is no anomaly.

In an A-major analysis, one has to either (1) regard the various repetitions of the descent c\sharp ^2 - b^1 - a^1 as unequal in structural status (implausible), (2) not regard any of them as being a true arrival on \hat{1} (but then you lose most of the appeal of assuming A-major to begin with), or (3) regard “all tensions” (or rather, the highest-level ones) in this piece to have “ceased” at m.6.

Whereas, in an F#-minor analysis, you just have to accept that a fundamental structure can be left incomplete in a work; cohesion is not, in fact, the same as closure.

I think I’ll discuss the later levels…later.


One Response to The Wonderful Month of May

  1. […] of a certain flexibility in the process of translation from German to revisit and reevaluate my post from a year ago on Schumann’s song “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”. How much do I agree with myself? How has my theoretical outlook […]

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