Schubert’s Lieder

4 April 2017

Among the many lieder composed in the 19th century, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” was composed in February 1817 identifying two characters; Death and the Maiden, exemplifying a different concept on the musical theme of seductive death. Set to text of lyricist Matthias Claudius who did not merely profess simplicity like the other poets, Schubert introduces a different perspective to the use of music in the 19th century. Death and the Maiden can be clearly split into three sections with distinct feelings.

Firstly, a slow funereal introduction with the use of dense chords played in the bass register to illicit a mood of sorrow in the key of D minor played by the piano features dactylic rhythm (long note played followed by two short notes – minim and two crotchets in song), which is often associated to funerals or a person’s impending death. D minor which “sounds melancholy, gently sorrowing” (Steblin, 2002) was Schubert’s key-symbol of death. Though there are no words by Death in the introduction, it can be seen as a shadow of death appearing into the picture.

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Next, the fearful Maiden sings in a fast paced agitated tone, trying to fight, resist and plead against death to “pass her by”. The melodic line seems to go up the D minor scale from A to E-flat, along with the quickened piano accompaniment which builds up the frightened atmosphere as well. This increase in pace allows us to sense the panic that the Maiden was feeling as Death approaches her. Towards the end of this section, the mood changes slightly with the use of dactylic rhythm which will be discussed in the essay.

Lastly, Death comes in a soothing and calm tone reassuring the Maiden that he is a “friend”, as if persuading and convincing the maiden that death is the best solution to her life. (Branscombe, 1982) The song ends in a recapitulation of the introduction but in the parallel D major key. This gives a different perspective and contrasted to death which people of that age thought it would be. Death is usually portrayed as a scary image (memento mori – often represented as a human skeleton), something to be fearful of.

Memento mori reminded one of the late Middle Ages to “remember thy death. ” However Schubert uses the ombra style on his treatment on the theme of death which was at that time a favourite subject of classical and romantic poetry which exhibits characteristics associated with death. Operas which had such styles were popular at that time. Death is shown as a comforter, a symbol of sleep which was sharp contrast from the medieval image of death, introduced in the enlightened age.

This was used by many composers and poets as it was explored deeply as people were curious in wanting to understand death, what lies beyond this life on earth and religious faiths have stepped in and tried to reason to the people what the bible said about death. The harmonic contour of Schubert’s lieds breaks away from the “straight-forward” classical style of dominant and tonic, resolution and circle of fifths on its musical structure, stepping beyond Classical boundaries.

Contrasting harmonies, rhythmic patterns and dynamics sang by Death and the Maiden can be distinctively recognised, thus allowing us to identify the differences between the two dialogues. One of which is the use of dactylic rhythm which Schubert frequently uses in his compositions. The dactylic rhythmic pattern used in this lied only appears in the parts where death speaks. It becomes a familiar rhythm that repeats in the second portion of the lied.

As seen in this lied, it is through the use of this rhythm (long-short-short) that allows us to identify the “sound of death” though without words or intonation of the voice that would explain the reason behind the work. On the other hand, the melody of the maiden comes in at bar 9 on an anacrusis with the piano accompaniment playing syncopated chords of quavers alternating in the left and right hand. The rhythm is played “somewhat quicker” as indicated in the score, with the increase in dynamics.

This allows the listener to sense the Maiden’s panic as Death approaches her. Eventually the dynamics decreases, and the rhythm slows down a little at the last line of this stanza, which is repeated twice as the notes descend sequentially. The re-emergence of the tempo, dynamics and dactylic rhythm which was used in the introduction seems to overlap the previous section, providing a smooth transition to the next section where Death speaks. The melody of Death is almost one note, D somehow relating back to the D pedal played in the introduction.

Through this song, the keys moves from D-minor, to G-minor to A-major, starting again on D-minor where Death speaks, modulating to its relative major F-major, then to D-major. What is interesting is that at the last syllable of Death’s song, the key changes into D major. This various modulations through major and minor tonalities in a song of 43 bars seem to be apparent in Schubert’s works. Another interesting point is that the coda is almost a repeat of the introduction, except it is shortened by one bar and is now in D major which is related to s “the key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries and victory-rejoicing. ” (Steblin, 2002) This leads one who is listening to this song, to imagine and construct the thought of the Maiden succumbing into Death’s temptations and being in the arms of Death in the end, without using words. In terms of phrase structure of sections, the Maiden’s section (Section A) is asymmetrical and has irregular phrasing made up of (7+5 bars). Death’s section (Section B) is symmetrical with two eight-bar periods each having an antecedent and consequent phrase structure.

Instead of the usual use of root position chords that are commonly used before the 19th century, there was a daring use of diminished chords(bar 13) which provides an eerie mood, chords with first or second inversion(bars 10,11) with minimal use of chords in the root position. As mentioned above, Schubert’s lied; specifically on “Death and the Maiden” serves as an example that allows us to identify various stylistic elements which contribute to 19th century music. The stylistic element of Schubert’s method is his freedom of use with traditional musical forms and procedures.

Schubert went further than previous composers in giving his imagination free rein, though still following the “rules” of music, but he makes it flexible to mould the possibilities of the words in ways that sometimes take the listeners far from their original structure as poems. Poets such as Goethe who is known as the “father of literature” favored simple accompaniments to complement his poems, wanting song writers who used his poems to follow simplicity and not cover up the meaning of the words.

Thus not allowing his poems to “borrow” fame from the lied of Schubert as many of their poems were made famous after the addition of Schubert’s music rendition. The use of dactylic rhythm as a representation of death explores the idea of a composer producing certain tunes to express what is to be revealed to the listener. Being expressive in terms of dynamics using a great range of mood and complexity and his daring use of modulations which move out of the classical realm of being fixed with harmonic progressions or phrase structures, play a part in contributing to 19th century stylistic elements.

In the second part of the essay, the role of instrumental music during the first half of the 19th century would be discussed. Using Schubert’s work as an example, the strengths and weaknesses of identifying a composer’s works as considerations of ‘text and music’ as compared to other works would also be discussed. As mentioned earlier, people of the 18th century sought to discover and find out answers about life and death, leading to the enlightenment age.

But by the end of 18th century, many rejected the idea of having to find out and reason the question about life, and turned towards expressing their emotions and feelings. This brought about a new kind of inspiration just like how Schubert wanted to express his love for poetry and the literature of his day which through his lied could bring to life and enhance the power of the words, leading to Romanticism. Composers seek to place new emphasis on expressing their emotions and thoughts through their freedom of melodic and structural use providing a great range of mood and complexity.

They were more daring in modulations, exploring the possibilities of chromatic and enharmonic modulations and to be able to modulate to any key. Dissonant and unstable chords were used more freely than in earlier periods, to create a mood or atmosphere that the composer wanted to bring across. In the 19th century the world was faced with a wave of industrial revolution, with events such as French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that affected music as well.

The growing knowledge of science, major technological inventions such as that of the steam engine, gave man a growing ability to control the world. In earlier ages, composers’ works were appreciated and watched by small groups of aristocrats and royalties, who had knowledge about music and could afford to set up such performances, as a form of private entertainment. However with revolution, the audience moved to a diverse middle-class crowd and composers now had to write music for a large audience, changing the role of instrumental music in order to get their source of income.

It can be said that romanticism can be classed into two categories: lyrical and dramatic. The emergence of lied- art song due to the flowering of German literature inspired poets and composers to find a balance between words and music through the use of piano accompaniment for the voice. As mentioned earlier in the example of Goethe’s poem and Schubert’s lied, lyricists wanted to achieve the goal which was to get a fusion of words and music, but music to take precedence and not overload the poem with too much elaboration.

Through the development of the various instruments such as the piano with an increase range and chromatic abilities and different tone qualities and textures allowed for exploration of technological advances to be used in music. Given the fact that composers were no longer restricted by the limitations of voice ranges, music was used as an integrative partner to the voice. Music had to be identified as a language, in fact, the first of mankind (Rosen, 1996). Instrumental music with no words could engage listeners and allow them to explore their imagination regarding the music that has been played.

Using this advantage, composers were allowed to come up with more melodious, complicated melody lines to trigger human emotions along with the text of the lied. Therefore, it cannot be said that both text and music are in an independent world of its own. However, it is the emotions and images in text which shares its interpretation task with the accompanying melodies that are perfectly moulded into the text, complementing the piano commentary giving it an added dimension to the lied. In areas where linguistics lacks, there will music be filling the gaps and vice versa.

This synthesis of linguistics and music can be seen in lieder, where both are interdependent on each other, as opposed to late 18th century where the singer executed the melodic line of the piano. This can be done through intermittent predominance between the voice and piano, which Schumann uses, in an attempt to express one language serving the other. Schubert composed songs which ranged from simple (like those composed by other composers) to highly dramatic and emotionally intense works which are often very challenging to sing and to play.

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