Analysis of Schumann's Dichterliebe by Geert Woltjer

The cycle of songs

Komar (1971) argues that the cycle has a clear tonal structure, where Perrey (2002) denies this. It is obvious that there is at least some relationship between the songs. Let us first have a short sketch of the tonal structure, and then go deeper into the translation of the poetry into music. 

The tonal structure of the cycle is as follows (with the extra songs in the first conception of the cycle between brackets):

fis A D G (Es) (g) b e C a d g Es Bes (g) (Bes) es B E cis/Des
1 2 3 4 (4a) (4b) 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 (12a) (12b) 13 14 15 16

First, the important V of the first song of the cycle (Cis is V in f) is the tonic of the postlude of the last song, creating circularity in the cycle. Second, most songs are connected to each other by a dominant relationship between the tonics, a parallel tonality or a dominant relationship between the parallel of the song. So, the song 2 (A) is the major parallel of song 1 (fis), songs 2 (A) is the dominant of song 3 (D), song 3 (D)  is the dominant of song 4 (G). Songs 5 and 6 have the same relationship as song 2 and 3, but in the minor parallels. Then, in song 7, we continue the development of the major tonalities by going to C; the parallel of e in song 6, G, is the dominant of C. Song 8 (a) is the parallel minor of C in song 7. Songs 8 till 10 repeat the harmonic relations in songs 2 till 4, but in minor, where in song 11 the harmony goes to Es, the dominant of Es, Bes, is the parallel of g in song 10. In song 12 we go to Bes, this parallel of g, where Bes is the dominant of es minor in song 13. When we go from song 13 to song 14, we are in the middle of a dreaming process. This may explain the harmonic jump towards B in song 14, while Bes would have been more logic. B is the dominant of E, song 15, where cis in song 16 is the parallel minor of E. The postlude of song 16 is in Des, enharmonically the Cis, i.e. the dominant of the tonality of the first song.

The tonalities of the first part of the cycle are major, the middle of the cycle has mainly minor tonics, while at the end of the cycle major comes to the foreground again. This may be related with the accent of the positive aspects of his love in the first part of the cycle, the focus on anger and a sadness in the second part, and the reconciliation in the last part of the cycle.

If you look at the tonal scheme of the old 20 song cycle, it is obvious that they fit in the cycle. Song 4a is in Es, the major parallel of c minor of which G, the tonic of song 4 is the dominant. Song 4b is in g, the parallel of Bes, i.e. the dominant of Es in song 4a. Song 5 is in b the parallel of D that is the dominant of g in song 4b. Song 12a is in g, the parallel of Bes in both songs 12 and 12b. 

The first song suggests to be in fis minor, but never reaches the tonic. Both the piano prelude and postlude are have b and Cis7 chords, where the Cis7 suggests fis as the tonic. Because the tonic is never reached, longing is symbolized in the music. Especially the seventh (B) in the Cis chord as the last tone of the first song suggests this longing. Be aware of the importance of the Cis in the whole song: it starts with it, the right hand piano comes back continuously to it, the D solves towards it in the piano parts, and it is the tonic of the last chord. Also outside the harmony the longing is suggested.  The delays in the piano parts of this song, i.e. the appoggiaturas and suspensions, are very suggestive. 

Komar (1971) prefers A major as the tonic of the first song; it is at least obvious that the tonic is A major when the voice comes in. But after three measures the tonic becomes b minor and then D major, where this process is repeated in the second strophe. The fast harmonic changes may suggest the dynamics that is generated when you are falling in love.

The first song goes into the second song by giving a suggestion of the fis resolution of the Cis7 chord at the end of the first song. But starting with m. 2 the tonality of the second song becomes clearly A major, the parallel of the fis tonality of the first song. The Cis, that was central during the first song, is also very important during the second song.  The voice is circling around this tone most of the song, and only during the last three measures the Cis is not the rest point for the voice any more. As in the first song, the D is just as an appoggiatura for the Cis.  Another parallel with the first song is the importance of the V7 chord, in this song E instead of Cis. In contrast to the first song, the V7 is solved towards the tonic, but only as a short, very soft afterthought in the piano.

The melody of the second song catches the melancholy of the poem by a very horizontal structure, centered around Cis and B, and the downward movements in the bass lines. This in contrast with the first song, where the melody has large intervals and at the moments of the expression of longing also the dissonant anticipatory notes on the first beat (Herzen, aufgegangen, gestanden, Verlangen).

Song 3 is about the song the poet would sing if she would tell him that she loves him. The melody resembles in some way song 2, but is faster, has an optimistic rhythm, and is accompanied by a very dynamic piano part. At the magic moment when the song tells that his love is all of nature in one the voice reaches its high point, where the piano has a bass line that resemble the downward movements in song 2. Then the harmony also becomes more dynamic and finally goes through Cis7-fis of song 1 and E7-A of song 2 till the D tonality of song 3. Recognize also that during the first part of this song Cis remains an important tone, while the focus goes towards B in the second part of the song. A final nice detail is the minor e chord below the world "Liebe" in m. 10 and "Feine" in m. 14, that gives some intimacy to these words in a context of major chords.

Song 4 continuous with the focus on B as a central tone (as in the second half of song 3), and retakes the horizontal structure of song 2, but in a slower tempo. The song modulates fast from G to D to F to C to e and then after the diminished chord on "sprichst" in m. 13 creates some tension about what will happen, a rather fast progression through the circle of fifth (E7-A7-D7-G7-C) suggests the dynamics of the bitter tears. During the last for measures the harmony finds a rest point in the tonic G, but this doesn't feel as a real solution. An important connection in the last sentence (m. 14-16) is the long B, followed with a short A, both on "liebe" and "bitter", the second in a slower tempo, connecting by this motive the love and bitterness with each other. 

Also song 5 has a horizontal melody with B as a center in the vocal line, where the b minor is also the tonic. The start of the song starts with a single unaccompanied tone, just as in song 1. Also like in song 1 the bass has appoggiaturas, i.e. the Cis solving in B and later the D in Cis (exactly as in the first song!). Also the broken chords provide an analogue feeling. The content of both songs also have a lot in common, in the sense that both songs couple nature with the connection with the poet's love. The melody of the voice in m. 8 as well as 14-16 have a downward movement, that was introduced in the bass of song 2, continued in the bass of m. 10-13 in song 3, and perhaps also in the voice of song 4 in m. 6-7 and 14-15.In the postlude this motive is developed further, both in the soprano line of m. 17-19 and in the bass line, perhaps even starting with the Fis in m. 11 going downwards through the first beats of the measures and then really continuing further in a faster tempo starting with m. 16 (you may start there again with the D on the second beat, or use only the first B that is followed with the Ais in m. 17 and goes downwards there till an E in m. 18.

In song 6 the poet is over shouting himself, trying to find certainty in the church, imaging to find back an image of his love in the holy Mary. The song is relatively loud, while the motive of downwards scales is worked out further and further. The first line is from C in m. 4 till G in m. 11, while the last line downwards starts also with and finally reaches an A in m. 54, in very slow tempo, but never reaches the G, although in centers around the A and reaches a Gis in m. 56. Or is the G in the e chord on the last measure the end of the movement?

The seventh song works develops the downward movements in long open chords further. The rhythm of the right hand of the piano, with accents on the first and third beats, and the bass line with its movement that can't be stopped. Also the harmony with a continuous progression from one tonic to another through mainly dominant relationships provides also a power in the angry mood of the poet that is almost impossible to stop. The distorted chords when the snake eats from the heart of his love, and the piano with high tones increase the tension till the end of the poem. See also the downward movement of the voice line starting with E in m. 26 and ending with G in m. 31. The added statement "Ich grolle nicht" with the clear harmony, even made more straightforward ini the postlude, make the angry feelings even more clear.  

The minor tonic of the eighth song provides the feeling of self-pity. The open chords (always missing one of the tones of the triad till m. 5), and the undefined tonic at the start of the poem reinforce this. And finally, the downward lines, now more or less like the bass line in song 2 can be found in the melody of the voice. Only in the last strophe, the angry feelings come back again. The diminished  chord on m. 30 and the abrupt ending of the piano make this clear. But the real anger is found in the postlude. A very jumpy melody line, around a diminished chord during the rising melody line, the punctuated rhythm in the bass with a very clear harmony and the crescendo till a sforzata all express the feeling of angryness.

The ninth song sketches the music on the wedding party. It is obvious that the poet remains as angry as he was in the song "Ich grolle nicht", and this is symbolized by the groaning angels. In the voice melody we see the downward scale again (for example m. 60-65), but the effect is overwhelmed by the piano that suggests the party that is going on. The downward chromatic movement during m. 80-85 may symbolize also the unhappiness with this wedding.

Song 10 gives the remembrance of the love and the pain this gives. The song of his sweetheart is first presented in the after-beat of the piano, then by the voice, and is finally repeated in a type of fugue in the piano postlude. The harmonic development his in the second strophe, where the longing leading to tears is expressed. The end of the postlude gives again a downward movement, with continuously the small downwards scale included. If you look from m. 19 till 30, we go from a high Bes till a very low G.

Song 11 is very jumpy, with a counter-beat, jazzy rhythm. The poem takes ironic distance form the situation. The music suggests the relativity of the emotions of the poet.

Song 12 goes back to nature, like in song 1 and to a lesser extend also 5. It has again the broken chords. t has also the after-beats as in song 10 ("Hör ich das Liedchen klingen"). When the flowers tell him that his love is not so bad and that he is a doleful man, the transformation to the open G tonality and its transformation back through a shift from f to Ges to F in m. 19-20, where a parallel fifth downwards is just used as an effect, give the feeling of a transformation. Also the complicated structure in the last part of the song and the postlude give the feeling that something is happening with the poet.

The chromatic downward line in the bass, starting with Bes in m. 16 and ending with a D in m. 24 reminds of the downward line chromatic line at the end of song 9 after the wedding. As in the postlude of song 10, here is also a soprano line downwards, in this case from G in m. 20 till Bes in m. 30. But in between this, in m. 23 till 26, there are rising lines. During these measures the harmony becomes a little bit confusing, with as a high point the diminished chord at the end of m. 24, with an accentuation on it. Are the positive factors starting to survive?

Song 13 is again focused on the bitterness. It is about the bad dreams of the past. There is a contrast between the badly defined harmony of the solo voice and the extremely clear cadences of the piano in between. The long breaks make you think. The piano seems to be a comment on the situation of sadness independent of the content of the dream. Consistent with the difference in dreams, jumping from one into another, the harmony in each piano interlude is also different: es, Ces, Bes, Es, Ces, Bes. When the revelation of the key of the poem comes in the third strophe, the piano and voice become integrated. The strong dissonants in measures 29 and 30 creates the tension of what would happen after a dream where everything was OK with his love, and when there are even more tears afterwards revealing that the sadness has no relation with the content of the dream, the harmony changes very fast from Es to Des  to Ges to As 

The fourteenth song has B major as its tonic, instead of the expected Bes after es in the song before. It continuous the dreaming, but it is quite a different dream. This may explain the change in harmony, as the dreams in song 13 also had a lot of jumping harmonies.  The voice has downwards melody lines during the first two strophes, creating a melancholic atmosphere. The last strophe has and in a horizontal line, starting and ending on Fis. When the surprise comes that the poet has forgotten most of his dream in m. 35, the harmony has a very fast development, where we see Dis-Gis-(Cis)-Fis-B, where the forgotten Cis is included later. Also the gradual increase of the melody line in m. 36 and the fast decrease symbolizes the surprise in the music. The piano postlude is a short after thought with V7-I, just as cliché as the piano comments in song 13 and also the piano solutions in song 2.

Song 15 tells a nice dream as a fairy tail, far away from the melancholy of the lost love of the poet. The atmosphere of the music is very optimistic, and illustrates the story well. The clear harmony at the start makes it light-hearted, but when the stories become more fantastic, the harmony becomes more complicated. As in the song with the dreams, the harmonies change a lot during the song. When the fairy tail comes to an end in 56, the harmony becomes a suggestion of a diminished chord in m. 57, and then has seventh chords with strong dissonants, first gis7, then ais7, and finally B7. The last one illustrates the word "Ach" as a transformation to the normal world, where a comment is made on the dream. These last verses of the song are build around a slow version of the first theme in the song and has some dissonant chords on the second half of m. 69 and 76, first on "ich" at the first moment the I-figure so central in the poems is mentioned in this poem. The quarter-eighth note rhythm of the song is stopped radically in m. 70, although some suggestions of this rhythm are given. This suggest the vanishing of the remembrance of the dream. When it is mentioned that the dreams are vanished when morning comes, diminished chords represent this. Finally, in the piano postlude the remembrance of the dreams is suggested by a staccato and soft repetition of the start of the song, that then gets half a measure rest after each half measure, and finally stabilizes in whole measure chords, with only one eighth note on the third beat to remember a little bit the rhythm of the dreams. This is just the dreams vanishing like spraying foam.

Song 16, finally, is a very baroque funeral of the dreams. As in song 15, the tension increases during the first part of the song; here the size of the coffin needed is expressed more and more extremely, where the second theme rises at every repetition. First, the theme is presented in E (m. 15-19), then in Fis (m. 23-27) and finally in Gis (m. 31-35). When bringing the coffin to the sea, a variation of the first theme is used accompanied by broad quarter note chords, in contrast with the baroque accompaniment in the first strophe. At the end a long diminished chord increases the tension, where it solves finally to plain Cis notes in m. 40-43. Then a during 4 measures repeated Cis7 chord (except for the second beat in m. 44), poses the question, that is answered in the Adagio, where the surprising and meaningful closure of the poem cycle is accompanied by a surprising harmonic development, that meaningfully goes back to the chord that represented the longing at the start of song 1.

The postlude, finally, takes back a transposed version of postlude of the turning point in the cycle, song 12. It takes also back something of the downward scales in m. 59 and 60, used as a seemingly free musical improvisation, and finally finds reconciliation in a beautiful melody at the end, turning to Des, the enharmonic Dominant of the first song. The alto has the Ges-F resolution that is also very important in song 12. The appoggiatura in the voices with a half tone difference, seems to be a very important motive in the whole cycle. It is already introduced in the bass of the first measures of the first song. 

Let us finally have a look at some important motives and themes in the cycle. First, there is the repetition of tones followed by a rise, introduced in song 2. Second, we see the half tone decrease, introduced in song 1 at the end of  m. 2, where also the bass line has this motive (D-Cis). See also its important role in m. 23, on the last world of the poem. It is explored further in song 2. Schumann plays with this motive in song 3, and uses the repetition with its rise in song 4, but the half tone relationship is very important in song 4, m. 14-15, where the motive connects "liebe" and "bitterlich", where the B is in both cases not the tonic. Also in song 5, we see a variation on this motive: repeated b, followed in this case with a downward half.  In song 6, the motive in m. 31 and further "schweben Blumen ..." has some resemblance with the motive on "liebe" in song 4, while in song 7 the downward half tone is seen in "und wenn das Herz auch bricht". The repetition of tones as in songs 2 and 4 can also be clearly found in this song. In song 8, the half tone motive is again very important. The whole motive combination is back in song 13, where the motive on "Liebe"  also with some fantasy it is heard in the alto of the afterthoughts by the piano.  Finally, in the postlude of song 16 the punctuated downward movement in m. 65-66 and the Ges-F in the alto of m. 66-67 may be part of this motive.

The third motive can be seen as the importance of the downward scales. This is started in song 5, developed further in song 6 with the very prominent octave lines, and getting an undeniable importance in song 7, where the unstoppable anger is symbolized with it. The same downward scale is also visible in song 8, but in the melody, and in much shorter lines. And with a little bit of fantasy we see it back in m. 59 and 60 of the last song, where it is just part of a seemingly free improvisation. In song 12, the chromatic lines downwards or upwards become very important. This is repeated in the postlude of song 16.

Also in harmonic developments we see some connections. The diminished chord suggests moments of uncertainty. What will happen? Uses of chains of seventh chords are used to create tension combined with dynamics. And sometimes a gradual rise in scale of the same theme, as in songs 15 and 16, increases tension, is then followed by special chords, after which finally the tension is released. Also the accompaniment of repeated seventh chords in the same tonality, as in songs 15 and 16, are used to increase tension.