Composing Irony

“How the animals laid the hunter to rest” (woodcut, Moritz von Schwind)

The round tune “Frère Jacques” (Brother John) is known across cultures and languages in Europe. In German, it’s called “Bruder Martin” or “Bruder Jakob.”

In the third movement of his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, Gustav Mahler presents us with a sardonic, funeral-march like version of the song in minor. He was inspired by a work of visual art, the woodcut “The Hunter’s Funeral,” by Moritz von Schwind (above), an illustration of an ironic Austrian folktale about the burial of a hunter by the animals he would, in life, have preyed upon. In von Geschwind’s image, the animals at the rear of the procession are weeping dramatically into large handkerchief’s while the ones in the lead appear to be celebrating with music and banners.

How is this image an expression of irony?

In the middle of Mahler’s sonic funeral march, however, a village band, sounding very much like klezmerim — musicians hired for Jewish weddings in Mahler’s Bohemian hometown — breaks in, almost giving the effect of life interrupting death.

What does Mahler mean by this? Is his music also an illustration of irony?

Mahler himself wrote, in 1901, that this movement “is heart-rending, tragic irony and is to be understood as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart.”

In the first and second movements of the symphony, Mahler quotes from an earlier work of his own, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler wrote his own texts for this piece, and they expand greatly upon the Romantic themes of nature, wandering, loss, nostalgia, and grief familiar to us from the works of Schubert and others.

In fact, the song “Die zwei blauen Augen,” which Mahler reuses in Symphony no. 1, alludes to Schubert’s song “Der Lindenbaum,” from his own song cycle Die Winterreise, which is similarly about a man wandering on foot through nature away from his rejected love. Here is our old friend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it.

Note that the term “lime tree” is the British term for what we, in North America, call the linden or basswood tree; it’s a tree that has long had significance in Germanic folklore as an emblem both of love and death.

Linden or lime tree (tilia cordata)

Why do you think Mahler re-used this music? What meaning does it have in its new context?

The Valkyries

The stirring “Ride of the Valykyries” opens Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Eight of the nine Valkyries, the warrior daughters of Wotan, ride their horses onto the battlefield to gather up the dead heroes and take them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. They await their sister Brünnhilde, who arrives with Sieglinde on her horse.

Read a synopsis of the rest of the plot here:

https://www.metopera.org/user-information/synopses-archive/die-walkure

The earliest-known use of the music in a film.

Some later examples.

An excerpt that begins as diegetic but becomes something else:

Wagner goes back to Vietnam:

Both diegetic and self-referential: “The Ride of the Valkyries” as a meta-narrative:

Ironic Wagner: In Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2, Marcello Mastroianni is a film director suffering from creative block. He visits a spa for treatment, where he is recognized by the other patients.

And then there’s this:

Illustration of Brünnhilde (Act III) in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Heinrich Lefler. Austrian (1863 – 1919)

Clara at 200

A clever student-created animated bio, “The Wild Life of Clara Schumann.”

Clara’s beautiful Lied “Beim Abschied.”

The poem, by Friederike Serre, translated by Richard Stokes.

On departing

A purple glow shines from afar,
Golden now the bright day sinks,
One by one the silver stars
Awaken in the skies.
And the Queen of the Day
Bows her head and goes to sleep;
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Shadows cover the broad earth,
Night lies on the meadows.
Pray be still now, poor heart,
That the day has wearied so!
O appear, gently, mildly,
Sweet image in my dreams.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Ah, hot tears run down my cheeks;
Now a feeling of bliss,
Now a painful, fearful longing
Is set to break my heart.
Only dreams can restore
That happiness too quickly vanished.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

When I gaze into the dusk,
And the sun sets,
I think of all the pain
That I have endured.
Ah, perhaps the morrow
Will banish all cares.
So be of good cheer! Goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

What Romantic themes can you identify in the text and in the music?

Pianist Jonathan Biss attempts to decode the Schumanns’ relationship.

The wonderful scene where Brahms shows up at the Schumanns’ door in the 1947 film Song of Love.

Romantic Frenemies

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The conflict between Brahms and his allies and the proponents of the New German School resulted in a “manifesto” written by Brahms and published in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo in 1860:

The undersigned have long followed with regret the proceedings of a certain party whose organ is Brendel’s Zeitschrift für Musik. The said Zeitschrift unceasingly promulgates the theory that the most prominent striving musicians are in accord with the aims represented in its pages, that they recognise in the compositions of the leaders of the new school works of artistic value, and that the contention for and against the so-called Music of the Future has been finally fought out, especially in North Germany, and decided in its favour. The undersigned regard it as their duty to protest against such a distortion of fact, and declare, at least for their own part, that they do not acknowledge the principles avowed by the Zeitschrift, and that they can only lament and condemn the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New-German school, which on the one hand apply those principles practically, and on the other necessitate the constant setting up of new and unheard-of theories which are contrary to the very nature of music.

A few days later, an answer appeared in the Neue Zeitschrift:

Dread Mr. Editor,

All is out!——I learn that a political coup has been carried out, the entire new world rooted out stump and branch, and Weimar and Leipzig, especially, struck out of the musical map of the world. To compass this end, a widely outreaching letter was thought out and sent out to the chosen-out faithful of all lands, in which strongly outspoken protest was made against the increasing epidemic of the Music of the Future. Amongst the select of the out-worthies [paragons] are to be reckoned several outsiders whose names, however, the modern historian of art has not been able to find out. Nevertheless, should the avalanche of signatures widen out sufficiently, the storm will break out suddenly. Although the strictest secrecy has been enjoined upon the chosen-out by the hatchers-out of this musico-tragic out-and-outer, I have succeeded in obtaining sight of the original, and I am glad, dread Mr. Editor, to be able to communicate to you, in what follows, the contents of this aptly conceived state paper—I remain, yours most truly,

Crossing-Sweeper.

Office of the Music of the Future [Zukunftsmusik]

Brahms despised Liszt’s music, and was widely believed to hold the same low opinion of Wagner’s. Brahms and Wagner were each competing, as it were, to wear the mantle of Beethoven and carry the genius of Germanic music into a new era. However, Brahms quite clearly paid homage to Wagner in the second movement of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68.

The symphony’s second movement contains several obvious allusions to Wagner’s groundbreaking “Tristan chord” (movement 2 starts at 12:52):

The Tristan chord occurs first in the prelude of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, and consists of F-B-D#-G#: an augmented fourth, sixth, and ninth. Any chord that contained these intervallic relationships became known as a Tristan chord.

More on the Tristan chord:

Brahms was a collector of manuscript scores, and had an autograph score of a scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. When Wagner found out, he demanded that Brahms return it to him. They exchanged frosty letters, which you can read here, and Brahms eventually did return the score. Wagner relented by sending him a first-edition of Das Rheingold.

Butterfly Resources, part I

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Read the complete libretto in English translation here.

Watch the complete opera here in a 1975 film version. No subtitles (but you won’t need them because you have the libretto!), but beautifully and sensitively performed.

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“La Japonaise (Mme. Monet in Kimono” (Claude Monet, 1875).

 

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Photo from Operation Babylift, Saigon, 1975.

A French film version of the complete opera made in 1996.

Ossian in Italy

Ossian

How did the poetry of Ossian (really, James MacPherson) influence Italian opera in the nineteenth century?

Why was Ossian — later acknowledged to be a fraud — so important to the Romantic generation in Italy?

Could it be because these supposedly ancient poems spoke to the longing for a unified culture and community, one based on spiritual aspirations rather than on the arbitrary borders set out by the various monarchies of Europe? In other words: because “Ossian,” as a Scottish poet, addressed issues of the time — including the longing for nationhood among diverse peoples — in a way that would surely have been censored or suppressed if the poems had been “modern”?

As Sante Matteo writes:

Ossianism, as a kind of cultural virus . . . spread quickly and widely. In Britain, which had recently suppressed a series of insurrections in Scotland and solidified its domain over the recently formed “United Kingdom,” these Ossianic characteristics . . . promoted Scottish nationalism and undermined English authority.

So, for all of his purported ancientness, Ossian is about resurgence, rebirth — risorgimento in Italian. The Italian Risorgimento was the political and artistic movement dedicated to Italian liberation and unification.

So we go from early Italian Romantic opera, like this:

to overtly nationalist and revolutionary Italian Romantic opera, like this:

 

Classically Black, part I

A playlist of some of the earliest known music by African-American composers writing in the traditions of European classical music.

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Newport Gardner, 1746-1826.

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Francis Johnson (1792-1844).

“The Wildflower Wreath” by Aaron J.R. Connor (d. 1850), sung by the great African-American tenor George Shirley:

More Blind Tom Wiggins:

Schubertiades in a Police State

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Schubert’s room, as drawn by his friend Moritz von Schwind, 1821.

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Franz Schubert at age 16.

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Franz von Schober.

The Austrian poet Franz von Schober (1796-1882) was evidently the driving force behind the Schubertiades, the semi-private salon gatherings at which Franz Schubert premiered many of his Lieder. Schober was in fact such a close friend of Schubert’s that together they were known as “Schobert” among their circle of friends, a mashup of their names à la Javanka or Brangelina.

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84th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals

Schubert’s setting of Schober’s poem “An die Music” (To Music) has become one of his best-loved Lieder. In the text, the poet addresses music as an allegorical figure of healing:

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

A historian-blogger known to me only as Richard has written an extremely engaging and wonderfully detailed history of the Schubertiades.  The entire series of articles is worth reading; here are some excerpts.

In January 1821 Schober invited some ‘good friends, preferably ‘spirited men’ to an evening at his house. Schubert himself would play a lot of ‘wonderful songs’ and afterwards ‘punch would be drunk’. The name Schubertiade had not yet been invented, but this event, programmatically mentioning Schubert and his music, can be considered the first of the series.

As far as we know Schober was the prime mover behind the Schubertiaden. It is presumed that it was he who came up with the name Schubertiade, that fine piece of branding that set Schubert and his music in the centre of the event. The word not only bound Schubert to the event, it also gave no indication to the [Viennese] secret police . . . that anything else might be happening. When the music stopped and the punch was drunk and the dancing started we know nothing of what was discussed in that round: in those dangerous times nothing of importance was written down, even in the most private diary. Viennese culture had become an oral culture long before this and as such its detail is lost to us.

. . .The present writer is convinced that Schubert gained no substantial advantage from these events apart from admiration, respect and a feeling of belonging. Well, we all like those. They may have been an important psychological gain for him and may even justify Joseph von Spaun’s opinion that the Schubertiaden had been essential for his development: Schubert would not have been Schubert without them. But the fact that Spaun feels the need to write this at all exposes the question: whilst accepting the psychological gain, what was the professional gain for Schubert?

As we wrote in [a] previous piece the Schubertiaden were fundamentally selfish events – they kept their house musician busy entertaining their guests, paid him nothing, gave him a buffet and some drink and kept the knowledge of his talent as a composer, his genius and fame, firmly bottled up in the febrile, self-regarding scene of the Viennese salon. The typical conclusion of Schubert’s salon appearances was a sausage supper, some drinking and then some dancing, as Schubert, the resident piano-player . . . would be expected to knock out gallops and ecossaises [social dances of the era] into the early hours of the morning. After about midnight the ladies would be escorted home and the men would then retire to a coffee-house for a nightcap and a smoke.

Your gloomy author exaggerates, as so often? On the 26 March 1818 Franz Schubert gave a ‘Private Concert’ in the hall of the Austrian Music Society in Vienna. At last! we murmur, at last! The hall was packed, the audience reception ecstatic, the reviews equally so. The net income for Schubert was 800 florins W.W. (= 320 Gulden, fl. K.M.). On the downside, he did not get free sausages to eat or punch to drink and he did not need to spend a couple of hours afterwards playing dance music for the guests. He still got to go to the coffee-house afterwards.

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The concert program from Schubert’s only public concert, 1828.

For most of Vienna, at least those people who had even heard of him, Schubert had just been a passing phenomenon. His music was hardly published, scraps of manuscripts accumulated in drawers throughout Vienna and Germany. By the beginning of 1829 Schubert had gone and it would be more than another 20 years before anyone tried to remember him or rediscover who this ‘Franz Schubert’ was. . .

It was Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) who started the process – that is, it was a musical resurrection: Schubert was reborn through the quality of his music. After that, some biographers attempted the rediscovery of the life. The first one of these biographies (Kreißle’s) appeared more than 37 years after that winter day in 1828. For a hundred years after his death people were still finding manuscript scores in drawers and tucked into books.

That is the trajectory of Schubert’s life. . . . The modern modish word ‘depression’ is not correct here. Schubert never seems to have evidenced the classical characteristics of the depressive’s checklist: no listlessness, no apathy, no black moods or sleeplessness (that we know of). On the contrary, he was driven by an almost superhuman work-ethic. He never succumbed. But, in Die schöne Müllerin and the Winterreise, in the late trios and piano sonatas, we cannot fail to hear it. The roots of that melancholy are easy to find.

 

Little Wild Rose in the Heather

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(The manuscript of “Heidenröslein.” Schubert’s marking is “lieblich,” i.e. charming or lovely.)

Read through the score here:

IMSLP09270-SchubertD257_Heidenroslein

The song starts almost without starting: the voice and piano begin together, without any introduction. Although the song is a setting of a poem by the great German poet, playwright, novelist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schubert has attempted to imitate a folksong. The song is strophic, cheerful, and deceptively simple. It’s as if Schubert is trying to evoke the naturalism of an actual folksong. Why does he do this?

Wild Rose

A boy saw a wild rose
growing in the heather;
it was so young, and as lovely as the morning.
He ran swiftly to look more closely,
looked on it with great joy.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
Said the boy: I shall pluck you,
wild rose in the heather!
Said the rose: I shall prick you
so that you will always remember me.
And I will not suffer it.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
And the impetuous boy plucked
the wild rose from the heather;
the rose defended herself and pricked him,
but her cries of pain were to no avail;
she simply had to suffer.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.

(English Translation © Richard Wigmore)

The opening statement of Schubert’s melody mimics Pamina and Papageno’s duet, “Könnte jeder brave Mann,” in Act 1 of Mozart’s 1791 opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute):

In a certain sense, Schubert’s elevation of the Lied to a high art was an act of resistance, a turning away from the rigors of “serious” musical form and towards greater simplicity and accessibility. His use of a folklike form in “Heidenröslein” — while setting Goethe, no less — seems like a deliberate and even a studied choice. What is more, the childlike strophic simplicity of the song highlights another aspect of Schubert’s compositional philosophy: irony.

What is irony?

This print, “The Hunter’s Funeral” by Schubert’s friend Moritz von Schwind, is a good example of irony.

Moritz

Another way that Schubert composes irony is in his frequent switching between parallel major and minor, as here, in his song “Lachen und Weinen” (Laughing and Weeping), where he moves between A-flat major and A-flat minor, in a kind of sonic illustration of the poem by Friedrich Rückert:

Laughter and tears

Laughter and tears at any hour
Arise in love from so many different causes.
In the morning I laughed with joy;
And why I now weep
In the evening light,
Is unknown even to me.
Tears and laughter at any hour
Arise in love from so many different causes.
In the evening I wept with grief;
And why you can wake
In the morning with laughter,

I must ask you, my heart.

(English Translation © Richard Stokes)

Schubert extends this technique to his instrumental chamber music. Listen to the beginning of his String Quartet in G Major. What makes it major, really?

His String Quintet in C Major:

Is it safe to say that Schubert, in his intermixing of parallel major and minor modalities, is expressing what cannot be said in words — emotional ambiguity? Why do you think he does this?

Incidentally, about 100 German composers wrote their own musical settings of “Heidenröslein.” The composer Heinrich Werner (1800-1833) set the poem in 1827, in a version whose popularity would make it almost a kind of folksong itself. Here it is arranged for four voices:

Read through the score here:

IMSLP233429-WIMA.96f6-Sah-ein-Knab-ein-Roeslein-stehn

The great German actress Marlene Dietrich sings “Heidenröslein” in the 1933 film The Song of Songs:

Death and the Maiden

1520_Schwarz_-_Death_and_the_Maiden_anagoria

The theme of Death and the Maiden comes from the Middle Ages, where the visual motif of the danse macabre or Totentanz (the dance of death) was a popular decoration in painting and architecture. The danse macabre usually shows the allegorical figure of Death leading an unsuspecting group of the living in a round dance which ends in the grave or with a plunge from a cliff. The dancers generally include all ages and social classes, showing the universality and inevitability of death. Here, Death compels a prince and a bishop to dance.

Der Lübecker Totentanz

The sub-allegory of Death and the Maiden adds an erotic element:

320px-Hans_Baldung_006

Schubert wrote a Lied called “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” to a poem by Matthias Claudius. In translation:

The Maiden:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, dear,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.

Death:
Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Later, he used the Lied as the basis for an entire string quartet:

Why do you think he was so interested in this theme?