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C.R.

Wikeley

Schumanns Wenn ich in deine Augen seh


Wenn ich in deine augen seh,
from Schumanns
Dichterliebe
is one of the composers most
arresting and effective songs. The piece utilises a juxtaposition of poetic and musical forms in
order to create a uncommon musico-poetic composition of amazing emotional depth. While
harmonic and characteristic nuances are noteworthy, they are essentially subsidiary to the
overall tension which resides in the antithetical relationship between the musical and the
poetic structure. An illustration of this is the arguable crux of the piece, at bar 13, where a
diminished 7th, uncommon in the song as a whole, demands attention. However the true
significance of this moment is not in its striking use of harmony, but rather in the significance
of what it represents in the narrative arc of the composition: the poetic turning-point.
It is possible to suggest that there are few points of harmonic significance, and indeed
that the song is apparently simple and often overwhelmingly diatonic. To do so would be to
suggest that there is little merit in a formal analysis of the piece. While this may be ignorant of
the finer nuances, it nevertheless highlights the importance of an analysis which incorporates
a heavy emphasis on the poetic narrative.
It is perhaps most advantageous to begin with the striking characteristics of both the
poetic and the musical structure and therethrough to approach the finer details which
contribute to these. Most noticeable about the poetic structure is the reversed-nature of its
narrative. By this is meant that the action of the poem is narrated in hindsight, with the
reveal occurring at ich liebe dich!
To explain more broadly it is worth outlining the dynamic structure of the poem: a
sentimental description of beauty, love and fulfilment, before the turning-point occurs and the
final word is left as, bitterly. As an observer, one might expect the setting of music to this
poem to reflect this form, which is effectively entirely linear, leading to a high point towards b
13 before coming crashing down following the climax. You might consider it as follows:

Lines:

1-2

3-4

5-6

7-8

A musical structure that would suit this dynamic poetic form successfully is that of
through-composed song. Truly, Schumanns setting for
Wenn ich
uses a through-composed
form, moving from G, through C and A to B major, before moving back to G. While the form
Schumann elects to utilise may fit well the dynamic structure of the poem, it certainly would
not exactly match the structure proper - that of 4 equal couplets, perfectly accented and neatly
rhyming. Perhaps formally appropriate to fit this structure would be a ternary structure, with
a clear move to another key area when the 5th line is reached, followed by an exploration and a
transition and return to the home key. In this way, Schumann diverts from the traditional
choice, and usurps our expectations.

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The choice of form leads to a successful evocation of the emotional journey that the
poem itself implies, and further analysis of registral high-points and harmony within the
structure will help elucidate elements of this. There are three high-points within the
structure of the piece: bb 7, 9, 13. In some editions of
Wenn ich
, the vocal line at b 7 is edited so
as to decrease the registral range and fall to the C of ganz, not a top G, followed by a
naturalised F at und. While this is simply an editorial decision, it also serves to highlight a
point of tension and interest within the song. Arguably, since this G would represent the
registral high-point of the solo line and therefore a significant moment in the narrative of the
piece, any decision to perform with the lower range of C-D would negate this important
moment. Furthermore, one could observe this bar of the music as the midpoint of the stanza,
and therefore perhaps a point of heightened significance. Nevertheless, this editorial decision
in fact highlights a respect in which less emphasis should perhaps be given to this moment,
regardless of the melodic line. Although the vocal line in Schumanns original music does rise
to the G and therefore imply a climax, this passage is already cadencing in the subdominant, an
arguably weaker tonality than the tonic of G. In this way, the weight of importance is perhaps
dispelled. Whatismore, in the overall dynamic structure of the piece (being through-composed)
and the poem, it makes good sense to qualify any sense of significance, retaining the moment
of most significant for towards the final few lines.
Surely enough, Schumann increases the intensity and tensions though a second
high-point, at b 9, wherein the registral peak occurs in the accompanying piano part, upon
the chord of B major. The general sharpening also helps contribute to the sense of ascending
movement here, even though the vocal line remains descending, overall. However, the height
that is reached through the B major chord in the accompaniment is not truly contrasted and
dispelled until the diminished 7th chord at b 13, which we can therefore argue as being the
climax or ultimate high-point of the piece. Simply using a diminished chord here, as was
mentioned earlier, having previously made no exploitation of this colourful harmony, draws
attention to this moment with its arresting quality, while the plosive and aggressive sound of
spricht accompanying this sense of significance, and the semitonal line-leading in the solo
voice and piano accompaniment in their top lines further increases this moments potency.
Additionally, one may point to the falling arpeggiated line in the accompaniment as the most
lucid evidence for this bar marking the turning point, both musically and poetically.
Further observation of the preceding and following harmony can also help to support
the hypothesis that b 13 represents the climax of the work, and therefore the significant
moment in the dynamic structure of these, poetic reversal and through-composed techniques.
If we are to continue with the argument that b 7 does not in fact represent a high-point of any
true consequence, then we may duly argue that the modulation to C major is not fully realised
in any meaningful way.
Therefore, it seems most helpful to observe the harmony leading to b 13 as moving
from G major, through A minor ultimately to B major. This outlines an emphasis on
Tertzverwandschaften
and is followed, in an effect echoing harmonic diminution, by a further
cycle of this harmony in quick succession, through E minor (which implies G major), and A
minor to B major, once again, at b 11. Not only does this diminution and speedy repetition of a
larger harmonic model help to lend weight and significance to b 13, but it also highlights the
importance of the harmonic movement which follows this moment. While bar 14 may begin by
implying a similar harmonic goal as the previous passages, the C in the accompaniment
disrupts the harmony, producing a dissonance with the B in the vocal line, and leading to the

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observation that this is an appoggiatura to the following A minor chord, which is weakened in
turn by its appearance the form of a first inversion triad. This music therefore refuses to
conform to the previous structure, and represents an altered version of the G-A-B harmonic
patterns, implying that the moment of climax has passed and that the harmony has been
affected by the diminished seventh chord at b 13. Furthermore, the perfect cadence in G major
is cemented through the use of the dominant seventh of V in G major at b 15.
Through these observations, we may legitimately conclude that b 13 represents the
climax of the work, and that this reflects Schumanns consummate understanding and
engagement with the text of the poem, whose dynamic structure is such that a strophic
musical approach would result in a sense of disjunction and failure to truly grasp the form of
the words. Nevertheless, there are individual other reasons why Schumanns setting of the text
is this effective.
As has been mentioned, the use of the subdominant at b 7, and its return in bb 16-17
imply a weaker harmony than the dominant, thanks to its more ambiguous relationship with
the tonic. Arguably, while the subdominant is used through b 7 in order to disrupt a possible
high-point in preference for an later moment, the key of C major is utilised from b 16 in order
to weaken the tonic, with the introduction of the F natural from b 16 and through to b 18
allowing a certain ambiguity, which leads to a sense of bittersweetness. A lack of finality ensues
with the avoidance of what would be a perfect cadence in favour of an apparent plagal cadence.
This successfully echoes the heart-rending final line and depiction of bitterness and
unfulfillment.
Furthermore, while moments of harmonic strangeness are relatively uncommon in
Schumanns
Wenn ich,
the point at which this is utilised stand out as remarkably effective and
reflective of the textual significance. While the harmony through the first four bars is largely
diatonic, the unusual and quick shift from E through to A and subsequently to D major adds an
almost uncomfortable effect to the harmony, and pierces and remains in the consciousness,
highlighting well the pain implied by the text, Leid und Weh.
We should arguably devote less time to elements of word-painting in our analysis,
however significant these instances may seem in a musico-poetic analysis, as our investigation
is best served by observing the structural nuances and high-points. As a final observation in
this regard, then, one may note that a sense of the bittersweet, evoked by the poetic reversal
and reflective through-composed structure, is further emphasised by the unusual treatment of
register in the seventh and penultimate line of the text. While the high B major chord in the
piano accompaniment may imply a significance to the text (heaven) at this moment, the solo
vocal line descends to its lowest registral node in the song, before the unusual semitonal
movement is heard. This may not be observed so much as reverse word-painting, as a break in
the flow of the vocal line, which rises overall into the fourth line of the poem. The low register
of the voice at this moment allows for an accentuation of the significance of b 13, and the
successful emphasis on bitterlich as the ultimate narrative destination of the text.
We can see, therefore, that Schumann forgoes a traditional strophic song form for a
text which might appear at first to demand the such, however which, upon closer inspection, is
most successfully echoed in its dynamic structure by the composers choice of a
through-composed structure. Moments of harmonic significance, and observation of the vital
high-points in the music further serve to highlight this unusual yet seemingly inevitable
setting.