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Analysis of 7 songs from Schumann’s Dichterliebe Op.48

Robert Schumann was particularly evocative in the Romantic vogue of word-painting due to his extraordinary capacity for stylistic mimicry and prodigious command of the piano as a communicative tool, evidenced by the now well-publicized coded messages to his future wife Clara, embedded within so many of his compositions. While these 'codes' quoted topical songs to imply their subsequent lyrics, Schumann was equally adept in portraiture and illustration by purely musical-stylistic means. The song cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love) is no exception and the following report reflects upon some of the ways by which Schumann's musical setting directly annunciates and responds to the poetry of Heinrich Heine and develops its own subliminal narrative in the vein of a 'song without words'.

1 Im wunderschönen Monat Mai / In the lovely month of May

Angst is established at outset by an alternating submediant-dominant harmonic arpeggiation in F# minor; the uneasiness of an inverted interrupted cadence. Particular use of the leading tone E# at phrase ends, the natural propensity for rubato on upper neighbours G# and F# preceding it, and use of rhythmic anticipations in the right hand immediately invite a highly romanticized style even before the voice enters.

The Dichterliebe cycle is an even more intense autobiographical statement - more sincerely and intensely autobiographical in Schumann's music, indeeed, than in Heine's poems, with their self-pitying, semi-ironical flavour. In the title alone - which is Schumann's, not Heine's - lies his equation of poet and musician, both in himself and as a symbol of the unity of all art, and also his identification with the joys and sufferings that sustain the poems he has selected (Taylor, 1982, p.189).

Schumann's songs are imbued with the integrity of his own emotional circumstance; conveying a level of intent and discernable discourse which is essentially inseparable from the real-life communicative function of his untexted compositional output.

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