My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A lesson in painting with music: Winterreise's "Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope)"

Throughout this song cycle we have seen many fantastic examples of Schubert at his best when it comes to painting a picture through music: plodding footsteps, whistling wind, falling tears, roosters crowing, bugling posthorn, galloping horse just to name a few. The sixteenth song in the cycle, "Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope)" is no exception. In fact, I think up until this point, I think it might qualify in my book as being the most dense musical painting we've seen yet.

I want to include the text for this song. I'm going to give a rough translation of my own so that I don't have to worry about copyright issues so if it isn't perfect (it isn't), please just overlook that!

Here and there there are on the trees
Many colored leaves that you can see,
And I stand under the leaves
Often in thought.

I look upon one leaf,
I hang my hope on it,
If the wind plays with my leaf,
Tremble I, how I can tremble.

Ah, and if falls the leaf to the ground,
Fall I with my hope,
Fall I too to the ground,
And weep on my hope's grave.

Wow. I am always moved to tears just from reading the poem. And note that we have the word "grave" yet again; that's three songs in a row! I should also note that this is the third song in a row to have the very same key signature. Hmmm...I definitely feel that we are in a different psychological landscape with these songs.

So the word are some details that I see as being elements of our musical painting:

Verse 2:
  • "I look upon one leaf and hang my hopes on it" - movement in both the piano part and the voice part virtually stops as the protagonist's eyes fix themselves on this one precious leaf that seems to hold all of his hope
  • "If the wind plays with my leaf" - the notes change subtly in both parts as the wind stirs the leaf and his hope
  • "Tremble I, how I can tremble." - while the voice rests, the piano part goes back and forth between two chords, first in short eighth notes and then in sixteenths in the right hand, creating a trembling effect (as with the musical term, "tremolando")

Here is the piano part for this second verse:

Verse 3:
  • "Ah, and if falls the leaf to the ground" - the voice part wavers and than literally drops down an octave on the word "ground" while the piano throughout this phrase, continues the trembling effect which also falls along with the voice
  • "fall I with my hope" - first the voice part seems to gasp and sigh which is followed by the piano part
  • "Fall I too to the ground" - the musical material is exactly the same in the piano part as it was in the first phrase of this verse but the voice part has a much wider range that is covered, possibly signifying the great fall our protagonist takes to the ground
  • "And weep on my hope's grave" - this part gets me every time as the voice is transformed into a very lyrical line with weeping being heard in the many wide intervals

Here is the "falling leaf" motive I mentioned:

Now you may have noticed that I haven't mentioned anything about the first verse yet. Well, to tell you the truth, I find the introduction and the first verse to be a little more difficult for me to analyze, especially in terms of text painting. This first verse is extraordinarily angular and disorienting. There are accents on every offbeat and the notes are grouped in such a way that the music could be heard in 4/4 rather than 3/4 time. Take a listen, first without following along with the music and then using it to try and figure out what Schubert is doing.

Pieces that have three beats usually feel somewhat dance-like to me. This introduction and the parts of the first verse do not. So what was he after?  What was he thinking? The only conclusion I have come to is that maybe he wanted to show our musical friend in a disoriented state. This would make sense in the context of where the protagonist is in his psychological journey, standing on a brink of both life and death. I suppose it could be something much less profound than that though. Maybe the off-kilter rhythm is painting a picture of dappled light coming through the leaves on the tree.

Hmmm...perhaps I'm thinking too much. I am guilty of that a lot of the time. Let's just get on with the music, shall we?

This is from a live, fully staged performance by Jan Buchwald. I find the staging very intriguing.

Other posts in this Winterreise series:

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