Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert's Song Cycle by Lauri Suurpää

January 12, 2015


Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert's Song Cycle by Lauri Suurpää 
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014)

ISBN: 978-0-253-01100-8

Lauri Suurpää, Professor of Music Theory at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, has authored numerous articles dealing with musical form and meaning, frequently from a Schenkerian analytical perspective. His recent book Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert's Song Cycle undertakes new analyses of musico-poetic interactions that relate to the subject of death in the second part of Schubert’s Winterreise. Suurpää references and evaluates extensive scholarship on Lieder, establishing that the primary audience for his book includes musicologists and music theorists. However, his insights regarding musico-poetic meaning and synthesis also make this a stimulating volume for performers and literary scholars who are able to engage the music of Winterreise primarily through Schenkerian analysis.

Since the first part of Winterreise (Songs 1-13) looks back at the protagonist’s lost love, Suurpää’s analysis of Winterreise focuses on the second part of the song cycle (songs 14-24), which looks ahead to death. After summarizing extant scholarship on the music and text of these songs, Suurpää argues that his chosen three-step method for musico-poetic analysis is distinct and advantageous (58): first, the music is analyzed independently of the text; second, the text is analyzed independently of the music; and third, musico-poetic interpretations are found by comparing the musical and poetic structures side by side and determining added meaning from the correspondence or contrast of their schemes. Suurpää acknowledges that analysts often know both the music and text already when trying to approach them independently, but he believes that it is possible to “bracket out that knowledge when analyzing poem and music separately” (59).

For poetic analysis, Suurpää uses a system called “Greimassian semiotics,” originated by Lithuanian scholar A. J. Greimas and derived from formal logic (“semiotics” referring to the study of meaning). Greimas’s system finds binary oppositions and relational functions in texts, and determines structure based the formal statements of these interactions. For musical analysis, Suurpää uses Schenkerian theory. Suurpää gives a lengthier introduction to the Greimassian system than he does to Schenkerian analysis, indicating that he expects the reader to approach his book with an understanding of Schenkerian analysis.

Suurpää argues convincingly that Schenkerian analysis accords well with Greimassian semiotics as a complementary analytical tool, given that it formalizes global structural features rather than focusing on referential (topical) or motivic musical features and connections. Similarly, Greimassian methodologies do not analyze semantic textual content, but rather determine functional relationships within texts, such as relationships of tension and resolution. Suurpää acknowledges that the Schenkerian and Greimassian methods will primarily take into account the voice-leading structure of the music and the function of subjects and objects within the text, rather than taking into account factors such as rhythm or prosody, which could be analyzed to yield different insights. After applying his three-step method to a song, Suurpää determines what musicologist Kofi Agawu calls the song’s “introversive” meaning: a global context that gives a framework for interpreting the song’s “extroversive” (referential) aspects, such as recurring motives, repeated cadential material, textural considerations, etc. (38).

Suurpää divides his fourteen-chapter book into three parts. Part One, “Background,” contextualizes Müller’s poetry, Schubert’s cycle, and the practice of Lied analysis. In Part Two, “Songs,” Suurpää applies his three-step method to the twelve songs in the second part of Winterreise. He divides the twelve songs into seven units according to musico-poetic function (such as “reflecting lost hope,” and “choosing death”), so that some units consist of one song and some of two or three. In Part Three, “Cycle,” Suurpää lays the groundwork for building his conclusions from Part Two into a broader commentary on Winterreise, by summarizing approaches of other Lied scholars to analyzing song cycles and using elements of their methods to add to his Schenkerian-Greimassian conclusions.

Throughout these sections, Suurpää’s arguments are sound and well presented. In Part One, Suurpää compares Müller’s poetic style with other poetry dealing with death in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Suurpää illustrates that Romantic poets such as Schlegel (in Lucinde, 1799) and Müller (in his 1823 poems that Schubert set in Winterreise) ascribed a symbolic, equivocal meaning to death. This contrasts with the Classical concept of death conveyed by Goethe’s 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which depicts death as a concrete and tragic occurrence. In Suurpää’s interpretation, Müller’s treatment of death might be metaphorical, so that death symbolizes something other than a physical event. Suurpää states that it is not possible to specify the exact symbolic meaning of death in Winterreise, and surmises that it may represent a change in the mode of the wanderer’s existence (29).

Also in Part One, Suurpää posits five aesthetic propositions regarding text-music relationships, supported by points taken from aestheticians and musical scholars. Suurpää maintains that music alone is unable to represent a specific fictional world, and that music can only convey general emotions such as “tragic” or “joyful,” but not emotions that require an object, such as “fury” or “embarrassment.” Suurpää borrows the term “expressive genre,” used by Robert Hatten to describe the general emotions attached to the overarching expressive course of a composition or section of a composition, and thereafter applies the terms “tragic” and “joyful” to parts of each song in his study (34).

In Part Two of Suurpää’s book, which contains the application of principles explained in Part One and the basis for the conclusions drawn in Part Three, Suurpää’s three-step analyses produce insights regarding the independent and joint roles text and music play in conveying a concept of death in the second part of Winterreise. Suurpää’s musical analyses are more detailed than his textual analyses, so that musical structure is explored at greater depth than the text. This may be a result of Suurpäa’s musical expertise exceeding his literary expertise, but it may also be partially due to the exclusively structural orientation of the Greimassian system. Unlike Schenkerian analysis, which acknowledges more musical detail in the foreground and middleground layers than in the background, Greimassian semiotics does not engage semantic content. The brevity of Suurpää’s textual analyses illustrates his disciplined avoidance of commentary on musical and textual features that are outside his analysis systems. Consequently, the third analytical step usually yields a straightforward statement of the alignment or misalignment of text and musical structure in a given song, and of how the tragic gesture struggles with (and invariably defeats) the joyful state. Corresponding with the alternation of tragic and joyful impulses, Suurpää finds that most of the songs have alternating sections that refer to reality and illusion; in “Täuschung,” for example, he interprets the brief appearance of G-sharp as corresponding to illusion and joy, and the appearance of F-sharp, confirmed by a completion of the Ursatz, as corresponding to reality and rejection (112). Suurpää’s third step of comparing textual and musical structures tends to yield essential alignment of the two. In “Der greise Kopf,” for example, both poem and music feature a stable, negative state that is briefly interrupted by an unobtainable, joyful state.

Breaking with the pattern of alignment between text and music in the second part of Winterreise, however, there are exceptional instances in which Suurpää identifies a lack of correspondence between the two. The first such song is “Lezte Hoffnung,” in which the song’s despairing fourth section of text is paired with major-mode, chorale-like music. Suurpää finds that the contrast between the emotional character of the music and the text calls for a revised Greimassian interpretation of the poem. He finds a positive conjunction between the Sender (protagonist) and Object (hope for death), which clarifies that this song is the point in which the wanderer abandons the hope of lost love in favor of a new hope for death. Suurpää observes seeming incongruities of this nature in later songs as well (“Im Dorfe” and “Das Wirthshaus”), and explains them as instances that prompt a unique reading of the text and a perspective on death not found by reading Müller’s poetry alone. Suurpää believes that identifying these instances of discontinuity helps to reveal the junctures that Schubert viewed as transitions in the protagonist’s view of death. He also finds through independent analysis of musical and textual structures that significant musical tensions can occur at moments that would not seem to be connected to the text at a local level, such as when the singer is silent. However, Suurpää finds those moments to be structurally meaningful, leading him to the conclusion in “Der Leiermann,” for example, that the protagonist still has not found resolution at the end of the cycle, as the tonic only occurs in the piano postlude, and not in the vocal line.

Suurpää makes exclusive use of Schenkerian analysis as a method for determining the musical “expressive genre” in Part Two of his book, intentionally avoiding observations about musical topics (musical figures with recognizable associations), imitation, tempo, prosody, or other factors. This choice causes him to restrict his conclusions about a song’s “expressive genre” to observing whether the song is mostly major-mode (hence, joyful) or minor-mode (hence, tragic). Suurpää’s practice risks oversimplification, just as Greimassian semiotics ignores semantic content and primarily establishes whether a poetic subject is dynamic or static. Designating “Das Wirthshaus” as “joyful” because of its prevailing major mode, for example, despite its sehr langsam tempo indication and somber chorale texture, is a surprising stance. Although Suurpää’s analytical system produces some tenuous-sounding premises of this sort in Part Two of his book, he is thorough in his review of complementary analytical approaches in Part Three, integrating these approaches into his conclusions in a way that adds to them rather than negating them.

As Suurpää begins Part Three with a survey of other approaches to song cycle analysis, he states that analyses of Schumann’s song cycles are more plentiful than writings on Winterreise. Therefore, he derives his observations about existing methods of song cycle analysis from writings by Komar, Hoeckner, Rosen, Ferris, Perrey, Plantinga and others on Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Liederkreis, Op. 39. Suurpää draws four dimensions of song cycle organization from these writings, and applies them to the second part of Winterreise, arriving at the following conclusions: Winterreise is both a narrative and topical cycle; Winterreise has large-scale harmonic organization; Winterreise has musical cross-references; and Winterreise is a unified whole rather than a collection of musical fragments. Suurpää elaborates on these conclusions in a way that adds more musico-poetic detail to his globally-oriented analyses. For example, in order to analyze whether Winterreise is a narrative or topical cycle, Suurpää adopts the hierarchical narrative analysis terminology of Roland Barthes, assigning each song a status as either a plot-advancing “kernel” or static “satellite” (171). Since kernel poems are plot-advancing, they correspond to Greimassian episodes in which the speaker moves from one state to another. Satellite poems correspond to static Greimassian episodes. Suurpää finds that these systems complement one another and clarify the treatment of death at specific points in Winterreise.

Suurpää endorses several additional analytical approaches in Part Three, and he proceeds to use them as significant tools for augmenting his own methodology. Not until the last twenty-five pages of the book, for example, does Suurpää begin to discuss neo-Riemannian theory. After introducing this system, he discusses the smoothness of voice leading between triads as a method of finding local-level continuity or discontinuity between sections and songs in a way that Schenkerian analysis did not accomplish. He finds through use of neo-Riemannian theory that songs whose poems were identified earlier as containing “kernels,” or significant plot-advancing events, are related to one another through smooth transformational triadic movement. Furthermore, Suurpää turns in Part Three of his book to an illuminating discussion of musical cross-references (associated with textual concepts) that he did not pursue in detail during Part Two’s structural analyses. He finds that the eight musical cross-referential elements he identifies are found primarily in songs that function as “kernel” turning points in the narrative, thus clarifying the overall narrative (187).

At the conclusion of Part Three, Suurpää returns to the question of the specific symbolic meaning of death in Winterreise, and concludes that the wanderer’s quest for death culminates in a desire for numbness. He demonstrates that in Schubert’s music, it is even clearer than in Müller’s poetry alone that the protagonist moves between four distinct states: desiring lost love, desiring death, feeling frustration at his inability to die, and desiring numbness.

In his excellent Epilogue, Suurpää summarizes the confluence of Part Three’s observations (regarding local musical references to the content of the text) with findings from Part Two’s Schenkerian-Greimassian method (which, as he had predicted, “primarily describes abstract, overarching relations” (38)). This combination of strategies is especially effective in his analysis of the references in Winterreise to a final state of numbness. He finds that “Der Leiermann” and “Der stürmische Morgen” are linked by the musical cross-references of avoiding modal mixture and having the Urlinie occur in the piano part. These musical cross-references underline the common musico-poetic function between these songs, revealed by his analytical system: these are songs in which Schubert’s music clarifies that the protagonist chooses numbness to human emotions after his inability to accomplish death. Suurpää states in his closing paragraph that “Winterreise ends in uncertainty with no resolution…any unequivocal assessment of the precise meaning of death in Winterreise is, in the end, impossible” (195). However, his thorough structural and local analyses do provide abundant insights about death in the second part of Winterreise, not least importantly by clarifying the trajectory of the protagonist’s outlook on death. Suurpää demonstrates convincingly that Schubert’s music reinforces the following conclusions: the protagonist identifies death as a positive option in “Der greise Kopf” and continues to contemplate this option in the satellite song “Die Krähe;” the protagonist realizes in “Letzte Hoffnung” that relinquishing the beloved leads to the possibility of death and peace; the protagonist considers whether to seek death in the three connected songs “Im Dorfe,” “Der stürmische Morgen,” and “Täuschung;” the protagonist chooses death in “Der Wegweiser,” only to find in “Das Wirtshaus” that his desire for death is frustrated; the protagonist reflects on the inability to find death in “Mut” and “Die Nebensonnen,” and decides in “Der Leiermann” that choosing numbness – emotional death – is his recourse.

Also significant is Suurpää’s illustration that the notion of death should be understood in a symbolic way rather than as a description of a concrete physical event. These insights and others that Suurpää arrives at demonstrate one of the great strengths of his approach: it does not assume that the meaning the composer chooses to convey in setting a text is necessarily the same meaning that would be drawn from a reading of the poem without the musical setting. The systematic, separate structural analysis of text and music, followed by a comparison of these structures, is an enlightening method that can help interpreters find meaning in any art song, particularly when supplemented with the local-level analytical approaches that Suurpää recommends. Suurpää’s writing style is clear and detailed, and his analytical conclusions are well defended and laid out. His exemplary scholarship adds clarity to the interpretation of a mysterious, dark, and beautiful cycle.

11611 Last modified on March 7, 2019