Listening for Schubert’s “Doppelgängers”

David Løberg Code

KEYWORDS: Schubert, doppelganger, Heine, song, analysis, key characteristics

ABSTRACT: A doppelgänger is the ghostly double or wraith of a living person. This essay adopts and adapts this legend to an analysis of Franz Schubert’s song “Der Doppelgänger.” I begin by discussing ways in which the myth of the doppelgänger might relate to Schubert’s personality and other extramusical features such as affective key characteristics. Next, these constructions are mapped onto the piece itself, exploring multiple implications of motivic pitch structures and binary oppositions among chords and modalities. After tracing these features through the piece, I relate this detailed analysis to an interpretation of the text, and finally, aspects of Schubert’s personal life.

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Volume 1, Number 4, July 1995
Copyright © 1995 Society for Music Theory

[1] “Still ist die Nacht” is the opening line of an untitled poem in Heinrich Heine’s collection, Die Heimkehr. Most of us know this poem by its inclusion in Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang.(1) Regarding Schubert’s setting of the poem, Jack Stein describes it as “painfully wrong in its interpretation of the poem.” For example, “the first stanza, which Schubert sets in a darkly atmospheric, highly charged recitative over somber chords . . . is in reality the innocuous opening typical of many Heine poems, revealing absolutely nothing of the emotional fireworks to come.” (Stein 1971, 89) Stein seems to be concerned that Schubert’s music prematurely gives away something of the ending, thus altering the narrative structure of Heine’s poem. I would agree that Schubert has dramatically restructured the way in which one experiences the poem, but it is pointless to chastise the musical introduction, as the poem has already been altered by Schubert’s lifting of the word “doppelgänger” from Heine’s third stanza and placing it prominently in the title.

[2] Schubert’s invocation of “Der Doppelgänger” brings to the foreground a host of cultural myths and imagery that would otherwise be absent from the opening of Heine’s poem. Literally meaning the ‘double-goer,’ the idea of a “spirit double, an exact but usually invisible replica of every human, bird, or beast is an ancient one” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1985, 182). In Schubert’s time, the character of the doppelgänger was probably best known through the literary works of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and E.T.A. Hoffmann. That Schubert was familiar with the myth is evident, not only due to his choice of title, but even because of his spelling of the word. In the original poem, Heine uses the word “doppeltgänger,” (doubled-goer) while Schubert (omitting the “t”) chose the more common form of the word. Furthermore, Given that Heine uses the word only once in the last stanza of the poem, he apparently wished to postpone or perhaps even downplay the mythical associations. In rebutting what he calls Stein’s “often maddeningly wrongheaded study of Schubert’s Heine songs,” Richard Kramer (1985, 219) argues that it is entirely appropriate for Schubert to remake Heine’s poem. “It is in the nature of Romantic art,” says Kramer, “that idiosyncratic, personal style is a deep part of the message. . . . Heine’s poem is no longer Heine’s” (R. Kramer 1985, 219).

[3] Schubert may have identified with the notion of the doppelgänger—a shadow-self—because of the double life he himself apparently led. As his friend Eduard Bauernfeld described him, “Schubert had, so to speak, a double nature. . . . Inwardly a kind of poet and outwardly a kind of hedonist.” (Deutsch 1958, 45) Similarly, Josef Krenner remarked: “Anyone who knew Schubert knows how he was made of two natures, foreign to each other, how powerfully the craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the cesspool of slime” (Deutsch 1958, 86). Maynard Solomon (1989, 1993) portrays Schubert as part of a very intimate circle of male friends engaged in same-sex erotic activities that were socially unacceptable in 19th-century Vienna. By necessity, this facet of Schubert’s life was kept somewhat concealed from his public persona. It is known that Schubert suffered from syphilis, an incurable disease at that time, which he probably contracted in 1822 (Sams 1980). With his contraction of syphilis and susbequent hospitalization and convalescence, however, Schubert’s private life became at least tacitly manifest in his public life. Furthermore, several of Schubert’s circle of intimate friends succumbed to severe illness, thus contributing to the dissolution of the ‘circle’ and their lifestyle even before Schubert’s actual death. According to Josef von Spaun, Schubert had intended the Rellstab- and Heine-songs of Schwanengesang to be published (without “Die Taubenpost”) as a yet untitled cycle dedicated to these friends (Deutsch 1978, 616). “Der Doppelgänger” was therefore intended as the last song of this cycle. While some have suggested that it should more properly be placed in the middle, following the order in the poems appear in Heine’s Die Heimkehr (Goldschmidt 1974, R. Kramer 1985), it seems a fitting—though tragic—finale.

[4] “Der Doppelgänger” begins in the key of B minor, evoking the opening of the “Unfinished” Symphony with which it shares not only the same key, but a similar bass motive. Susan McClary (1994, 225) describes the latter as an example of a victim narrative in which “a sinister affective realm sets the stage for the vulnerable lyrical subject, which is doomed to be quashed.”(2) One of the means by which Schubert creates this “affective realm” in “Der Doppelgänger” is through his careful choice of keys. Although references to key qualities abound, the topic has been largely neglected in our time until Rita Steblin’s (1983) A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. Historically, the most influential work on this subject was probably the Ideen zu einer Asthetik der Tonkunst of Christian Schubart, written about 1784, and published posthumously in 1806. That Franz Schubert was familiar with the latter is likely, considering that he set four of Schubart’s poems to music, including the famous “Die Forelle.” However, as Steblin (1983, 190) states, “even composers who did not express their views on the matter might nevertheless be presumed to represent established tradition in their creative work.”

[5] It is intriguing to see how Schubart’s key characteristics relate to the music and text of “Der Doppelgänger.” Of B minor, the tonic key, Schubart (1806) states:

B minor. This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting one’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation. For that reason its lament is so mild, without ever breaking out into offensive murmuring or whimpering. The use of this key is rather difficult for all instruments; therefore so few pieces are found which are expressly set in this key. (Steblin 1983, 124)

The affect of B minor, like the opening of the poem, is relatively calm, but it also foreshadows the “fate” to come. In contrast, B major represents “anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair, and every burden of the heart”—emotions well suited for the ending of the poem (Steblin 1983, 123). The piece remains in B minor until the third stanza (measure 47), at which point it modulates, not to the dominant or relative major, but to the raised mediant. The modulation occurs at the precise moment in which the doppelgänger mocks the love-sorrows of the narrator. Based upon Schubart’s description, the choice of key could not have been more fitting:(3)

[Dsharp] minor. Feelings of anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible [Dsharp] minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key. (Steblin 1983, 122–23)

If Schubert had modulated to a different tonic, the affect of the key would have contradicted that of the poem. Fsharp minor (the dominant) “tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress,” while D major (the relative major) is the key of triumph and hallelujahs. (Steblin 1983, 122–23) As it stands, Schubart’s description of the actual key is hauntingly accurate. While the narrator addresses his double, the ghost speaks back through the music, mimicking the narrator’s shuddering heart and brooding despair. If one were attempting to demonstrate the validity of key characteristics within certain composers (or pieces), this would make a most compelling example.

Example 1. Introduction to “Der Doppelgänger,” mm. 1–4

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Example 2. Multiple implications of each dyad in mm. 1–4

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[6] Taken as a whole, the opening chord progression can be clearly heard as a half cadence (or at least an incomplete progression) in the key of B minor (see Example 1). Individually, however, none of the chords are complete, hence each dyad potentially implies more than one harmony (see Example 2). Without their thirds, the outer chords could be either major or minor triads: the first being I (B–DsharpFsharp) or i (B–DFsharp), and the last being V (FsharpAsharpCsharp) or v (FsharpACsharp). Similarly, the thirds of the middle chords can be filled out in two directions. The minor third of the penultimate chord (measure 3) could be completed as III (D–FsharpA) or i (B–D–Fsharp).(4) The major third in measure 2 presents a more complex situation. Although it is most likely heard as part of the major dominant (FsharpAsharpCsharp), it could also be spelled as a mediant. The resulting augmented triad (DFsharpAsharp) seems out of place, especially considering that this chord never occurs in the composition. However, as of measure 2, it is still possible to consider the piece in B major (due to the tonal ambiguity of the first measure), making it conceivable for the missing note to be a Dsharp. Moreover, unlike the augmented mediant, this sharp mediant (in relation B minor) is heard later as the tonic chord of the modulation in measure 47. All of the chords shown in Example 2 are heard (in context) later in the piece, thus providing some justification for my supposition of these eight chords (and exclusion of the augmented mediant). As the opening progression is continually repeated and varied, the filling in of its chords becomes a dynamic structuring feature of the piece.

[7] In the first part of the poem, the narrator fills in the picture of the surroundings gradually—night, street, house, man—just as the empty chords themselves are completed slowly. In the first stanza (measures 5–24), virtually no action takes place in either the poem or the music. Most of the vocal notes which fill in the chords are set to relatively insignificant articles (e.g., die, diesem, das), and there is no harmonic development between the first and second stanzas. It is only with the appearance (in the poem) of the other man that the development of the music begins to advance. In measure 25 the voice begins on a new note, D, rather than Fsharp, and its range is extended to Fsharp5, accompanied by a crescendo to fff. Harmonically, two more chords are completed, and in measure 32, on the word “Schmerzensgewalt” (grief-violence) the dominant-seventh is transformed into a French-sixth chord by the introduction of C natural.

[8] The climax of the poem occurs at the end of the second stanza, when the narrator discovers that this other man is his double (“der Mond zeigt mir meine eig’ne Gestalt”). The revelation, in a sense, strips the narrator of his own identity, causing him to shudder (“mir graut es”). More importantly, this coincides with the first interruption of the note Fsharp, on the word “Gestalt,” the exact moment the narrator sees his own face in the other man. This is a remarkable aural event, especially since Fsharp is present constantly in all but seven bars of the piece.(5) Thus, one could, perhaps, identify the ‘character Fsharp’ (along with the dominant) as representing the narrator, as do Elaine Brody and Robert Fowkes (1971, 221): “the combination of the sustained F sharp with the recurrent ostinato effectively portrays the agitation of the principal character.” I would, in turn, associate the subdominant E with his doppelgänger.

[9] The relationship between the dominant and the subdominant forms one of the primary binary oppositions within the piece: one obsessively present, the other hauntingly absent. As with their poetic counterparts, the two terms are mirror images of each other, one major, the other minor. The root pitches themselves, Fsharp and E, although adjacent in the diatonic scale, become antithetical figures when reflected across the axis of the tonic B. Hence, the subdominant asserts its literal role as the under-dominant, or fifth below the tonic. Furthermore, the narrator, like the dominant, is portrayed as being weak, for it is he who is tortured by the absence of his former love, and it is the doppelgänger who, like the subdominant in the final cadence, mocks him. Although stated only once at the end, the effect of the subdominant throughout the piece is felt strongly, perhaps more strongly than the dominant itself.

[10] It is a tribute to Schubert’s genius that all of the essential structural elements of “Der Doppelgänger” are contained within the opening four bars. The four-note motive B–Asharp–D–Csharp which accompanies the pedal-like Fsharp throughout much of the piece helps define the universe of harmonies around that note: all of the chords containing Fsharp in the key of B minor (tonic, mediant, and dominant) are implied by these five notes. Furthermore, although not yet distinguishable to the first-time listener, the Fsharp, and the harmonic function which it signifies (the dominant), appears marked by weakness. One could argue that all of the chords appear ‘weak’ in the introduction because of their incompleteness; why then should the dominant be singled out? To begin with, of the three chords surrounding the Fsharp mentioned above, only the dominant does not appear in root position. The first and only root-position dominant does not appear until measure 55. Through the course of the piece, the instability of the dominant becomes increasingly evident, making its significance in the introduction, to borrow from Edward T. Cone (1982, 238), “unforeseen in prospect yet inevitable in retrospect.” Along these same lines, there is an even subtler motive connoted in the opening by the marked absence of the subdominant.

Example 3. Structural gap showing missing pitch C in opening motive

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Example 4. Structural gaps (missing pitches E and G)

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[11] The four-note motive, B–Asharp–D–Csharp, that both creates and traverses this opening progression seems to be taken from the Agnus Dei of Schubert’s Mass in Eb, written in June 1828, just two months before “Der Doppelgänger”. It is interesting that the Agnus Dei uses the motive as the subject of a fugue. One might expect a fugal treatment of the motive to have exhausted its musical possibilities, and yet, Schubert’s use of the motive here seems to indicate that there is some element that has not yet been explored. Regarding this same motive (B–Asharp–D–Csharp), Werner Thomas (1954, 253) has also noted its similarity to the famous B–A–C–H motive, with which it shares the same contour and symmetry, and similar compactness and chromaticism. The difference is that, while the B–A–C–H motive completely fills its span of a minor third, Schubert’s omits the note C natural in filling in the interval of a diminished fourth (see Example 3). This type of missing note is referred to by Leonard Meyer (1956, 130–135) as a structural gap. In addition, one will notice how the missing C (and the Fsharp drone as well) serves as an axis of symmetry for the four-note set. By adding the Fsharp to the above collection of pitches (B–Asharp–D–Csharp), two more structural gaps can be revealed, one on each side of the dominant. Arranging the pitches in ascending order, one can see that they form a diatonic B-minor scale, minus the notes E and G (see Example 4). The individual resolutions of all three of these ‘gaps’ (the missing notes) form part of a larger sequence directly connected to the weakening stability I have associated with the dominant harmony.

[12] Although less significant than the dominant/subdominant pairing, the dual nature of the chords in the introduction also provides a complete (and circular) presentation of another binary opposition: the antithesis of major vs. minor. William Kinderman (1986, 75) suggests that in some of Schubert’s music “contrast between major and minor may represent one aspect of a more profound thematic juxtapositon suggesting the dichotomy of inward imagination and external perception.” In Heine’s poem, the latter is present in the narrator’s description of the physical house and street; the former in his remembrances of his sweetheart. Individually, each of the chords in the opening might also symbolize this opposition by implying both a major and minor triad (see Example 2). On a larger scale, the opening chord demarcates the dichotomy between the tonalities of B major and B minor. With this in mind, the succeeding chords can be interpreted as belonging to one or the other side of the major/minor wall: the second chord, because of its leading-tone Asharp, belongs to B major; the third chord, with its lowered third degree D, belongs to B minor.(6) Appropriately, these two pitches (Asharp and D) are also symmetrical opposites across the axes of both C and Fsharp. Finally, the two opposing terms (B major/B minor) are brought back together with the neutral dominant (the fourth chord), which belongs to neither, or both, sides of the wall. I am not suggesting that the introduction is initially heard as being modally ambiguous (it is clearly heard in B minor), rather I am trying to illuminate a dramatic structure imbedded within this opening that foreshadows larger actions in both the music and text.

[13] Having presented (or, if you prefer, constructed) several issues in need of resolution, I would now like to pursue them through the remainder of the composition. All of the chords in the first section of the piece (measures 5–40) are derived from the pitches of the introduction and are likewise mostly incomplete within the piano part itself. One might expect the vocal line to supply the missing notes which complete the sonorities as the opening progression is repeated over and over. Nonetheless, while Schubert may have prematurely revealed the somber tenor of Heine’s poem, he defers revealing the ‘true’ quality of the opening chords as much as possible. The voice rarely enters on the downbeat thus creating the effect of a quasi-recitative, and its first entrance on the second beat of measure 5, of course, provides no additional information since the Fsharp is already present in the piano.(7) It is only on the last sixteenth of the last beat of measure 7 that one of the four chords can be be positively identified. It is a B-minor chord in first inversion (D–Fsharp–B).(8) The second half of the phrase (measures 9–14), however, presents a variation on the progression in which all of the chords can be determined. The first two chords are filled in by the voice part and the rest are presented in their entirety by the piano: (B minor) i – v – III –