In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. – John Muir
In the Romantic conception of the natural world, as John Muir so lucidly illustrates, communing with nature was not simply a matter of delighting in its newly aestheticized beauty. Rather, it was a portal into sublime, transcendent realms, as well as a mirror turned to the Self. Muir wrote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” For composers of the era (particularly German ones), deeply concerned with the question of the “Universe,” the question thus became one of mimesis, of how to conjure the spiritual awe of the wilderness on its own terms while also representing what we “receive” by interacting with it. The question of nature was never purely about the abstract contemplation of transcendent, boundless properties, what Kant might describe as the mathematical sublime; it was also about how we, as humans, fit into the grand cosmic scheme. Exterior nature was simply interior nature writ large.
A profound ambiguity characterized much of the Romantic perspective of nature. It existed outside of civilization, which, in the wake of rapid industrialization, was becoming increasingly noisy, foul, and dirty. Beyond the “dark satanic mills” of Blake, nature was symbolized as a pure, idyllic reality that we had given up in our Faustian pursuit of “progress.” On the other hand, progress wasn’t such a bad thing after all, and, as Peter Coates points out, many people during the early to mid-nineteenth century saw wilderness as just so much unproductive space hampering human growth. These dueling conceptions of the natural world played out in popular notions of what nature sounded like as well, a matter of importance to composers attempting to conjure nature through music. According to Coates, the wilderness was perceived as both “silent and howling:” silent in its noble, profound separation from the noisy affairs of mankind; howling in the dangerous chaos it embodied. Both of these poles found utterance in the music of this period. In addition to describing the contradictory qualities of nature, moreover, writers, composers and artists saw this conflict as endemic to the human soul. We are all, indeed, “silent and howling” inside.
Schumann’s Waldszenen, a cycle of nine pieces for piano, perfectly captures a variety of perspectives associated with the Romantic representation of nature as both an external and an internal state (click here to download the score; audio files are embedded in the post). On the most basic level, the cycle incorporates much of the traditional Germanic musical symbolism of nature; in “Jäger auf der Lauer” and “Jagdlied,” for instance, evocations of the hunting horn (waldhorn) are peppered throughout. (For a representative example, see the former, mm. 13-14, with its brash major triads.) In addition, in the echt Romantic “Vogel als Prophet,” Schumann represents the twittering of a forest bird with fleet, upper register flourishes. (Such mimesis is, of course, a standard musical trope going back hundreds of years in the Western musical tradition.) But the composer does not stop at the obvious in his pursuit of vivid evocation. In Waldszenen, a new aesthetic awareness of nature becomes apparent in the composer’s idiosyncratic treatment of form and periodicity. Many of the pieces in the cycle are marked with seemingly odd structural quirks that, if not found within the context of a Romantic piano cycle on nature, might be difficult to explain. Indeed, as Charles Rosen indicates, some of the early Romantics believed that chaos played a major role in creativity and, as previously mentioned, nature was closely linked to chaos. To conjure this sense of unpredictability, Schumann employed asymmetrical forms that successfully eschew expectations and regularity. I will return to some examples shortly.
This formal conception is also closely related to the Romantic “fragment” idea, which is similarly elucidated by Rosen. As the author points out, Schumann was a master of this particular aesthetic. Although fragments took a diverse variety of specific forms, we can identify a few elements that played a major role in many of Schumann’s lieder. In some of his music, Schumann shows us images of a process much larger than what is actually represented in the score, an effect often carried out by abbreviating beginnings and endings to make the listener feel as if he has stumbled into the musical action in medias res. Other common techniques of the fragment aesthetic include quotation and the embedding of unrelated musical materials. As I shall attempt to demonstrate, in addition to his lieder repertory, these techniques are found in Waldszenen. The aesthetic of the fragment, in fact, is ideally suited to Romantic musical constructions of the forest. Poets and composers of the day embraced this form due to its perceived “naturalness,” and a clear corollary existed between exterior nature (as exemplified by the forest) and interior nature.
Indeed, the fragment is clearly representative of Romantic notions of subjective experience. Waldszenen isn’t a musical portrait of nature composed from the perspective of a detached, depersonalized subject; rather, it’s the representation of nature seen through the eyes of a human narrator. The piece unfolds as a sort of musical interior monologue of a person’s journey into and out of the woods. Furthermore, memory is actively engaged through near-constant evocations of earlier material. Although he rarely quotes himself directly, the score is strewn with references to what we’ve already heard; as if commenting on the fallibility of memory, we are continually presented with vaguely familiar yet tantalizingly distant snippets of music – a chord here, a melodic fragment there, a rhythm that you think you recall but can’t quite place. Waldszenen casts a thick fog over our perception of passing time.
Preliminaries out of the way, I will proceed now to a more detailed reading of the attributes introduced above, focusing on three scenes, “Eintritt,” “Vogel als Prophet,” and “Abschied.” The first piece of the cycle, “Eintritt” (Entrance), begins without a real beginning. Instead, the listener is plopped down right in the middle of a light accompanimental figure; the journey, it seems, has already begun before the first note even sounds. This cheerful material lasts for two measures, wherein we’re given only the bass and harmonic accompaniment pattern. In m. 3, the melody enters, but like the beginning of the piece, it catches the listener unawares. Without any preparation, the melody comes in right during the middle of the harmonic progression, on the dominant preparation of IV-V7; just as we’re introduced to this simple theme, therefore, we hit the first cadence of the piece – we arrive before we’ve gotten anywhere. The opening passage is structured in a symmetrical 8-bars, but the musical events don’t play out in a way that is intuitive. When we reach the end of the phrase (on a tonicized V), our closure is aborted by the return of the accompanimental figure from the first measure. Again, without preparation, we are thrust back into the original key, and earlier than expected, creating a stutter in the form. Instead of the introductory four statements of the figure, the first ending anticipates the repeat to produce five, and we’re back where we started.
This 8-bar opening sounds misaligned, like the printer accidentally slid the plates into the wrong position: both the harmonic accompaniment and the melody are straightforward, but they don’t seem to match up. When we return to the beginning after the repeat, the nakedness of the opening two measures is all the more striking. Indeed, it sounds like an accompaniment with a missing melody. The melodic entrance in m. 3, then, is recast as simply the continuation of a melodic line that was mysteriously deleted from the first two measures. When the melody enters, its childishness and naiveté suggest our wanderer distractedly humming a simple tune as she enters the forest. She may have forgotten the first part of the melody, but she can jump in at the next phrase that comes to mind.
All of this is consonant with Rosen’s thoughts on the fragment aesthetic. We are not simply getting a musical glimpse of the forest; nature, in her harmonically ambiguous wonder, doesn’t appear until m. 9. Rather, this opening is a portrayal of a person’s interaction with nature. The fragmentary musical narrative is just as much about people as it is about nature, a point that is illustrated by Schumann’s vivid musical commentary on subjective memory. Throughout the cycle, material is scrambled to produce a hazy collage of impressions. Does our fair forest wanderer ever remember the beginning of the tune? Five pieces later, she does. “Herberge” opens with a melody that fills in this missing space in memory.
The next piece, “Vogel als Prophet,” demonstrates that it’s not just human consciousness that is prone to asymmetry and formal slippage. Schumann’s intimations of birdsong, while stopping short of Messiaen in ornithological accuracy, conjure the darting, unpredictable quality of birds with quicksilver rhythms, high registration, wide leaps, and a juicy semitone relationship between the first and second notes of each phrase. (This last point links Schumann’s birdsong to musical exoticism and the semiotic connection between nature and the “Orient.”) Like “Eintritt,” this piece plays with simple, symmetrical formal structures in a way that’s perfectly in line with the fragment idea, and with representations of nature as unbound from human control. The opening 16 measures of the “bird” passage (before the “prophet” starts talking in m. 19) unfolds in the perfectly symmetrical pattern of 4 + 4 + 8, complete with cadence points where one might expect them. However, as this stable structure comes to a close, we are presented once again with the first two bars of the piece. This tacked-on material throws off the symmetry of the form (4 + 4 + 8 + 2 = 18); moreover, it serves absolutely no function as a transitional element. Instead, just as quickly as we return to the familiar opening passage, Schumann jarringly introduces new material that bears no relationship to the bird music besides sharing a key. The bird, it seems, has turned prophet.
Vogel Als Prophet
The prophet section of the piece (mm. 19-24) is marked by elegance, grace, and nobility. It’s a delicious bite, to be sure, but Schumann only gives us a tiny morsel. Like the opening, the section is cast asymmetrically, with stable material followed by a sudden shift into new territory. Indeed, at the end of m. 23, when the whole texture is transposed to the bVI, the composer marks it “Verschiebung” (shifting). After just a few beats of the new key, and just as suddenly as we entered it, Schumann pulls the listener back into the opening bird material. This whole 6-measure passage is embedded within the matrix of the bird music, although no attempt is made to seamlessly integrate it into the piece. The musical strategy is characterized instead by its fragmentary juxtaposition.
The aesthetics of juxtaposition find their most perfect expression in the final piece, “Abschied” (Farewell), a wistful goodbye to the forest. In musical terms, this sense of nostalgia is enacted through a series of faint allusions to previous material from the cycle. “Borrowing” or “quotation” would be too strong of words here; rather, the process consists of recasting familiar material in a new setting. It’s enough to establish identity, but just barely. To name a few examples, the melody at m. 3 is strongly reminiscent of “Herberge” (compare to m. 1 of the excerpt on p. 6). In m. 12, the bass movement (V-vi) through chromatic passing tone is taken from “Eintritt” and “Herberge” (m. 2). The pungent clash of B natural/Bb in “Einsame Blumen” (mm. 12 and 38) make its thorny appearance once again in m. 17 of “Abschied.” In m. 29, we get a melodic turn from “Freundliche Landschaft,” and in m. 32, the chromatic exoticism of the bird sneaks in for a quick appearance. Measure 33 is reminiscent of the “Eintritt” opening melody, and m. 38 reiterates “Herberge” in the left hand. More examples abound, but my point is sufficiently made: the final piece of the cycle collages familiar music to conjure a sense of nostalgia for the forest as it recedes into the background, and through the fragmented chaos of memories, full of half-remembered images and fleeting impressions, Schumann evokes the “silent and howling” interior life of the forest wanderer, who turns out to be none other than the listener. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Schumann seems to suggest that, in nature, you find yourself.
Peter Coates, “The Strange Stillness of the Past: Toward an Environmental History of Sound and Noise,” Environmental History
10/4 (Oct. 2005): 643.
 Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 95.
 Rosen also discusses this idea in regard to the fragment. For more, see Rosen, 115.
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