“Phänomen”

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the spring of 2017 titled “Art Song.” Since I’ve now got a bit of a tradition of posting my essays once the courses are over, I figured I may as well.
“Phänomen” was written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and published in 1819 in the first book of his West-Östlicher Divan, Buch des Sängers. The Divan as a whole was inspired both by Goethe’s written conversations with Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) and Joseph von Hammer’s (1774-1856) translations of the works of Hafez, a 14th-century Persian poet. The title of the book, and its contents, are inspired by the combination of Western and Eastern philosophies, the coming together of Germany and the Middle East. This was more than just two regions meeting, though: it was also the meeting of two faiths, Islam and Christianity, and of two very different imperial histories – the Roman and Persian empires. The text of “Phänomen” opens with a description of a rainbow appearing from the rain, establishing the idea of hope through what was overwhelming shadow. This appearance of hope is replicated and passed on to the “cheerful old man,” reassuring him that, in spite of his age, he will “still love,” or “love again.” The poem was set to music by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) in 1874, and then by Hugo Wolf (1860 – 1903) in 1888-9, being published in 1891. Though the two settings share the same text, overall they are very different pieces.
The two settings are incredibly different, vividly demonstrating the difference in writing style between the two composers. The melody in Brahms’ setting is fairly constrained; the voices throughout move in a stepwise pattern, occasionally leaping – but only to outline the underlying chord. The use of a second voice is an interesting addition, but in terms of melodic contour it doesn’t add all too much: the second voice is, throughout the piece, either echoing or harmonizing with the first; in moments where the lower line moves ahead of the higher, the higher then takes the role of echoing the lower.
Contrary to Brahms’ constraint, Wolf – a member of the Wagnerian school of music – made liberal use of chromaticism in his melodies. His setting of the text has the singer performing acrobatics, making use of frequent leaps from high to low notes in the first half of the song, and then switching to leaps from low to high towards the end. Measures 12-14 utilize these upwards leaps, F#-D, F#-C#, E-C#, both rhythmically and melodically highlighting certain words. The first rise ascends to the word “nicht” before descending again on “betrüben”; a descending line for the verb in ‘do not sadden yourself,’ with the high point on ‘not,’ an excellent use of text paining. The second rise is a mimic of the first, with the high point on “gleich” – ‘similarly.’ The third of these leaps is the most notable, emphasizing as “doch wirst du lieben” – ‘but you will (again) love.’ It is the only one of the three ascending patterns to continue upwards after, a movement that is echoed by the piano moments later, emphasizing the overall sense of happiness in the text.
Some of the most interesting moments in Brahms’ settings are in his use of rhythmic contrast between the two voices. This motive first appears in measure 7: as the higher voice moves in even quarter notes from “Phö-bus” to “sich,” the lower line pauses on “Phö-” holding it out for a full two beats before moving quickly through the “bus sich” as if trying to catch up. The moment lasts only that single measure, but appears again elsewhere: both voices simultaneously use the hold-then-catch-up rhythm in measure 14; the tension between the two is brought back in measure 41, and the rhythm makes a final appearance in measure 48. The version in 48 is different, however: the text is used differently, with only two words across the measure, (“wirst du”) thus leaving the measure lacking in the slight tension created by the need to ‘catch up’ with the beat that the other instances use.
Rhythmically speaking, however, there is only one other point of interest in the piece: measures 19-33, where the voices play an extended game of catch-up. The higher voice starts two full bars ahead of the lower, pauses in mm.22-23 to allow a bit of catch-up, takes off again in m.24, and the two finally meet in m.27 after another pause on the part of the higher. Then it’s the lower voice’s turn to start ahead, though not by as much, and the two finally come together again for good in measure 32 as the lower, rather than pausing, repeats the words “der Bogen.” This is, however, the only place of rhythmic interest in the vocal line; the rest is either even quarter notes, a half note and a quarter note, or the occasional dotted-quarter-eighth-quarter measure. The piano plays a near-constant stream of eighth notes throughout, pausing only in measures 21 and 23 when the job of filling the space with eighth notes is taken up by higher and the lower voice, respectively.
Wolf’s setting does a better job of varying the rhythm throughout, taking advantage of the “sehr langsam” pace he wrote for and giving it an almost recitative feeling at times. There are two rhythmic ideas that he uses multiple times throughout the piece to great effect: the dotted-eighth-sixteenth pattern used at the end of every duplet, and the shifting of certain points off the expected beats by a half-beat. The repetition of the dotted-quarter-eighth rhythm is a subtle way of drawing the entire piece together; in certain spots, such as measure 9 or measures 14-15, its presence is masked by the repetition of a note or the carrying over of a longer note into the idea. The second of these ideas is less obvious: the two best examples are the stretching of the word “farbig” from measure 3 into measure 4, and the right-hand lines of the piano in measures 5 and 10. Rather than allow the melody to move on the strong beat, Wolf gives them a slight twist, making the motion occur on the off-beats.
The two composers have differing ideas about how the structure of the poem should be used: Brahms’ version follows a rounded binary structure, with the division between the different portions of the song being the stanza breaks in the original poem. Wolf acknowledges the stanzas with a bar of rest in the voice at the end of each stanza, but doesn’t return to his original material, instead opting for a through-composed structure that allows for his soaring portrayal of a rainbow in the final measures.
In Brahms’ setting, the piano has two basic ideas the entire time: ascending eighth notes in the left hand with chords in the right, or chords in the left hand with rocking high-low eighth notes in the right; the second of these two is also sometimes modified with chords above the eight-note pattern. Contrast this to he final two measures of Wolf’s setting of the poem: an excellent use of the piano, a piece of text painting that fits the piece while being an entirely new idea. The other moments of solo piano, in measures 5 and 10, also make great use of the instrument’s capabilities, mimicking the effect of a continuing upper voice while continuing the existing piano line. In the moments when the piano is supporting the voice, it still does so in an interesting manner: only rarely is the rhythm in the piano the same as that of the vocal line. In both settings, the piano is subordinate to the singer or singers, but Wolf’s piano solo moments are more musically interesting than Brahms’, indicating that the piano receives higher billing in his version than in Brahms.
The tonal scheme of the two settings is where their differences are most visible. Brahms begins fairly calmly, in the stated key of B, and largely remains in that key for the entirety of the ‘A’ section of the rounded binary structure of the piece. The ‘B’ section, however, is far more interesting: it’s a gleeful exploration of the harmonic spaces around that original key of B major that begins by transforming B major into the V of e minor, returns to b minor instead of B major, makes a pit stop in G (as VI of b minor) and finally, through an extended V7-I cadence in measures 34-38, returns to B major just in time for the returning ‘A’ section to sound at home once again. Wolf, ever the Wagnerian, makes no such concessions to a home key: he begins, briefly, in the stated key of A major, and the piece ends in E major, but in between is a land of glorious uncertainty. As if predicting the atonal music that would arise in the next century, the piece makes a gleeful game of avoiding any true tonal center, instead opting to move almost constantly from place to place. The result is fiendishly difficult to analyze, but, as a true show of his skill as a composer, never sounds out of place.
Brahms’ setting of “Phänomen” is a wonderful piece: the harmonic playfulness in the central portion of the song, as well as the subtle rhythmic variations, give it a distinctive, and enjoyable, feel. Wolf’s, however, feels more closely fit to the actual text: the slower tempo feels more fitting for a conversation with a ‘white-haired’ man, and the ending piano line is a beautiful bit of text painting, a gentle ascension that feels like the sound a rainbow would make as it appears. Though a close match, I must conclude that Wolf’s setting of the poem is the more successful of the two.