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Alienation and Loss of Self in Schubert's "Der Doppelganger" and "Der Leiermann"

Updated on July 1, 2012
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Austrian Composer
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Austrian Composer | Source

Alienation and Self-Loss in Classical Art Song as Shown in Schubert

In both “Der Doppelgänger” and “Der Leiermann,” Franz Schubert uses compositional techniques in the music to further the ideas of divided self and alienation that are readily apparent in the texts. The text “Der Doppelgänger” by Heine describes a troubled lover who is left alone and is horrified when he sees his doppelganger outside his estranged loves old home. Schubert not only uses the text to explain the music, but also uses the music to enhance the narrative’s emotional qualities. Similarly, the narrator of Müller’s “Der Leiermann” shows his alienation as he sees himself in the hurdy-gurdy man. He considers going with the hurdy-gurdy man so that they can play his songs. Both of these characters are emotionally troubled and they show their division of self through their doppelgangers. They also show their alienation from society. Schubert furthers these literary themes through musical and compositional techniques.

"Der Blinde Leiermann" by Josef Fromiller
"Der Blinde Leiermann" by Josef Fromiller | Source

Schubert's Interpretation of "Der Leiermann" by Muller

Schubert addresses the alienation and division of self in Müller’s text through various musical techniques. This furthers these themes and reminds the listener of the message of the text. This is a pivotal moment in the narrator’s story; it is the end of the musical cycle, and he must decide if he is to go with the hurdy-gurdy man so that they can perform his songs. The fact that song is being sung, indicates the narrator’s decision to join the man. The key of A minor indicates the narrator’s mental state. He is sad, alone, and isolated. The piece is slow and lamenting. The majority of the song is very soft. This shows detachment and resignation. Life has passed the narrator by and all that is left is his songs. It is not until the final four bars, that there is significant dynamic contrast, as the voice reaches forte. The voice is alone over the drone for the entirety of the piece, emphasizing his solitude in his situation. Although the hurdy-gurdy man is also present, the narrator is alone in the decision of whether or not to join the wanderer. Even if he does decide to travel with the hurdy-gurdy man, they will remain outcasts of society as the world passes them by. The hurdy-gurdy man can be seen as the poet’s doppelganger. Both have been forgotten by society, yet the poet has not yet been cast out by society. The hurdy-gurdy man shows the poet his possible future. Throughout the song, the left hand of the piano plays an open fifth drone. Above this is either the vocal melody or a single-line melody in the right hand of the piano. This imitates the drone and melody of the hurdy-gurdy. The music of the hurdy-gurdy must remain simple as one hand must crank the wheel while the other plays the melody. Melodically and harmonically, the song is very stark; very little is happening at once. There is the drone and the melodic line. That is all. Not only is this an imitation of the style and sound of the hurdy-gurdy, but also it furthers the sense of loneliness and also indicates the emotional poverty of the narrator. Rhythmically, the piano part is very slow, but steady; the drone is repeated once each measure. The voice, in contrast, has much faster eighth notes. These, however, are also very steady, and give a sense of slow, measured walking. The narrator is still on a journey to find himself. He does not have any particular destination and is therefore aimless. He is still restless, despite the distance he has already traveled. Although the rhythm gives a sense of motion and progress, the melodic line does not. Nearly all of the phrases are centered on the mid-staff A. Although lines move upward are downward, they return to this center range. Individual phrases have shape, but the overall contour of the melody is relatively stagnant. Through this limited vocal range, Schubert gives a sense of motionless and a lack of progress. Although the narrator is traveling, he is going nowhere. In contrast, the right hand of the piano displays much more motion. This is in response to the narrator’s song. The piano movement imitates the passersby who ignore the hurdy-gurdy man who merely watches the world as it passes him. The hurdy-gurdy itself is active, but its player is not. He allows himself to be left behind.

Schubert's Interpretation of "Der Doppelganger" by Heine

In “Der Doppelgänger,” Schubert addresses themes of alienation and divided self through his music. Like “Der Leiermann,” Schubert chooses a minor key for “Der Doppelgänger.” This similarly indicates the narrator’s sadness, loneliness and alienation. This song is also slow and plodding, but it does not have the same repetitive rhythm as “Der Leiermann.” Thus, there is not the same sense of motion, travel, and walking. There is very little going on in the piano part, which puts an emphasis on the lyrics. The focus on the words shows that the character is pensive and thoughtful. He is deeply troubled and emotionally uneasy. Like “Der Leiermann,” the piano accompaniment is very simple and understated, but Schubert’s intent is very different. In “Der Doppelgänger,” the piano has slow moving chords that change each bar. The chord progression changes throughout the piece but frequently returns to the chords used in the first four bars. This does give a sense of motion; however the repetition of chords indicates that there is no progress or that progress is superficial. Quick ornament in the piano only occurs twice in the entire song. These piano ornaments echo and respond to the voice. Both times occur in the first stanza as the narrator reflects on his lost love. These are memories that he allows to surface. The voice part moves quite a bit and covers a considerably wider range than that of “Der Leiermann.” The night is still, as are the narrator’s surroundings, but the narrator himself is not. He is restless, agitated, and troubled by his lost love and the appearance of his doppelganger. In contrast to “Der Leiermann,” the voice has the most active part since it is the most active aspect of the scene. Like “Der Leiermann,” there is a soft prelude and postlude by the piano. This gives a sense that the narrator is coming from and retreating into the night. Unlike “Der Leiermann,” there is a clear and definite climax to the song. The piece slowly builds slowly through the second stanza. There is a large crescendo and accelerando leading up to the word “Gestalt.” At this point, the narrator realizes that he is looking at himself. His agitation and unrest is evident in the franticness of the faster tempo and the increased incidence of dissonance in the piano. The piano part then plays simple octave “F”s. This harmonic simplicity following the dissonance of the chord before serves to remind the narrator of the absurdity of his situation. The final line quickly decrescendos. The narrator returns to his senses and resigns into the night.

Both Müller and Heine’s texts speak of alienation and double self. Both of these characters have estranged loves that have caused them pain. They are both forced to confront their doppelgangers in a moment of self-realization. Schubert treats these themes differently in the two songs. In “Der Leiermann,” he imitates the hurdy-gurdy and shows the motion of the scene. Yet, the poet remains mostly stagnant. In contrast, the narrator of “Der Doppelgänger” is the most active part of his scene, even though there are other parts moving. Schubert sets the moods of the songs using key choice, repeated figures, and the level of harmonic complexity.

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