Musicology | Musikwissenschaft


Time and Flow in Parmenides and the song cycles of Franz Schubert

Presented at the World Congress of Philosphy, Athens, August 2013

„Let us not conjecture at random about the greatest things”. (DK 47) Unfortunately, this is exactly what I am going to do. The objects of my conjecture are Schubert’s two greatest song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin und Winterreise and their contrasting expressions of time and perception in conjunction with the fragments of Heraclitus and Parmenides. The most obvious connection between the pre-socratic philosophers and Schubert lies upon the most widely cited fragment of Heraclitus. “You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.”, or (B 12) “On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow.” The appearance of water as a tool for understanding change and temporal experience is of vital importance not only for Heraclitus but also for Schubert. Die Schöne Müllerin embodies this citation completely. The flowing of the fresh waters into the brook are quite literally the driving force of the cycle, in that they move the millstones which are the foundation of his being. They bring the Müller to the mill and accompany his doubts, joy, and final despair. After he is dead, the brook continues to flow and soothes his long rest. As a musician it is very clear and musically apparent that the flowing of the same river is not the same The brook is the very source of change for Schubert in constructing the cycle and also for the Müller as the most direct perceiver and experiencer of it. Due to this, the moment of stillness contained in the individual songs holds an incredible sense of motion (parmenides – ??). The flowing of the brook is constant and although the Müller’s perceptions and experiences are a suspended moment, the movement of the water continues.

Winterreise is also in this sense in direct opposition to Die Schöne Müllerin. Water is still a central motiv, but not as an entity capable of providing a duality of perception. Instead (as mentioned earlier) its appearance becomes a part of the singer’s soul. As would be expected in winter, the water is often frozen or in a state of striving against the static nature of ice, and this is a source of great suffering to the singer. He wishes often that the resumption of the natural motion, the flowing, as if it would provide some relief (“when the ice shatters into pieces and the snow melts… follow my {melted} tears which will join the stream, … when they glow, there is the house of my beloved” from Wasserflut, for example) but the contrast of the frozen and indifferent river shrouded in ice is always present.

Of particular interest are the structural and temporal implications of the cycles and the differing ways in which the flow and current of Schubert’s music expresses a very philosophical understanding of time and being. The song cycles make better fields for investigation of these elements due to the tensions they contain within themselves. First, there is the narrative and temporal expression of the cycle – the time “as an element of narrative”, as Thomas Mann puts it (The Magic mountain, Ch. 7 “Strandspaziergang”), the internal time of the cycle, which is required for the Müller to find the mill, begin to work, meet the Müllerin, fall in love, lose his beloved to the hunter, mourn his loss, and drown in the ever-present and comforting brook. Secondly, there is the time the cycle occupies for the listeners, very often enormously divergent from the internal time. And thirdly, there is the time within the individual songs. This “self-contained” time is often in conflict with or opposing the internal time of the cycle. For example, in the case of Die Schöne Müllerin, the internal time of the cycle is in a large part the perception of the Müller himself, and when he steps aside and the brook sings a lullaby for his last sleep the “time” in consideration, although it may be eternal, is still that of the Müller and his relation to the world (Good night, good night, until all awakes.)

However in Die Schöne Müllerin, the individual songs themselves are not just isolated sections of the internal time of the cycle, delineated individually by their beginning and end. Far more often they occur in a suspended moment amidst the flow of the internal time. Each song produces a constructive tension against both the internal time of the cycle and also the time in which the cycle occurs for the listeners by expanding a moment of “timelessness” which, for us, occupies three or four minutes. One of the best examples of this within the cycle is the second song, which captures and holds the moment in which the Müller hears the brook “whispering” and decides to follow it to the inevitable mill. What is presented (MUSICAL EXAMPLE Wohin) is the rushing of the stream and the immediate response of the Müller. Instead of vanishing into a continuous stream of thought and further experience, the single perception and the knowledge upon which the miller draws (and which is evoked by the moment of perception) remain paradoxically solid or present (fest? Bestehend?) for the external time which the song occupies for the audiences. The tension thus evoked is therefore triple – at first, the time if the internal narrative is suspended, secondly the inhabiters of the “external” or performed time perceive the suspended moment as incompatible with the flow of the internal time (or the song as an interruption of its contextual narrative time perception) and thirdly there is a tension between the external perception of the audience of the three minutes which the song “occupies” and the timelessness of the “occupation.” This interlocking of various time perceptions and the conflicts which the provoke is strongly reminiscent of the view of Heraclitus on the sea. “The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive.“ B 61The nature of the sea is contradictory not because of anything in itself, but because of the perception of those in a position to experience it. To the fish the sea is pure and to men it is poisonous but in itself it is both and neither. The time elements (time streams?) in Die Schöne Müllerin are the same. Depending on whether one is a fish in the sea, the Müller or in a position to perceive only the internal time or a man who can perceive and gain knowledge of not only his own perspective but also the experience and perception of the fish (in this case, all three partially conflicting time perceptions) one is able to gain a less limited understanding of the cycle through the knowledge of its engagement with temporal perceptions.

The case of Winterreise is completely opposed to that of Die Schöne Müllerin. Rather than an clear temporal progression expressed through the internal narrative, the cycle is on this scale almost timeless, a vast version of the temporal suspension which occurs in Die Schöne Müllerin only within the individual songs. Winterreise does not contain the kind of evolution (development?) upon which an understandable temporal progression could be placed. Whereas in Die Schöne Müllerin a rearrangement of the songs would make nonsense of the cycle, Schubert rearranged Wilhelm Müller’s cycle of poems in his final setting, interpolating several of the later poems in the first half and there have been attempts to perform the cycle according to Müller’s intended progression, clearly impossible in Die Schöne Müllerin. The cycle begins as the protagonist looks back on his departure from the house of his beloved and his reflections on his wanderings before and after his halt (of deliberately uncertain duration) with the family of an unnamed woman whom he had hoped to marry. The events which make up the narrative of Die Schöne Müllerin are already gone by the beginning of Winterreise: the end of the Müller’s journey, at the mill where he meets and falls in love with the Miller’s daughter and drowns himself in despair is the beginning of the journey for the traveling horn player of Winterreise.

The connections between the protagonist and the world, or his view of himself in the context of the world differ greatly between the two cycles. The Müller is aware of the perceptions of others, drawing on his understanding of them to illuminate his knowledge of himself (for example, the whiteness of the flour and his clothes in contrast with the hunter’s green and the green rest of the world). In contrast, the protagonist of the Winterreise begins where the Müller has left off, with the loss of his understanding of himself through the perceptions of others. He never speaks of himself objectively, it is the subtitle of Wilhelm Müller’s cycle which gives us the information that he was a traveling horn player. While Die Schöne Müllerin contains a clear duality between the Müller and the world, specifically the brook, which is most clearly demonstrated in the penultimate song, Der Müller und der Bach – musical example – in which the Müller and the brook present the opposing natures of love through the filters of their experiences, if one can say such a thing of a stream. Unlike the Müller, the singer of Winterreise is no longer capable of making a distinction between his perception and knowledge of himself and his perception and knowledge of the rest of the world. The objects which he confronts along his journey are drawn into his inability to escape from his loss, for example in Die Nebensonnen, MUSICAL EXAMPLE in which the appearance of two more suns in the sky become the two eyes of his lost love and and as they are gone, he states that the disappearance of the third would be a relief (“in the darkness I would feel better”) but even then is only capable of understanding the darkness as it relates to his own sadness. As Heraclitus wrote, “Traveling on every path, you will not find the boundaries of soul by going — so deep is its measure.” (B 45). Wherever the wanderer of Winterreise goes he cannot escape his soul, and in everything and everyone he meets, he finds only his own soul.

The individual songs of Winterreise are, in contrast to those of Die Schöne Müllerin, not moments of suspension against the temporal flow. The individual songs are a confusion of past, present, and future, drawing time and the journey into a succession (if such a word can be used of a series of perceptions which are to some degree temporally independent and instead linked by their inhalt or substance). The clearest example of this is Der Lindenbaum (musical example). The song begins with a recurrence of the past, in which the linden tree is a central element of the singer’s love, the recipient of confidences and the haven to which he would return in happiness and suffering. The present journey is also part of the perception, as the singer closes his eyes to avoid the sight of the tree although it is night. Finally, the future is also bound to the tree: even after the singer is many hours away from the tree, he hears its promise of peace in death (“und dennoch stand hinter diesem holden Produkte der Tod”, Der Zauberberg, Thomas Mann) echoing after him. The songs of Winterreise are in their own individual temporality far more complex than those of the Müllerin. Many of them, including the Lindenbaum, bring several conflicting and separate times and experiences together in one perceptive. As a result the temporal movement (flow?) of the cycle is entire cycle is suspended, as each individual song does not fit clearly (either through its internal movement and temporal content, as expressed in Winterreise, or as a moment of suspension, as in Die Schöne Müllerin) into an internal temporality in which it is possible to perceive a progression. It is easily possible that the narrative temporality of Winterreise has little or nothing to do with the order in which the songs are performed and also that the temporal integrity of the individual songs is not at all to be taken for granted. By temporal integrity I mean that the inhalt or perceptive content expressed in each song is not necessarily that which occurred concurrently in the time created through the internal narrative of the cycle. For example, the beginning of the Lindenbaum is placed well before the beginning of the cycle, as the singer is saying a last farewell to his sleeping beloved, having decided to leave as she is getting married, which the listener only knows after listening to the second song, Die Wetterfahne. The middle of the Lindenbaum is tied to the singer’s presence at a particular place, but at what point in his journey (the internal time of the journey) it occurs it is impossible to tell. And the conclusion of the song occurs long after he has departed; narratively, this might be at any point in the cycle after the middle of the song is sung – to him it is “some hours”, but his journey with no boundaries set to its internal time. It might occur in a day, or seven day, or seven months, or seven years. Even if it were apparent what proportion of his journey his “hours” delineate, it is impossible to tell whether he is speaking of hours of his own temporal experience, hours of his travel through the space of the landscape he describes, or simply the hours it would take should he wish to return to the linden tree. His invocation of the time measurement serves only to underline the degree to which the listeners are lost on the shores of the ocean of time.

The ability not only to perceive but to combine and to some degree to form and shape all three time perceptions (the time within each song, the internal time of the cycle, and the time of our perception as we listen to or perform it) is crucial to realizing the content of the music. As a musician, the idea of “music as philosophy” is a fascinating one: we must strive to make the purely temporal in all of its variety and with all of its contradictions assume a state of being: “Only one path is left for us to speak of, namely, that It is. In it are very many tokens that what is, is uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete, immovable and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it be; for now it is, all at once, a continuous one”. (Parmenides. VII 1-5). To strive to capture this It is in sounds, to hold and free the experience of time is the most perfect expression of what a musician must attempt.