Schumann’s “Mondnacht”

Here are two renditions of this impossibly sublime creation:




Of course, pretty much anything Goerne does is magical.  The man not only has a voice with an incredibly beautiful timbre, but also has the vocal technique and musical sensibilities with which to ensure that the raw timbre is not wasted.  The pianist is also first-rate.

The second performance is, imo, artistically a little inferior.  The pianist (Nicholas McGegan – who is primarily known as a conductor and early music specialist) plays rather mechanically, and because of this the beat gets lost here and there.  Rubato and other such devices are necessary for highlighting strong beats and/or special harmonies. Nevertheless, this performance is noteworthy for the fact that the piano is a historical instrument (Conrad Graf), very much like the pianos Schumann himself would have known and played.  Also, the vocal part is sung by countertenor Paul Esswood.  He is quite good.  I especially like his quick and agile execution of the ornaments.  Goerne performs these turns slowly.

The extraordinary sense of quiet expectation, of subtle and serene suspense, which Schumann manufactures in the first half of the piece can be explained by the fact that it dwells on the dominant.  The appearance of other harmonies (including the tonic) are superficial, and not structural.  The dominant finally gives way to the subdominant via a process of tonicization that begins as the singer declares “I spread wide my wings”.  A more subtle and artistic example of tone-painting I cannot imagine.

Also extraordinary is the appearance in the vocal line of the chromatically raised tonic pitch, against the unaltered, natural, tonic pitch in the piano part.  Of course, we shouldn’t think of these simultaneities as real intervals, that is, as relating to each other.  They exist primarily in the horizontal dimension.  The raised tonic functions as a tendency-tone to the fifth of the dominant harmony, and the unaltered tonic functions as a tendency-tone to the third of the dominant harmony.  The raised tonic can also be explained as belonging to the V/ii which precedes the motion to the dominant.

When I hear music like this, it makes me wonder what it is that so many people find compelling in today’s pop/rock.  Most of it is ham-fisted and profoundly uninteresting by comparison.  Why on earth would you eat primarily dog-food when you have access to an endless supply of free filet mignon?


2 Responses to “Schumann’s “Mondnacht””

  1. December 19, 2011 at 6:47 am

    Just to respond to the last paragraph: there’s great pop/rock and cheap/lousy pop/rock. Same for its performance. Bohemian Rhapsody is revered as great rock, and it has stood the test of time, for conception as well as interpretation (and there have been lousy covers of it here and there). I look forward just as much to my 5-yr.-old’s response to Freddie Mercury as to Beethoven (she already has a passing acquaintance with prominent Russians).


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