Heine & Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger”

Franz Schubert’s seminal song “Der Doppelgänger” (1828) is suspended in a unique historical and stylistic moment of classical music, with its ostinato piano part looking back to Bach’s passacaglia and its declamatory vocal part looking forward to Wagner’s Sprechgesang.  It also affords a unique cultural perspective:  Standing next to the narrator and his double in the desolate tableau, which recalls Caspar Friedrich’s paintings, we may also trace questions of identity in the literary, artistic, philosophical, and psychological horizon from early Romanticism to the present.  Listening to the song, I hear a rhizomatic configuration of several themes, motifs, ideas, and works which I am always inspired to explore in many directions without seeking to solve any of its enigmas.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) included his untitled poem which opens “Still ist die Nacht…” for the first time in one of his poetry collections in 1824, and then again in other collections in 1827 and 1828.  Schubert, who was of the same age, probably discovered it in the third collection, in a section called “The Homecoming.”  He set it to music three months before his death from syphilis in November 1828.  He lifted from its third stanza a word created by the Romantic novelist Jean Paul in 1796 and called his song “Der Doppelgänger.”  It became one of the six Heine songs included in his posthumous collection Schwanengesang, D957, no. 13.

The song is written in B minor, the key of the “Unfinished” Symphony and the original version of “Der Leiermann,” which concludes the song cycle Winterreise (1827).   The opening of the song seems to be taken from the Agnus Dei of Schubert’s Mass No. 6, D. 950, in E flat major, and the first theme of the Andantino movement of the Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959, both works written two months before “Der Doppelgänger.”  In one form or another, material from the song resonates across much of Schubert’s work from his last two years.  It works much like the motif of the double itself: “The Doppelgänger returns compulsively both within its host texts and intertextually from one to the other.  Its performances repeat both its host subject and its own previous appearances.  It therefore plays a constitutive role in the structuring of its texts, by doubling them upon themselves” (Andrew J. Webber:  The Doppelgänger:  Double Visions in German Literature.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1996, 4).

Schubert’s song is based on an ostinato that works as a passacaglia on the theme of the first four piano bars and “appears to be based on … J. S. Bach’s stile antico C sharp minor fugue from the Well-tempered clavier vol. 1, which in its day would have been thought old-fashioned” (David Bretherton: “In Search of Schubert’s Doppelgänger,” The Musical Times 144: 1884, 2003, p. 48).  Scholars are often puzzled by the major role of the passacaglia (ground bass) in the song.  What is a 17th-century form doing in a highly Romantic song?  For example, Benjamin Binder asks why Schubert would “resort to this antiquated Baroque procedure” and “desiccated old motive” (“Disability, Self Critique and Failure in Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger,” in Bodley & Horton, eds.:  Rethinking Schubert, Oxford University Press, 2016, 423).  His answer is that Schubert was “living under the constant threat of failure” (421) since he had been “compositionally disabled” (424) having “lost the suppleness of his repetition technique” (424).  No longer able to draw on repetition, on which he used to rely heavily, he resorted to a traditional musical form. “It is the protagonist’s conspicuous failure at repetition that ultimately undermines his precarious present identity and puts him back in touch with a painfully irretrievable past” (428-29).

If repetition is to Binder “one of Schubert’s trademark” (424) strengths, to Adorno it was exactly the opposite.  Adorno had a single point to make about Schubert, and once he made it in an essay he published when he was twenty-five, he never returned to this composer again.  As was his standard rhetorical strategy, he set a polar opposition of good vs. bad, this time Beethoven (movement and development) vs. Schubert (landscape and repetition). Schubert’s perfect melody has the imaginary beauty of a natural landscape which cannot be elaborated, only repeated.  Writing on Schubert’s piano works, Adorno commented: “It is not only the functional negation of all thematic, dialectical development that sets them apart from Beethoven’s sonatas, but the repeatability of unaltered truth-characters” (“Schubert” [1928], 19th-Century Music 29:1, 2005, 11).  Since they are not amenable to development, Schubert’s works just stand there, being perfectly self-contained and doing nothing.  Richard Leppert summarizes Adorno’s point: “If Beethoven constructs themes ripe for their own reworking, Schubert’s are close to freestanding.  Their truth emerges in the composer’s ‘failure’ to do more with them” (“On Reading Adorno Hearing Schubert,” 19th-Century Music 29:1, 2005, 60).

Yet Leppert astutely observes that this essay is itself Schubertian, rather than Beethovenian, in that it relies on crystalline thought and its repetition: “The trick Adorno manages here, and honed throughout his writing life, is that the essay textually reenacts what it recognizes in Schubert’s music.  Like the music, the essay repeats itself but with subtle differences … And what’s ‘there,’ in Adorno and in Schubert, bears repeating; indeed, it begs for it.  Adorno’s ideas about this music, like so many things in Schubert’s music, are less developed than juxtaposed, often paratactically” (57).  The philosopher cannot use in his writing Beethoven’s techniques of development.  As Beate Perrey puts it, “Adorno actualizes Schubert’s music in words.  As he listens and dwells in its hollow spaces, he comes to perform it as a poet” (“Exposed:  Adorno and Schubert in 1928,” 19th-Century Music 29:1, 2005, 18).

Thus, criticizing Schubert for drawing too little or too much on modes of repetition is not helpful.  “The real problem then – what we might call the ‘Schubertian moment’ – is whether or not it is possible to take repetition seriously on its own terms, in other words, to respect its absolute need for constancy.  Can we, then, as listeners and critics, follow repetition in its single-minded quest, can we tolerate its absolute need to know what will be coming next, without becoming ourselves, as we follow Schubert along this path, frozen in its hypnotizing effect?” (23).  But what does it entail to take repetition seriously on its own terms and follow its quest?  Let us listen one more time to the “Doppelgänger.”

Heine’s poem stages a crisis of identity.  A solitary journeyman returns to his hometown after many years.  He arrives at night and goes to the place where the house where his sweetheart used to live survives.  There he sees a figure afflicted by pain whom he recognizes as his double.  The poem is full of images of doubles and doublings: “every element in the text seeks the double of itself that will give it meaning, but the encounter with which always fails fully to satisfy this quest” (Robert Samuels: “The Double Articulation of Schubert:  Reflections on Der Doppelgänger,” The Musical Quarterly 93:2, Summer 2010, 196).  Homecoming is presented as an ordeal of repetition:  It is impossible to escape the impulse to return and equally impossible to satisfy it.  Return defers, repetition differs.  Heine’s poem represents “the homelessness at the origin of the itinerant poetic subject and the compulsive repetition of the return to that evacuated origin. [] The Doppelgänger poem subverts the return and the reconstruction by redoubling it, repeating the repetition and putting the subject on show to himself as a grotesque, melodramatic spectacle” (Webber 14-5).

Schubert adds to the poem his own series of doubles, making the Doppelgänger appear in his song at once as a recurring multiple visual, linguistic, literary (16), and musical doubling.  “In the Lied [music and poetry] are doubles – supplements – mutually writing and also writing over their own presence and the presence of the other.  They defer, displace, and erase one another, but they also write one another even as they write themselves” (Richard Kurth: “Music and Poetry, a Wilderness of Doubles:  Heine, Nietzsche-Schubert-Derrida,” 19th-Century Music 21:1, Summer 1997, 31).  The piano line consists in a series of haunting repetitions and variations on the opening four tolling block chords before the entry of the voice.  Drawing, as I have done elsewhere, on the section “Becoming-Music,” which concludes the plateau no. 10, “1730:  Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible,” in Deleuze & Guattari’s One Thousand Plateaus (1980), I suggest that the piano launches into a refrain and, by doing so, it stakes out a territory, the “landscape” (Adorno) identified in the first stanza.  Claiming a territory involves beating a pulsed time, the refrain of the austere passacaglia.  Next comes the dialectical response to this refrain by the voice which “uproots the refrain from its territoriality” (300) and introduces a “tension between the pull towards territory, on the one hand, and the urge towards pure self-differentiation, … on the other” (Catherine Pickstock: “Messiaen and Deleuze:  The Musico-theological critique of Modernism and Postmodernism,” Theory, Culture & Society 25:7-8, 2008, p. 190).  This tension is the rhythm of the composition.  According to the principles of Deleuzian repetition, “every refrain entails the making of a productive difference. [] Now a rhythm allows us to affirm the genuine production of difference in the refrain, keeping us from the mechanism of vulgar repetition” (Michael Gallope: “The Sound of Repeating Life:  Ethics and Metaphysics in Deleuze’s Philosophy of Music,” in Hulse and Nesbitt, eds.:  Sounding the Virtual:  Gilles Deleuze and the Theory and Philosophy of Music, New York:  Routledge, 2010, 87).  Composition rhythms the refrain by differing its repetition.

Composers deterritorialize the refrain by questioning conventions, as does Schubert at the beginning of the third stanza, when he interrupts the passacaglia in the words “Du Doppelgänger.”  This jarring interruption illustrates Dimitris Vardoulakis’ insightful argument that “the doppelgänger is an interrogation of the limit and on the limit – its interruptive power consists in the necessity of the limit as well as its equally necessary delimitation or transgression” (Der Doppelgänger:  Literature’s Philosophy (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2010, 10).  Deleuze interrogated the limit by working with multiple variations on what is repeated (the refrain that territorializes, the dogmatic meter) and what differs from the repeated (the different that decenters, the critical rhythm).  “What repeats is not identity, but difference, pure difference. [] In each situation, repetition puts into play novel effects and dynamisms.  It draws difference into a body, form, or line, while selectively expressing certain elements and forgetting others.  It affirms difference, attributing to difference all movement and production, restoring form and wholeness to the flux and flow of ‘non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities’ [Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 1]” (Brian Hulse: “Thinking Musical Difference:  Music Theory as Minor Science,” in Hulse and Nesbitt, eds.:  Sounding the Virtual:  Gilles Deleuze and the Theory and Philosophy of Music, New York:  Routledge, 2010, 32).

The work of Schubertian repetition is most pronounced in “the recognition and recovered self-identity of the narrator and the doppelgänger.  They are both dissonant and fully consonant” (Samuels 223).  But who is who?  Where do we draw the line between the two figures?  “This is the question on which the doppelgänger plays:  is the figure who stands silently by my side, my companion, united with me in aesthetic contemplation, or is he part of my own self, forever divided and fissured?  This dilemma … is central to over a hundred years of artistic expression in German culture” (202).  An intriguing answer has been given from a performative angle: “the Doppelgänger is an inveterate performer of identity, indeed it could be said to represent the performative character of subject.  Selfhood as a metaphysical given is abandoned here to a process of enactments of identity always mediated by the other self” (Webber 3).

Friedrich:  Evening Landscape with Two Men (1830-35)

Encounters with the Doppelgänger are dramatizations of doubling rather than iterations of otherness.  “Divided between person and persona, the figure [of the Doppelgänger] creates scenes which may be parodic play or in deadly earnest.  Its melodramas have tragic potential” (8).  Arguably the most popular protagonist of such melodramas has been the figure of a demonic artist who over the last two centuries has been playing the role of the pianist, violinist, or composer.  This modern individual performs a musician who is performing music. “Indeed, [Schubert’s] ‘Der Doppelgänger’ is close to a scena without an aria to follow; there is no ‘melody’ in the song, only a recitation that hovers monotonously and insistently, as if not to lose grounding, on F# (a vocal style reminiscent of psalmody)” (Jürgen Thym: “Invocations of Memory in Schubert’s Last songs” in Bodley and Horton, eds.:  Schubert’s Late Music:  History, Theory, Style, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 401).  I am reminded of another musician’s vision of his double.  In 1830, two years after the composition of “Der Doppelgänger” and Schubert’s death, Hector Berlioz would compose An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts: Symphonie Fantastique whose protagonist is a musician seeking the woman of his dreams.  The fourth movement of the Symphony, “March to the Scaffold,” depicts a procession that is taking the musician’s double to the scaffold for the murder of his beloved.  Furthermore, the notion of the scene of artistic interpretation has been expanded to include the critic himself: “The compulsive desire to return to a scene that demands, and has always already demanded, interpretation, is a fair description of the psychological needs of the narrator of Heine’s poem.  It is no less a fair description of those, myself included, who have attempted to analyze this text” (Samuels 223).  Thus, reading and listening may also be seen as encounters with the Doppelgänger in melodramas of repetition.

Ultimately, according to Deleuze’s logic of repetition, “this is what life does – it repeats.  But it never repeats according to the logic of the same, the identical, or the similar.  Instead it repeats only the production of difference. [] The result is, like the eternal return, an unconditional affirmation of a singular becoming – what life immanently is” (Gallope 80).  In this strong sense, “repeating means self-differentiation, creativity, and innovation as much as cyclic reproductivity” (85).  I do not know why Schubert used a passacaglia, how he composed, or what he felt during the last weeks of his life.  But I do know that “Der Doppelgänger” remains suspended between poetry and music, absence and presence, person and persona, “displacement and deferral” (Kurth 32), and I would like to keep it that way every time I return to the song and feel as if Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” is playing the opening chords.  Often, he too senses his Doppelgänger standing silently by his side, stares, and wonders whether I am his companion or part of his own self.

20 July 2020

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