Listening to Schumann’s piano in May

Many great friends draw inspiration and fortitude from listening to music together.  To be precise, they listen to each other listening to music together.  Dr.  Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, is such a great friend.  Every May 8th I celebrate his birthday by listening to his wonderfully beautiful account of Schumann’s month of May.

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” is the first song in Schumann’s song cycle Dicthterliebe (A Poet’s Love, op. 48), composed in the last week of May 1840, based on sixteen poems on unrequited love by Heinrich Heine, published three years earlier. The song sets an unresolved poem to music that remains harmonically unresolved. 

“In the wondrous month of May, when all buds were bursting into bloom, then it was that in my heart love began to blossom./In the wondrous month of May, when all the birds were singing, then it was that I confessed to her my longing and desire.”

As the speaker tells a past romantic story, words and music seem to recount different aspects:  while the verses recall the first blossoms of love, the music worries that love is doomed, hence the song’s tension between elation and heartbreak.  The piano part starts with a famously ambiguous discord and consists of broken chords in a style that falters as the music shifts throughout the song between F# minor and A major, but never rests in either tonality.  This undecided tonality with its subtle dissonances comments on the text as it reflects from the start the apprehension of new love. 

In the month of May, as Pantelis and I walk in the park, blooming flowers and singing birds use undecided tonal ambiguities and confused harmonic expectations to talk to us about lost love and lingering longing.  Friendship works as an exercise in collaborative listening:  By listening to my friend listening together with me, I can hearken to the melancholy latent in the piano of a Schumann song, a part so well structured that it can stand alone as a composition.  Our friendship trains us to techniques of attentive listening and music making.

8 May 2021

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