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  • Writer's pictureEricsson Hatfield

Phrase Structure & Text in Dichterliebe

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Dichterliebe, "A Poet's Love," is in my opinion, one of the most perfect text settings in all of music. I think every composer (and lyricist) should familiarize themselves with the work and do extensive analysis, as there are many great technical and artistic lessons to be learned. It is a song cycle composed by Robert Schumann in 1840 on words by Heichrich Heine. The cycle begins with a confession of love which drives the speaker into a mania. Unfortunately, their love is unrequited and they wrestle with acceptance, experiencing bitterness, sadness, and suicidal thoughts.

Part of why the piece is so successful is because the structure of the text is so musical. The text employs the same schemes of parallelism and repetition we observe in musical phrases, and was a structural opportunity for Schumann. This is why Dichterliebe is also a worthwhile study for lyricists as well. With that said, let's dive into the first song and see what lessons we can learn.


The Text

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is the opening song of the cycle. Here is the text:

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, Als alle Knospen sprangen, Da ist in meinem Herzen Die Liebe aufgegangen.

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, Als alle Vögel sangen, Da hab’ ich ihr gestanden Mein Sehnen und Verlangen.


In the wondrous month of May, When all the buds burst into bloom, Then in my heart Love arose.

In the wondrous month of May, When all the birds were singing, Then I confessed to her My longing and desire.

Underpinning the text is a very clear structure that Heine provided Schumann with. The first stanza is divided into 2 parts, with the first being divided further in half by commas. The conclusion of each line with a comma creates two end-stops. The 3rd and 4th line constitute a single clause. The division of this clause over 2 lines creates an enjambment. The 1st line has 8 syllables, the 2nd has 7, and the 3rd and 4th both have 7 syllables. The division of the first half makes for a structural repetition that is followed by a longer phrase of equal length to both parts together (quarter, quarter, half). The effect of two end-stops and enjambment creates a short, short, long - structure. Or, a,a, b -.

a) Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, [8] a) Als alle Knospen sprangen, [7] b) Da ist in meinem Herzen [7] Die Liebe aufgegangen. [7]

Now let's turn to how this structure compliments the content. The first half sets the scene: In the wondrous month of May, When all the buds burst into bloom. We have a time and then an image that reinforces both the setting of the preceding line and the sentiment of the following clause. It is a serene presentation of 2 ideas, stagnated in tempo and energy by the commas (end-stops). Then there is a linguistic crescendo: then in my heart love arose. This swelling in the text occurs from many elements. Firstly, it introduces who is speaking and for what reason - love. Aufgegangen (arose) is also the most obvious reason for the expansion. But also remember structurally that this is an enjambment with a total of 14 syllables that is equal to the first half. So there is also a structural expansion of the text that compliments what is being said.


Moving onto the second stanza, much of what was said about the first covers everything that needs observation. Both stanzas have the same structure - the first two lines feature end-stops while the last two lines feature an enjambment. Therefore the second stanza also features this short, short, long - structure (quarter, quarter, half/a,a, b - ). Narratively, we also have the same scheme of events. The opening two lines present a time and image to reinforce the setting and the sentiment of the pursuing clause - in the wondrous month of May, When all the birds were singing. Then the swelling in content and structure - Then I confessed to her My longing and desire.

a) Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, [8] a) Als alle Vögel sangen, [7] b) Da hab’ ich ihr gestanden [7] Mein Sehnen und Verlangen. [7]

So we have a demonstration of parallelism between the two stanzas in that both share the same structure and narrative scheme. However, there is a substantial difference between the two, and that is how they end. The first concludes with: Then in my heart Love arose. And the second concludes with: Then I confessed to her My longing and desire. The first is very low stakes, as it could simply be an introspective thought the speaker keeps private. However, the second is the confession. It is a moment of vulnerability where the poet's feelings are out in the open. We are left with the tension of wondering whether the speaker's affections will be returned.


Musical Phrase Structure

Before we begin to analyze the song, we need a brief overview of sentences and periods in music. First, we need to understand that musical phrases operate on 4 basic elements:

  • Repetition - The reiteration of a musical idea.

  • Parallelism - The correspondence between musical structures that are the same.

  • Proportion - The sizes and relationships of musical ideas.

  • Cadence - The goal of a musical phrase and how it concludes.

Think of how these ideas are present in Heine's text. There is a structural repetition in the first half each stanza with the end-stops. There is parallelism of form between the two stanzas. They are both proportioned the same way with distribution of syllables. And both employ commas and periods to denote the kind of cadence that concludes each phrase and sculpts the form. These 4 elements are present in musical phrase structures and contribute a great deal to the success of many masterworks. The two most common musical phrase structures that arise from these ideas are sentences and periods, but there are many other possibilities such as compound structures and hybrids. I suggest obtaining a copy of Caplin's Classical Form to dive deeper into these concepts. I will be using his definitions in this article.



A sentence is normally an 8 bar phrase featuring a presentation for the first 4 bars and a continuation for the last 4 bars. The presentation is divided further into two units of 2 bars that are repetitions of a basic idea. The continuation is more free in its possibilities, but its chief duty in all cases is to obtain a terminal cadence. A sentence is closed if it concludes on a strong terminal cadence (like a perfect authentic cadence - PAC) and open if it concludes on a weak terminal cadence (like a half-cadence - HC). Structurally, the sentence exhibits a short, short, long effect (quarter, quarter, long or a,a,b - ). Lightbulbs should be going off...

Here is an example of a sentence:


A period is normally an 8 bar phrase containing an antecedent for the first 4 bars and a consequent for the second 4 bars, with both sections being demarcated by a medial cadence. The antecedent and consequent are both divided into two parts, begin the same way or similarly, but may end differently. The structure is ab - ac (or ab - ab). Most periods feature a weak medial cadence at the conclusion of their antecedent like a half-cadence and are called continuous. Periods with strong medial cadences that conclude their antecedents are sectional. Like a sentence, a period is closed if it concludes on a strong terminal cadence and open if it concludes on a weak terminal cadence. The primary feature of a period is the parallelism between the antecedent and consequent in how they begin, but the relationship between the medial and terminal cadences is also important.

Here is an example of a period:

Compound Phrases

As the name suggests, a compound phrase is a phrase that features the combination of two (and conceivably more) phrase structures. For instance, we can have a compound period where both the antecedent and consequent are sentences. There are several possibilities available to the composer.

Here is an example of a compound period with sentences for the antecedent and consequent:


The Song

Schumann's setting of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is astonishingly sensitive and delicate. It truly "hangs in the air" as my teacher, David Conte, would put it. It is undoubtedly in F♯ minor yet never once states an F♯ minor chord - the piece is a tonal question that mirrors the tension of the text. The form is contained and complete, yet has an ephemeral quality to it that leaves the listener in suspense. It is so economical and perfect in its choices it is as if it had always existed throughout eternity as a product of nature, and Schumann simply came along and plucked a star out of the musical firmament and placed it on the staff. It is one of those rare unions between text and music that is so mysterious and elusive that it is any wonder that a human being can catch it. If you're thinking "well damn, how the hell am I ever going to be that good," first know that Schumann certainly failed many times to reach this achievement - he was only human like the rest of us. Secondly, beneath the song's mystical and ethereal aesthetic is a very robust phrase structure. While the harmonic design of the piece certainly contributes to its enchanting qualities that we all fall in love with, its success comes from a very simple phrase structure that yields an enormous amount of artistic flexibility. The first step to matching Schumann's achievement is the understanding, internalization and mastery of musical phrasing, and from there you're well positioned to write some amazing music.

The first stanza is set to a musical sentence. Both the stanza and musical sentence structurally feature the short, short, long design. The first half of the text has two end-stops and narratively sets the time and image for the poem. This constitutes the sentential presentation (a,a):

The second half of the stanza features the enjambment which is equal in length to the first half. It also features the swelling in the narrative. This is set as a sequential sentential continuation and concludes with a half cadence (b - ):

Here is the whole stanza as a musical sentence with the demarcation between the presentation and continuation marked by a blue line, and the division of the presentation marked by a dotted line. It is open since it concludes on a weak terminal cadence (half cadence).

The second stanza has a parallel structure with the first, so Schumann employs the same exact music to set it. Therefore, the second stanza is also a sentence. Employing the same music while the text changes slightly is an elegant method to creating simplicity in the piece and a bit of friction between the two mediums that helps the work spark.

These two sentences come together to form a compound period, with the first being the antecedent and the second being the consequent. The period is continuous and open since the medial and terminal cadences are both weak (half-cadences).

And that's the whole song - a singular compound period of two sentences. The genius of the work stems from the perfect structural union between the text and phrase scheme. Heine provided Schumann with a wonderful structural opportunity and the composer chose the perfect fit for the text. The robust phrase structure of the piece lends clarity to the work and gives the composer a great deal of artistic flexibility. The tonal ambiguity and delicate sentiment of the piece would not have been possible without a strong foundation on which to build.

Dichterliebe is full of lessons for composers in how to manage the union between musical phrases and text. It is a catalogue of various structures and design that composition students and lyricists should sit down and analyze many times in their career.

If you're interested in not only studying but also mastering and applying these concepts, consider reaching out to me for lessons!

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