Heather Platt

Searching for the Tonic in Brahms’s Lieder

Opening a composition on a chord other than the tonic ‘Stufe’ is a well-known expressive gesture in 19th-century music.  Although Schumann’s lieder that gradually move toward their first structural tonic have often been studied, Brahms’s non-tonic openings have attracted less attention.  Like Schumann’s works, Brahms’s lieder exhibit a variety of strategies in reaching the first tonic Stufe.  While many songs attain their tonics by the end of their first phrase, others prolong the dominant and only reach the tonic at the end of their first strophe.  Still others, such as “Botschaft” (Op. 47 No. 1), begin in one key but subsequently establish a contrasting one.  Retrospectively we understand the first key to be subsumed by the second.

This paper focuses on songs, such as Parole (Op. 7, No. 2), that extend this searching process so that the tonic is only attained at the structural close.  In Schenkerian terms, these songs have an incomplete fundamental structure because the usual initial tonic of the ‘Ursatz’ is omitted.  Such deep-level auxiliary cadences are not particularly common, though they do also occasionally appear in Brahms’s instrumental works, including the finale to his Third Symphony.
L. Poundie Burstein provides the most extensive discussion of Schenker’s concept of the auxiliary cadence.  I will expand upon his ideas, exploring the ways in which a non-tonic opening may be combined with other structural elements such as a delayed ‘Kopfton’ as well as with foreground and middleground motivic developments.  In all cases, the tonal structure is intimately related to the meaning of the text.