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Saturday, September 9, 2017

No. 16, Letzte Hoffnung (050)

So, for this article, we're going to cover number 16 in the cycle, Letzte Hoffnung, or "Last Hope." That's 16 of 24, by the way. We're now officially two thirds of the way through Winterreise!



Letzte Hoffnung is the most peculiarly composed pieces in the entire cycle.  Lately, we've been seeing Schubert push the boundaries of compositional norms. In Letzte Hoffnung, he throws those norms completely out the window.

The accompaniment is simply unsettling. The first note is an eighth note pickup, but it is accented, and the following downbeat is unaccented. Schubert has even barred the eighth notes across the barline, so there's little sense of what is up and what is down.

Also in the introduction, we have essentially zero tonal center. Even when the singer comes in with the "melody," it takes four bars before we finally get to a recognizable cadence. Even then, it only lasts for a brief eighth note, before the piano throws everything off again.

The melody itself - if you can call it that - is angular, and offset from the piano, which always seems to be just one eighth note ahead. It's also very syllabic. There's only one note per syllable. Furthermore, there's a distinct absence of repeated text, something Schubert usually indulges in.

It took us a while to figure out what was going on here. As we were learning it, Sarah and I had to try a few different tempi before it made sense. Too fast, and it just sounded frenetic, and that didn't work with the text. (The clue was in the tempo marking "Nicht zu geschwind", or "not too fast".)

What we discovered is that Schubert is trying to depict the image of one last leaf on a tree in winter, just before it falls. It's hanging on, but just barely, twisting and turning with the slightest breeze.

Being winter, the leaf is an unusual sight, and it catches our Wanderer's eye. In the first stanza, he stops to watch it, and gets lost in thought. So, despite the weird piano part, it's really just business as usual for our Wanderer.

The more he watches the leaf, the more invested he becomes in it. He puts his hope into it - his "Hoffnung," like a desperate gambler betting at a horse race. The slightest movement of the leaf causes him to tremble.

Of course, we can't have a happy ending, so the leaf falls. Schubert not-so-subtly moves the melody and the accompaniment from a high point to the basement here.

On the next line, though, the motion suddenly slows down, growing introspective. For a moment, Schubert changes to simpler music, just a melody with some chords underneath. Here, the Wanderer says that his hope falls with the leaf.

The Wanderer himself drops to the earth, crestfallen, and Schubert uses this opportunity to redo the leaf-falling motif, but in a more extreme state. It starts even higher before the plunge, and he adds some octave doubling in the piano part.

The final passage feels like its from yet another completely different song. With a jarring shift, we get transported backward from the mechanical future we had been in, into the dead center of Schubert's own Romantic era.

There really isn't anything similar between this last part and everything that came before it. For example, here, Schubert gives into a soaring, rubato melody. The key word in this last line is "wein," meaning weep, and Schubert spares nothing, going to a full on wail.

Schubert also switches from syllabic text setting to having an entire melodic arc on a single word. And he takes his indulgence in repetition, too, repeating not only this final line, but also the word "wein" within it.

Putting all these pieces together, I think that the odd sounding music from before was actually the music of "hope" itself. But "hope" is foreign in Winterreise. Hope was forward-looking, into a mechanical, almost passion-less future.

But when the leaf fell, the cycle returns to passionate, melancholic, nostalgia that we've come to know and love. The Wanderer is left weeping on the grave of his hope. Cheery, isn't it?

Letzte Hoffnung is one of the shorter pieces in the cycle, but there's a ton packed into it. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, figuring out how all the pieces fit together. So I hope you've enjoyed watching me learn about it.

I hope you enjoy it!


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