Franz Schubert has to be one of the most subtly great of the Great Composers. I mean, he is a great composer, but so much of the time he doesn’t seem to really be doing anything very special, and you’re left wondering what exactly it is about his music that makes him so much better than, say, Carl Friedrich Zelter. So here’s an idea. It has to do with one of my favorite Schubert lieder, his Goethe setting “Heidenröslein.” Here’s a score, courtesy of the IMSLP:
And here’s a translation of the lyrics:
A boy saw a rose,
A rose on the heather,
It was young and beautiful as the morning,
He ran to get a better look
And viewed it with joy.
Rose, rose, red rose,
Rose on the heather.
The boy said “I’m going to pick you,
Rose on the heather.”
The rose said, “I’ll prick you,
So that you’ll always remember me,
And I will not let you.”
Rose, rose, red rose…
And the wild boy picked
The rose on the heather;
The rose fought back and pricked him,
But the pain did no good, and oh,
Such suffering must happen.
Rose, rose, red rose…
Let’s take a look at this little tale using Freudian dream interpretation. (Why Freudian dream interpretation? If the flowers are talking back to you, you’re probably dreaming, right?) I don’t think any of us would have too much trouble coming up with a pop-Freudian interpretation of Goethe’s poem, one having something to do with, oh, I don’t know, maybe sexual loss of innocence. (Every rose has its thorn.) I think that’s a pretty reasonable interpretation, and one that would probably be reasonably obvious to anyone listening to the words.
But for dream interpretation, as Freud saw it, that’s only half the process—and not even the most important half. Freud would call the actual dream—in this case, the poem’s literal meaning—the dream-content, while our pop-Freudian analysis he would characterize as the dream-thought. Freud prescribed interpreting the dream-thought, but only as an intermediate step. Because what he was really interested in was the dream-work, the specific translation from latent thought to actual dream. Here’s how he put it in the sixth chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams:
All other previous attempts to solve the problems of dreams have concerned themselves directly with the manifest dream-content as it is retained in the memory. They have sought to obtain an interpretation of the dream from this content, or, if they dispensed with an interpretation, to base their conclusions concerning the dream on the evidence provided by this content. We, however, are confronted by a different set of data; for us a new psychic material interposes itself between the dream-content and the results of our investigations: the latent dream-content, or dream-thoughts, which are obtained only by our method. We develop the solution of the dream from this latent content, and not from the manifest dream-content. We are thus confronted with a new problem, an entirely novel task—that of examining and tracing the relations between the latent dream-thoughts and the manifest dream-content, and the processes by which the latter has grown out of the former.
Freud agreed with previous theories that dreams were a psychological effort at wish-fulfillment, but saw the representation of those wishes not in the dream-thought, but in the dream-work; the unconscious desire that fuels the dream can be found in the particular way the dream-thought is transposed into an actual dream.
So how would this apply to “Heidenröslein”? We’ve established that a plausible dream-thought for the song is the loss of sexual innocence, but why turn that into a ditty about a young boy and a rose? Freud would probably say that the unconscious desire behind the poem is for sexual activity to be regarded as carefree and natural as children’s play. Which is exactly what Schubert portrays in the music. The musical content is that of a children’s song; the strophic structure actually diminishes any sense of conflict; the insouciant ritornello—
—resets each verse like rounds of a game.
But I don’t think it’s just coincidental—Schubert is, at the same time, acknowledging the desirous intent musically: the shift from C-natural to C-sharp between measures 2 and 6, the way the repeated “Röslein” of the refrain is set to a rising scale, one that them humorously tumbles back down the octave range of the song. Schubert’s genius is that he is anticipating Freud’s psychological insights by nearly a century, and illustrating them with his musical choices.
This is a pretty specific example, but I think we all have some intuitive sense for this sort of thing. I wonder, in fact, if it’s how we decide whether or not to accept people bursting into song during musicals—that transition, after all, pretty definitively shifts any narrative’s level of realism into the realm of dream-reality, so maybe we only buy it if the musical addition sufficiently mirrors what we (perhaps subconsciously) recognize as the dramatic dream-work, the unconscious desire motivating the shift from speech into song. A lot of my favorite opera works this vein as well—Verdi’s music often seems to be at tonal odds with the events of the plot (the final ensemble of the ball scene in Traviata, for instance), while Puccini’s often seems too big, too melodramatic for the plot to justify (pretty much all of La Bohème), but they’re not illustrating the action, they’re illustrating the desires that fuel the action, which are psychologically dissonant or out of proportion with not only the characters’ actions, but sometimes even their own testimony.
One last thing: what makes music such fertile ground for this sort of interpretation is its semiotic flexibility; what a particular bit of music “means” can slip into a slightly different meaning without too much trouble. Freud again:
I know a patient who—involuntarily and unwillingly—hears (hallucinates) songs or fragments of songs without being able to understand their significance for her psychic life. She is certainly not a paranoiac. Analysis shows that by exercising a certain license she gave the text of these songs a false application. “Oh, thou blissful one! Oh, thou happy one!” This is the first line of Christmas carol, but by not continuing it to the word, Christmastide, she turns it into a bridal song, etc. The same mechanism of distortion may operate, without hallucination, merely in association.
Play a piece of music for an audience of 100 people, and you’ll get 100 different interpretations. The basic outline may be similar across the board. But the variations? They’re hints to what each person really wants.