"Die Geister am Mummelsee," one of the fifty-three songs for voice and piano set by Hugo Wolf to poems by the German poet Edouard Mörike, illustrates well the freedom that may be exercised in the treatment of musical elements when the music is made to serve a text of ever-changing mood.

The voice part ranges from a#–g#" (as written; alternately, A#–g#' for male voice). The voice must be agile (as in m. 32) yet be able to communicate a somber quality (as in the first two pages).

The piano part for much of the song is homophonic and simply underlays the voice part with chords. However, there are important exceptions. When the text speaks of motion in or of the lake (e.g., mm. 18–19, 24–28, 30–33), the piano part becomes more active to reflect the play of the waters. A particularly good example is the right-hand part in 25 and 26, where the text is "The waters, how lovely they burn and gleam! / They play in greening fire!" There are rapid ascending scalar fragments and downward arpeggios to capture the effect. Range is treated in much the same way in the piano part. In the solemn first part of the song, the piano part stays largely in the lower tessitura, but later the text reference to the rippling of the waters calls for a much higher pitch area.

The use of dynamics is of special note. They are indicated only in the piano part. To heighten the sense of nebulousness inherent in the poem, the range of volume is kept between ppp and p throughout. The only exceptions are mf's, accompanying cries of "Oh, no!" and "Oh, pain!" in mm. 6 and 11, respectively; and f for the whole last verse (except the last line), when the speaker realizes the ghosts are returning to get him.

The harmony, too, is dictated by the text. Wolf is, of course, known as one who, while working within tonality, used such a wide vocabulary of chords and progressions as to strain the limits of the tonal system. Yet for the first few bars, as the piano intones the plodding cadence of the funeral procession, there is almost nothing but i's, iv's, and V's in the harmony; likewise when the sparkling of the waters is depicted in 25 and 26. Harmonic rhythm in these sections is slow. But when the text refers to more mysterious, ghostly things (e.g., m. 9: "what you hear are lamentations"; m. 21: "down there [beneath the lake, the ghosts] hum the songs. Do you hear?"), the harmony becomes clouded to add to the aura of other-worldliness: there are quick successions of augmented and diminished chords, Neapolitans, secondary dominants, augmented sixth chords, etc., sometimes bearing little (if any) semblance of function in any key. The song does begin and end in c# minor, and the keys used throughout are not especially unusual in relation to it: there are portions in f# minor (subdominant); g# minor (minor dominant); and the parallel majors C# and F#. (In this song, Wolf, as his contemporary and compatriot Mahler so often did, exploits bimodality: a hopeful word or two in the text is usually sufficient to cause a minor-to-major mode change.)

Melody is found virtually exclusively in the voice part. The tunes are more functional than profoundly expressive: that is, they usually do little more than outline the underlying chord, adding a few passing tones along the way. They are kept from being too dry by means of a carefully calculated sense of direction and attention to the natural inflections of the words.

The element of rhythm in the song is remarkably close to the poem's rhythm. Each pulse is divided according not only to the type of poetic foot being used but to the exact word. For example, in m. 3, "Berge was" and "Mitternacht" are both dactyls, but the former is rhythmicized , while the latter is , because of the slight differences in syllabic emphasis in pronouncing the words. The dactyl is the basic rhythmic motive; it is even identified as such in the left hand in m. 13 (notated ), even though at that point, the indicated motive is moving twice as slowly as the text is being sung. Each line of text is given one measure; hence the unusual 8/4 meter. When the text is sung twice as fast (mm. 13–16), the meter simply changes to 4/4. (This is indicated in m. 30 with a dotted line between the two halves of the measure; to be consistent, it should also have been so marked in 31.) Phrases and cadences in the music follow those in the text. There are very few full cadences--half cadences are much more frequent--because the mysteries in the text are not resolved until the end. The phrase structure is regular at the beginning; it degenerates as the mood of the poem becomes mysterious or frenzied. Rhythm in the piano part is more dependent on the general mood or concept expressed in the text at a given point rather than the exact word or syllable (like texture and range, mentioned earlier). For most of the song, the piano part moves primarily in even quarter notes. The glistening, welling up, etc., of the waters are the usual signals for the piano part to become rhythmically active (e.g., tremolandi, sextuplets, chromatic runs in triplets).

The song is through-composed. The music reflects the text, and as each verse of the poem changes mood or focus from the preceding one, so does the music. Thus the solemn funeral procession at the beginning is depicted by slow music with a strong regular pulse; the playing of the waters is musically expressed by a light, "tinkly" section; the climactic return of the ghosts for the speaker at the end occurs to fast, frenzied, harmonically unstable music.

Hugo Wolf's imagination and creativity are clearly evident in this song setting; it is this in combination with his insistence upon subjugating the music to the text that make his accomplishments as a composer of songs virtually unparalleled in history.


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A score of the work can be found within this collection.
The copy of the song that accompanied the original paper included my complete chordal analysis of the work; it is omitted here.