Formal Proportions in Schubert’s “Ihr Bild”

An ordinary analysis of Schubert’s ‘Ihr Bild,’ most probably would proceed according to the following trajectory: First, one establishes a teleological relationship between composer and poet, and only secondly, through a series of ‘proofs’ – usually written in florid prose about topics which range from spiritual matters to atmospheric ones, – the writer manages to account for the direct parallelisms between text and music, thus finally – and hopefully – demonstrating the genius of the composer in being able to think microscopically about every detail in the text as reflected in the music.

Though honorable an aim it may be to look for such correspondences – after all one must start somewhere, – works like “Ihr Bild,” in my view, successfully resist such urge. In fact, any tendency to look for direct correspondences collapses in the first two measures alone. [1] The moment is sublime: A symmetrical gesture composed of sound-silence-sound, or event-negation-event, but also identity-difference-repetition, is established before a word is uttered.

Given that in “Ihr Bild” song and instrumental commentary are the only two constituent parts, the friction of which gives the work its meaning, I assert that the sung part is only the surface upon which the text is reflected. The instrumental commentary, on the other hand, is solely responsible for harmonically and formally modulating the meaning of the text. The most radical of such modulations, in my opinion, is the discordance between the linear narration of the poem against the cyclical (aba) form of the music. Below, I point out how the symmetrical skeletal form of the commentary is a consequence of the initial symmetrical gesture which opens the work. More broadly, although outside the scope of this writing, one can also hypothesize that all harmonic and formal decisions in the work are motivated by the gesture in mm.1-2. Therefore, Fig. 1 and 2 below, attempt to show some of the correspondences:

Fig. 1 : All instrumental commentaries in Schubert’s “Ihr

Fig.2 : The phrase symmetry and time intervals upon which the commentaries appear, resemble a large scale modeling of the initial gesture in Schubert’s “Ihr Bild” mm.1-2 


[1] Cf. Schoenberg’s “The relationship to the text,” which provocatively parallels my assumption in this writing. “A few years ago I was deeply ashamed when I discovered in several Schubert songs, well known to me, that I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the poems on which they were based. But when I had read the poems it became clear to me that I had gained absolutely nothing for the understanding of the songs thereby, since the poems did not make it necessary for me to change my conception of the musical interpretation in the slightest degree. On the contrary, it appeared that, without the poem, I had grasped the content, the real content, perhaps even more profoundly than if I had clung to the surface of the mere thoughts expressed in words.” (Style and Idea, 144)


Schoenberg, Arnold. (1975) ‘The relationship to the text’, in Style and Idea. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.