SCHUBERT'S SUDDEN SILENCES

Schubert employed the effect of a sudden silence in quite a few of his songs. The musical term is Genealpause, meaning rests in all parts simultaneously. Schubert's silences are not moments of repose, but dramatic and moving.moments of crisis. Here follow a few striking examples.

Du Bist Die Ruh
[You Are Peace] D776 (Rueckert)
     Both times the voice begins a new stanza (m8,31) the first two notes are B-flat,C. This initiates a gentle melody, and the gentle harmony I-V-I, corresponding to the texts: Du bist die Ruh, der Friede mild (You are peace, mild peace) and: Und schlisse du still hinter dir die Pforten zu [And close the gates quietly behind you].
     The last stanza is repeated (m31ff,68ff). It is an impassioned declaration of worshipful adoration: Dies Augenzelt von deinem Glanz allein erhellt [The tabernacle of my eyes is illuminated only by your radiance]. Here the first two notes are B-flat,C-flat, and this slight difference changes everything. The melody embarks on an ascending scale crescendo, culminating F on a high A-flat. The harmony embarks on a progression of chords foreign to the key, culminating in I-IV.
     After this outburst, the next measure (m61,75) is a sudden silence, with rests in both parts. The protagonist is struck dumb by the power of his emotion.
     At the last line (m62ff,76ff): O fuell' es ganz [Oh fill it completely] he has regained his composure. The instruction the first time is P, the second time PP.

Gretchen Am Spinnrade
[Margaret at the Spinning Wheel] D118 (Goethe)
     The singer plays the part of Margaret, perturbed by her incipient love affair with Faust: Schubert turned the first stanza, beginning: Meine Ruh' ist hin [My peace is gone], into a refrain (m2ff,31ff,73ff,113ff) This divides the song into three sections.
     The piano plays the part of the spinning wheel. The continuous sixteenth-note figure depicts the revolving wheel, and the disjointed eighth-notes depict the click-clack of the rod connecting the wheel to the treadle.
     At the climax of the second section (m63-68) she remembers: Sein Haendedruck, und ach, sein Kuss! [His handclasp, and oh, his kiss!] With the last syllable the piano plays three sustained chords, the last with a fermata. From m69 the piano resumes hesitantly, and in m73 the refrain initiates the third section.
     Although no actual Generalpause is written in the score. the effect is the same. No performer will begin m69 until the last chord in m68 has died away completely. The sudden silence represents the moment when Margaret is so overcome by the power of her emotion that she forgets to work the treadle, and the spinning wheel stops.
     To restart a spinning wheel, It is not enough to depress the treadle just once. The wheel will not have enough momentum to carry it full circle, and it will fall back. It is necessary to depress and release the treadle several times, until the wheel has accumulated enough momentum to turn full circle. Then it will resume its rhythm. In m69-72 the piano depicts the procedure of restarting the wheel. The octave leap depicts depressing the treadle, and the truncated bits of the sixteenth-note figure depict the incomplete revolutions of the wheel.

Die Stadt
[The Town] from Schwanengesang [Swan Song] D957/11 (Heine)
     The text is three stanzas (m7ff,18ff,28ff). The music of the third is similar to that of the first. In both, the piano part consists of chords reiterating a dotted rhythm similar to that in the voice part.
     The piano part in the second stanza, and its solo interludes (m1-6,14-17,25-27, 35-40), depict what is described in the text. An insistent arpeggiated diminished-seventh chord illustrates: Ein feuchter Windzug kraeuselt die graue Wasserbahn [A damp breeze ruffles the grey surface of the water]. An abrupt figure repeated an octave lower illustrates : Mit traurigem Takte rudert der Schiffer [The boatman rows with a mournful rhythm].
     Just before the upbeat to m7, that begins the first stanza, both parts have rests with fermatas. The instruction is Leise [lightly, softly]. It is as if the weird unreality of the scene causes the protagonist to hesitate. The upbeat to m28, that begins the third stanza, is almost exactly parallel, with the same rests with fermatas. but here the instruction is Stark [strongly, loudly] and the bass notes of the piano part are not single notes, but octaves.
     The sudden silence represents the moment when the protagonist is startled as the glare of the rising sun unexpectedly reveals the town. Die Sonne hebt sich noch einmal leuchtend vom Boden empor, und zeigt mir jene Stelle wo ich das Liebste verlor. [The sun rises again glaring above the earth, and shows me the place where I lost my beloved.]

Erlkoenig
[The King of the Alder Trees] D328 (Goethe)
     In the last stanza, the narrator describes the father arriving home after his wild ride (m142-145): Erreicht den Hof mit Mueh' und Not.[He arrives home troubled and distraught]. Although this is not marked ritard, it so convincingly depicts the horse coming to a standstill, that no performer can avoid slowing down.
     From this point until the end (m145-148) voice and piano sound alternately, each alone against rests in the other part:
               piano: triplets FP diminuendo to half-note Neapolitan-sixth chord PP
               voice: In seinen Armen das Kind [In his arms the child] Recitative mP
               piano: one diminished-seventh chord with fermata P
               voice: war tot. [was dead.] P
               piano: V-I Andante F
     Although no actual Generalpause is written in the score. the effect is the same. After the galloping of the horse and the hysterical dialog between father and son have ended, there is a sudden silence as the father realizes, horrified, that the child is dead.

Letzte Hoffnung
[Last Hope] from Winterreise [The Winter's Journey] D911/16 Mueller)
     The piano figure depicts dead leaves fluttering as they fall. In the second stanza (m14ff), the protagonist states his neurotic wager with the trees: Schaue nach dem einen Blatte, haenge meine Hoffnung dran. [I look at one leaf, hanging my hope upon it.]
     He waits, terrified, for the inevitable outcome: Spielt der Wind mit meinem Blatte, zittr' ich, was ich zittern kann. [The wind plays with my leaf. I tremble until I can tremble no more.] With the last four words (m21-23) the piano changes to continuous eighth-notes, then sixteenth-notes, illustrating his trembling.
     The next measure (m24) begins with the piano's final chord, then half a measure of rests in both parts, then resumption of the fluttering figure. The sudden silence represents the awful moment when it actually happens. The leaf falls to earth, and then the protagonist falls as well, and weeps for his lost hope.

Auf Dem Flusse
[On The Stream] from Winterreise [The Winter's Journey] D911/7 (Mueller)
     In the first two stanzas the piano part has one eighth-note on each beat. In the third and fourth stanzas (m22ff,30ff), with a different melody, the piano part shows the increasing agitation of the protagonist. In the third stanza there are two sixteenth-notes on each beat, and in the fourth stanza there is a triplet of sixteenth-notes on each beat.
     The piano alone now plays a bridge passage (m38-39) with the same triplets and the progression V-I-V. Routinely, the harmony would then resolve to the tonic, and the fifth stanza would be sung to a reprise of the opening melody.
     Instead, the progression is left incomplete, and the next measure (m40) consists almost entirely of rests. The protagonist might have begun the reprise of the opening melody with the words: Mein Herz, in diesem Bache [My heart, in this brook] but he is struck dumb by the power of his emotion, and he misses his cue. The piano tries to cover up the sudden awkward silence by supplying the requisite melody, but the protagonist is still disoriented. Instead of following the piano, he cries out in anguish, "My heart!"

In all these cases, a protagonist is struck dumb by the power of his or her emotion. The sudden silence is more impressive, more shocking, than loud music could be.