Texas Society for Music Theory

Transformational Reduction: A Cross-Analytical Approach
to Richard Strauss' Late Song Im Abendrot

Graham Hunt, University of Texas at Arlington

Although written near the end of Richard Strauss' life, Im Abendrot, the fourth song of Strauss' Vier Letzten Lieder, contains both a strong tonal presence and chromatic harmonic shifts. This mixed harmonic language, remarkable during the era of 20th-century dissonance, begs an old analytical question: how useful is reductive analysis for examining a piece with such a harmonic blend? Does the process of reduction itself obscure the chromatic activity in its effort to clarify the more conventional harmonic gestures? Would a transformational analytical approach better reveal the less conventional harmonic shifts that occur throughout the piece? I discuss the merits and shortcomings of both approaches in this paper, and illustrate how a combination of the two approaches best reveals the harmonic and motivic phenomena in Im Abendrot.

A foreground reduction of the piece reveals a motive in the bass (the descent of a major third, usually from the tonic note to the lowered submediant note) that recurs at key moments throughout the piece, emphasizing central elements of the poem and the song's structure; however, the gradual evolution of this motive throughout the piece is revealed only when its changing harmonic content is examined through a transformational analysis of each occurrence. Yet the transformational approach has its shortcomings: it fails to take important elements, such as inversions and the structural significance of the chords, into account. Since each analytical method by itself is incomplete, only the interdisciplinary approach to the piece clearly reveals the motive's role in Strauss' depiction of Eichendorff's allegory of nature and death.