Directional Tonality and Wolf

My graduate music analysis class is discussing Wolf’s “Mir ward gesagt” in class today. The song starts in a most ambiguous way, seemingly signaling G major before adding a minor 3rd underneath to suggest E minor. Things continue to get weird as dominant 7th chords seem to “sort of” resolve throughout the song, but never quite land definitively where they should. Ultimately, melodic material is repeated for a second verse, this time a whole-step higher, adding even more confusion. Luckily, the song ends quite conclusively in D major, but what are we to make of the key until that happens?

The concept of directional tonality describes music that ends in a different key than which it began. This is similar to an auxiliary cadence (off-tonic opening), but the starting key is typically well-defined rather than a fleeting hint. Wolf’s song presents a problem in that nothing about the song suggests D major until the end, leaving over half of the song in tonal limbo. I’ve armed the class with a couple of tools: we discussed the Schenkerian notion that the final key is the key for the whole piece, but we also briefly discussed transformational theory as a way to explain local chord progressions (or perhaps even global shifts in key areas). I’m curious as to what they come up with.

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