The Cycle: Why We Keep Coming Back

The concept of a 'cycle' has been used many a time in the history of classical music. From groups of lieder to collections of operas, its tantalising artistic potential has kept us returning to it over and over again. In this short article, I provide a few examples where this form is exploited musically, structurally and dramatically. Why does this form appeal to the chosen pieces and what can we learn from how well it works?

The circle, and by extension, the cycle, has a range of cultural connotations. Various theories, myths and concepts have been built around the circular ideas of eternal recurrence, the infinite and the unavoidable 'circle of life'. What makes the cycle so attractive in music can also bring forward an even larger argument: that of music's inherent need for structure. Already so rich in its cultural meaning and use, the circle, and cycle, is a strong entry way to approaching this question.

Frauenliebe und Leben is a cycle of eight lieder by composer Robert Schumann in 1840. The cycle was a common form for the lieder composer, having created Liderkreis and Dichterliebe, among others, in the years surrounding. The cycle tells a woman's story: her love, marriage, motherhood and death. Exploiting the common conception of life as a repeating ‘cycle’, Schumann employs various mirrored techniques such as the same musical theme at both the beginning and end of the cycle. The interest in circularity is, however, not only what happens at the beginning and end, but also what ensues in between. What is the function of the 'middle' in a cycle? To deter and distract from the inevitable circularity? To give alternatives and contrasts? Or to give a continuous and logical story which brings us to an expected and satisfying end? This conundrum is exactly what has made the form so popular. Because all while starting and finishing at similar or somewhat connected points, the myriad of things that could happen in between are infinite - and they are critical to its ending. In Schumann's cycle, the process is a whirlwind of emotions and events. The woman marries, becomes a mother and ultimately realises the initial oblivion she had undergone when expressing her love for her husband. Schumann uses the events to give meaning and a certain tragedy to the end of the cycle - a sense of sobriety and melancholic realisation.

Other cycles in the repertoire include other lieder cycles by composers such as Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven. But perhaps the most famous of cycles is Richard Wagner's Das Ring des Nibelungen. True to his wildly complex and often diluted plots, the cycle's overarching themes and story can be perplexing. But it is nevertheless present. Among a smattering of Norse gods and characters, a ring is forged with the ability to rule the world. The adventures of those who which to exploit and gain this power, is what drives the cycle. In this case, the cycle is very much a linear process - despite there being many musical and thematic retrospective references which Wagner-holics can't get enough of. Wagner’s composition process was complex, with many breaks and muddled ordering of compositions. The libretto was written in reverse order, while the music was not. Due to financial difficulties, Wagner also published many of the early operas straight after their completion, needing the cash in hand immediately. This did not allow for retrospective edits which could’ve made the cycle more ‘circular’. Nevertheless, his talents enabled him to still complete one of the most respected and infamous cycles of all time. Whether perfectly circular or not, the title of 'cycle' itself gives dramatic meaning and enforces musical expectations on the listener. You expect returning leitmotifs, and make sense of them in light of it being a cycle. You expect returning characters and when they are presented, their function can only be that of completing their previous actions. And so, unlike Schumann, Wagner uses (perhaps ironically) linearity to make sense of the circle's ends as well as an intricate and clever use of the cycle form and cultural connotations.

As is obvious, the interpretation and use of the cycle in music is varied. And in being so, it is difficult to make direct and meaningful links between the examples. But the variety of its interpretations is precisely its interest and intrigue. Why, despite its various interpretations and functions, is it a form which returns so often? If taken less literally, cycles are everywhere in music. If we look at the sonata form, there is no doubt a sense of 'return', much like the cycle which can bring us through various developments and manipulations in order to reassert the familiar and dominant. Even more intricate, are musical phrases (at least those taught to us in theory lessons to be structurally sound). A sense of closure following a certain change or contrast is an essential quality which they rely on. This is even present in works which wish to subvert these indoctrinated expectations. Perhaps less because of how used we are to it, but because it comes to us naturally already. We expect endings, even non-musical, to be understood and rationalised, if not familiar or reassuring.

The cycle is a useful example of music's ability and need to reflect things close and natural to us and our environment. Its use encompasses everything from the embracement of difference to the returning comfort of the known. It is not a surprise that so many composers have chosen it as a means of composition and manipulation of an audience opinion. On the other hand, it is also not surprising that it can be found in works that have done the complete opposite. The ease with which it is to find such examples is a testament to how the cycles structure is so apparent - its visible absence speaks louder than its presence. As a larger point, the necessary omnipresence (whether realised or not) of any form in music creates interesting arguments about structure more generally. No less is this relevant in pieces which avidly yearn to have no structure. In a sense, musical history has consistently been plagued to either manipulate or make irrelevant previous structures and forms. Whether this is the development of through-composing in opera, the development of the twelve-tone system or the invention of aleatoric music, structure is at the centre of musical evolution. The cycle, with its various cultural associations of the infinite, reincarnation and repetition, is a strong example and reminder of this. Perhaps music is infinitely doomed to be subservient to structure. And no matter the structural reincarnations composers attempt, history will nevertheless repeat itself.


Rita Fernandes, October 2020

Rita has also written:

"Geotonality": Hearing Covid-19

Johannes Brahms / Symphony No.1 (1876)

Schoenberg and Webern: Viennese Explorations

Alban Berg / Altenberg Lieder Op.4 (1912)

Richard Strauss / Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896)

East Meets East by Kroke and Nigel Kennedy

Jacob Kirkegaard / 4 Rooms (2006)

Alban Berg / Lulu (1935)

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