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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Lieder After Schubert

For want of a better term, when we talk about “Lieder” in classical music, we usually mean “art songs” for voice and piano. This term “art song” is fraught with difficulty, (what is “art”, for example?), but suffice to say that Lieder comprise a very specific, very important, and very intense, part of the musical world. They inhabit in music a similar position to that held by poetry in the larger context of literature. Poetry is generally on a small scale, generally intense and condensed, powerful when viewed on its own terms, and usually imbued with subtlety that repays constant study and exploration. All these descriptors could apply equally to Lieder.

The most famous composer of such songs was Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He didn’t invent art song, of course, but it was certainly raised to new heights of expression by him in his more than 600 songs. It was perhaps Schubert, too, who established the completely equal partnership between voice and piano in this form of song writing. One might talk about the piano “accompaniment", but the pianist and the piano part in Lieder are as important as the singer and the vocal line. (Many pianists working in Lieder are often - and perhaps understandably - touchy about being called the “accompanist” and often prefer the term “associate artist”.) Text is also of total importance, and good Lieder “paint” the text in both voice and piano. Indeed, the piano can often tell the astute listener things that the voice does not; the songs of Robert Schumann are perhaps an excellent example of this.

Moritz von Schwind: Schubertiad (1868)

Lieder (pronounced “leeder”) simply means “songs” in German (the singular is Lied, pronounced “leed”, although in English “lieder” is often used as a singular noun), but even though composers from all sorts of national backgrounds wrote songs for voice and piano (and still do), the German art song has remained a specific genre in its own right. German-speaking composers after Schubert took up Lieder as an expressive form of composition, and in this article I want to survey the Lieder of a number of composers, to give an indication of the ways in which the form developed in the century or so after Schubert’s lifetime. This survey will cover the work of thirteen composers, and I’ll treat them in order of birth.

I’m also going to use this as an excuse to use some very special recordings - some quite old - of my favourite singers and pianists. I hope you like the selection.

Carl Loewe was born in November 1796, three months before Schubert, and his Lieder make an interesting comparison with his more famous contemporary. Loewe’s preference was for setting ballads - poems with a narrative element - and all up he wrote about 375 songs. His piano accompaniments are, on the whole, less integral to the expressive power of the song than Schubert’s are. Loewe’s focus is the text and therefore on the voice part, rather than a real marriage of voice and piano writing.

Carl Loewe

In 1818 Loewe made a setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig (The Erl-King), the same poem which Schubert famously set. Loewe’s setting was much-admired in the 19th century and it’s a good example of his writing. The baritone is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with Jörg Demus at the piano. [listen]

Loewe’s concentration on the text in his songs contrasts with the approach of Felix Mendelssohn (who was born in 1809). Mendelssohn’s Lieder show an avoidance of ballads and a preference for undramatic or inactive poems. They nevertheless display his genuine gift for melody and this is a good example: Old German Spring Song, sung by Thomas Hampson, with Geoffrey Parsons, piano. [listen]

Childe: Felix Mendelssohn (1839)

Robert Schumann (born 1810) is generally regarded as the next truly great composer of Lieder after Schubert. His initial reluctance to devote his energies to song writing eventually gave way to his lyrical gifts, in which reunited the power of both text and music as Schubert had done. This culminated in Schumann’s amazing “Lieder year” of 1840 in which he wrote an average of one song every two and a half days. Some of these songs are among the greatest examples of Lieder and helped cement Schumann’s place in the pantheon of great song composers.

Kriehuber: Robert Schumann (1839)

Among the songs of 1840 are those which comprise the cycle called Frauen-Liebe und Leben (“A Woman’s Love and Life”). This song from the cycle is heard here in a historic 1949 recording from the Edinburgh Festival. The singer is Kathleen Ferrier, with none other than the great conductor Bruno Walter at the piano. [listen]

Although he’s primarily remembered these days as a composer of piano music, Franz Liszt (born in 1811, the year after Schumann) wrote a large number of Lieder. Liszt was keenly aware that Lieder composition did not come easily to him, but rather than avoid the form he frequently revised his songs, and often completely reset poems in order to improve his expressive results in so intimate a form. It certainly seems that encountering Schumann - whom Liszt met in 1840 - inspired him to work harder at song writing. Certainly some of Liszt’s more daring paths in terms of harmony are evident in his attempts to make his songs as expressive as he could. This song, a setting of Goethe expressing contrasts of sorrow and joy, is rather beautiful. Soprano Barbara Bonney is accompanied here by another great conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano. [listen]

Franz Liszt (1858)

Born two years after Liszt - and destined to eventually become his son-in-law - was Richard Wagner. Of course, Wagner’s operas and music dramas are his major contribution to the world, but his gifts for vocal writing are reflected in more intimate contexts as well. The five songs composed in the 1850s which set poetry by Mathilde Wesendonk - with whom he was in love - are now known as the Wesendonk Lieder and even though Wagner later orchestrated them, their original version is for voice and piano. This another historic recording, of the first song in the set, made in 1948. Gerald Moore at the piano accompanies one of the great Wagner sopranos, Kirsten Flagstad. [listen]

Hanfstaengel: Richard Wagner (1871)

Much less well-known these days than Liszt or Wagner is Peter Cornelius, who was born in 1824. Cornelius’ most frequently-mentioned work is the comic opera The Barber of Baghdad, the premiere of which was conducted by Liszt. He composed roughly 100 songs, and interestingly about half of these set poems written by Cornelius himself. His most famous song is Ein Ton (A Sound) which describes an obsession with the beloved. The piano part starts and ends with a single note, and the voice part sings this one note, and only this one note, throughout the entire song. The soprano is Felicity Lott, the pianist is Graham Johnson. [listen]

Peter Cornelius

After Schubert and Schumann, the next vital and “classic” name in the world of Lieder is that of Johannes Brahms (born 1833). Brahms, like his two great predecessors, managed to connect the power of text with the power of music in an intangible but vital way. In his roughly 200 songs, Brahms showed a preference for minor poets, and he set texts autobiographically; that is, his songs were often reflective of his moods and circumstances at the time of composition. This song, Auf dem See, is sung by Christa Ludwig in 1969 recording with Geoffrey Parsons at the piano. [listen]

Johannes Brahms (1889)

One of Brahms’ most famous songs is Von ewiger Liebe (Of Eternal Love). The vows of undying love between the young pair are set intensely and darkly by Brahms, and sung intensely in this 1951 recording with Victoria de los Angeles, accompanied by Gerald Moore. [listen]

In the world of German composition in late 19th century, composers and critics were usually labelled as being in one of two camps. There was the Brahmsian side, which favoured “pure” music based on classical principles, and there was the Wagnerian side, which preferred the influence of the emotions and poetry upon music. The next major composer of Lieder, Hugo Wolf, was fanatically anti-Brahmsian and pro-Wagnerian, and his approximately 300 songs show a real flair for drama and an instinctive response to the suggestions of good poetry.

Hugo Wolf

Wolf, who was born in 1860, was (like Schumann) a noted writer on music, and his gift for language is reflected in his song settings. His musical style is often dense with detail and his songs repay detailed study. This song comes from the secular settings in his Spanish Songbook, dating from around 1890. It's sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Hertha Klust is at the piano. [listen]

Gustav Mahler, also born in 1860, was very interested in the expressive power of the human voice, including voices (both solo and choral) in many of his symphonies. His songs seem to have mostly been written with a view to eventual orchestral accompaniment, but many exist with piano accompaniment and work wonderfully in that form. A number of Mahler’s songs composed in the 1880s were published together in 1892, among them this song called Erinnerung (“Recollection”). The poet describes the way songs make him feel the pangs of love, and how love makes him sing of his feelings. The singer here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. [listen]

Gustav Mahler (1907)

Richard Strauss, born in 1864, likewise wrote many songs for voice and orchestra, but he also left a substantial amount of Lieder with piano which rank with the best examples of the form. “Morning” is one of his most beautiful songs, here sung in a 1966 recording by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with Glenn Gould at the piano. [listen]

Richard Strauss (1938)

A composer who I honestly believe deserves to be much better-known these days is Alexander Zemlinsky, who was born in 1871. he was a highly-respected composer, conductor and teacher, and he was the teacher (and eventual father-in-law) of Arnold Schoenberg. he wrote a substantial body of Lieder, some of the most beautiful and fascinating examples of the genre. In der Ferne (“From Afar” or “In the distance”) was published around 1890, and is sung in this rare recording by Hermine Haselböck. Florian Henschel is at the piano. [listen]

Alexander Zemlinsky (c. 1900)

Zemlinsky’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg (born 1874) abandoned tonality in 1908, entering a phase of atonal composition before developing strict serialism (or “twelve tone technique” in the 1920s. In 1907, at a point in his career where had just about stretched conventional tonality to its breaking point, he wrote this song setting words by Stefan George. The harmonic language is only a step removed (or maybe two steps…) from that of Zemlinsky’s later songs. Glenn Gould is again at the piano, accompanying Helen Vanni. [listen]

Arnold Schoenberg (1948)

Schoenberg’s disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern also wrote Lieder, but time only permits me to play an example from one other composer, someone who occasionally gets mentioned as an oddity but who also deserves to be better-known. I’m speaking of Erich Korngold, who was born in 1897, 100 years after Schubert. Korngold was a prodigy composer, steeped in the late Romantic tradition and blessed with amazing gifts as a composer of opera, orchestral music and Lieder. Here the first of his Three Songs op 22, dating from 1924. The mezzo is Anne Sofie von Otter, with Bengt Forsberg accompanying. [listen]

Erich Korngold (c. 1912)

Lied, in the German art song sense of the word, was essentially a 19th century form, and composers such as Schoenberg and Korngold who continued writing in that tradition after the first world war were rare. It is, though, a massively rich and fascinating genre. There’s so much of it there, written by the composers I’ve mentioned and by many others I haven’t. I hope you get the chance to explore some more on your own.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2006.

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