29 May 2005


The German term is used in English to refer to Romantic art songs. The lied is a fusion of two arts, poetry and music, but one of those components, the verse, was originally an independent work, complete in itself. (Other composite forms, like opera, tend to involve an adaptation rather than the wholesale absorption of an existing text.) A composer's way of reading a poem becomes explicit in his musical setting. The song reduces the poem's scope. But there are some excellent musical-poetic syntheses which represent the pinnacle of the lied.
The similarity between metre in poetry and rhythm in music is evident, but there are differences: poetry uses deviations from basic metrical patterns to create its effects. The musical setting cannot match the possible rhythmic variations either - the composer has to choose one possibility. Music renders pictorial effects more prominent than they are in the text alone. Poems which achieve their effect through pace tend to be rather slowed and neutalized by musical settings. But music readily reinforces the emotional implications of poetry, although it may have problems with the conceptual aspects.

Forms of the Lied:
stophic = identical music for each strophe. May be varied in melodic line, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, harmony, however, to adjust to the course of the poem, although there is noticeable repetition of melody and accompaniment.
cyclical = A-B-A musical design
through-composed = treats each poetic idea independently. Essential for a poem in free verse, of course.
History of the Lied:
The lied is a small-scale form, whose appeal lies not with grandeur, but with intimacy. In the late eighteenth century, a new aesthetic prompted strophic lieder set to a simple folksy melody, with uncomplicated harmony and independent accompaniment. As the tradition developed, composers sought out superior poetry. The gulf between pre- and post-Schubertian song lay in the relationship between word and tone. It was Franz Schubert’s settings of Goethe’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ (1814) and ‘Erlkönig’ (1815) that first combined the characteristics of the finest nineteenth-century lieder: close musical identification with character and scene, concentrating lyric and dramatic ideas into an integrated miniature that prioritised feeling. In ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, the melody keens, increasing in intensity as it wanders restlessly from key to key, the piano evoking both the hum of the spinning wheel and the girl’s surging emotions. Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ shifts brilliantly between the ballad’s different voices, whilst the piano accompaniment captures the pounding hooves and the wind. The setting of Goethe's 'Heidenröslein' matches well the folksy quality of the poem. Schubert’s 600 songs (written during a lifetime of 31 years!) use correlations between the poetical and the musical. Verbo-musical ideas stage in the imagination springtime, evening, love, and grief, for instance, or evoke the energetic, the gossipy, and the libidinous. Schubert created two great song-cycles from the words of minor poet Wilhelm Müller: Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. These exemplify onomatopoeic devices. Winterreise evokes the singer walking in an eerie, frozen landscape, finding only phantoms and emptiness. Among Schubert's best Schiller songs are 'Die Hoffnung', 'An den Frühling' and 'Dithyrambe'. Heine's poems abound in theatrical gesture, word play, burst illusions and paradox, however, and Schubert misses the point, making Atlas grandiose and the Fischermädchen guileless. The last of the six Heine-Lieder is the most celebrated, 'Der Doppelgänger', but Schubert builds his climax on the wrong line, the final one. Still, Schubert was setting the work of a contemporary poet, his settings written the year after Heine's Buch der Lieder was published.

Robert Schumann set even more of his contemporaries, including Eichendorff, Heine, Uhland, Rückert and Lenau. His 260 lieder elevated the role of the piano, making the accompaniment equal the voice. His setting of Eichendorff’s ‘Mondnacht’, in the Liederkreis, captures the dream-like suspension of the poem. This is a magnificent fusion of poem and music so that both evoke the moolit serenity and union with nature. From its achingly sweet-sad opening, Schumann's song-cycle Dichterliebe (16 songs to poems from Heine's Buch der Lieder) moves through shades of love and loss with a variety of piano textures and colours, before fading into wistful reverie at the end. Schumann tends to sweeten Heine, but gets moods of tender longing well in, for instance, 'Im wunderschönen Monat Mai'. The successful strophic lied 'Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen' has a piano part which overlays the bitterness with which the beloved's wedding celebration is described. 1840 was Schumann's Liederjahr, when he was prolific and produced most of his most famous songs. Eichendorff and Heine were his favourite poets, but the great song-cycle Frauenleben und -liebe set mediocre poems by Adalbert von Chamisso. Each deals with a moment in a woman's love life, from first love to old age, with immense emotionalism.

The flowering of German Romantic song with piano, to which Wagner and Liszt contributed, was maintained to the end of the nineteenth century by two composers who represent opposite ends of the lied spectrum: Brahms the traditionalist, most of whose 200 songs are carefully unified strophic or ternary structures, with often complex but rarely independent accompaniments, emphasizing nostalgia and longing, and few examples of fusion with a poem; and Hugo Wolf, by contrast poem-orientated. Wolf published songbooks devoted to particular poets (Mörike, Goethe, Eichendorff). His 300 songs, encompassing a wide emotional range, are at heart keyboard writing enriched by vocal and instrumental counterpoint, employing an extended harmonic language. Where Schubert and Schumann are genial and amusing, Wolf brings out-and-out humour to the lied. This is exemplified in songs such as 'Der Jäger' and 'Lied eines Verliebten'. Where Schubert's greatest affinity was with Goethe and Schumann's with Heine, Wolf's affinity was with Mörike. The song 'Um Mitternacht' has a mesmerizing serenity and calm, the music lulling the senses. Wolf captures the impressions and suggestions in Mörike's poems. Wolf's 'Prometheus', from Goethe's poem, is titanic, the piano and voice pushed to extremes.

In the orchestral songs of Gustav Mahler, the lied moved from the drawing room to the concert hall, taking the tradition in a new direction. Mahler’s songs for voice and orchestra, with texts he adapted from the folk-songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, mirror the naivety and enchanting images of the poems in simple, strophic settings, with crytalline orchestration. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1899-1900) incorporates a setting of the Wunderhorn folk poem ‘Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden’, his Second derives text for the song ‘Urlicht’ and the third movement of his Fifth likewise. In Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, darker lyrics, the orchestra sounds almost dessicated. Although cultivated with distinction by Richard Strauss, the lied with piano lost its central position after 1900. Strauss had written a fine corpus of lieder by then, to which he added throughout his life, culminating with the haunting Vier letzte Leider.

Settings of German Romantic poems in composers’ songbooks:

Franz Schubert
Goethe-Lieder (1815) - Schubert set 66 poems by Goethe
Die schöne Müllerin (1823) – poems by Wilhelm Müller
Winterreise: Liederzyklus nach Gedichten von Wilhelm Müller (1827)
Also settings of poems by Schiller (41), Klopstock (13), Novalis (6) and Heine (6), amongst others.

Robert Schumann
Liederkreis (1841) – poems by Eichendorff
Dichterliebe (1841) – poems by Heine

Hugo Wolf
Sechs Lieder für eine Frauenstimme (1888) – poems by Rückert, Hebbel, Mörike
Sechs Gedichte von Scheffel, Mörike, Goethe und Kerner (1888)
Gedichte von Mörike (1889) – 53 songs
Gedichte von Eichendorff (1889)
Gedichte von Goethe (1889) – 51 songs

Gustav Mahler
Zwölf Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-5)
Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (1899-1903) – poems by Rückert and from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Kindertotenlieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Rückert (1901-4)

Richard Strauss
Poems by Goethe, Heine, Dehmel, Mackay, Klopstock
Mutterlieder (1900)
Vier letzte Lieder (1948-9) – poems by Hesse and Eichendorff

On Lieder see also Dreamlives