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Pre-concert remarks for a studio recital of Lieder

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Pre-concert remarks for a studio recital at the U of A/Augustana. One of my students delivered this address, as I had a prior commitment out of town for the evening; the “I” in the essay refers to them. I’ve replaced student’s names with initials in the interests of privacy.

The entry for “Lied” in the standard music reference work in English, affectionately called “Grove’s”, begins with a definition that belies the genre’s significance. In its entirety, the definition reads:

“Lied.” German for “song”. A song in the German vernacular.

An article with more words than Camrose has people follows, tracing the genre back over 600 years to describe the polyphonic Lied of the 14- and 1500s, and the continuo Lied of the period roughly framed by the deaths of Shakespeare and Bach, and informs us that Lieder continued to be written after WWII and into the twenty-first century.

The Lied in the usual, unqualified, sense, as represented on this evening’s program, began to emerge about 1750, and is largely associated with what historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the long nineteenth century”. Popular convention dates the birth of Lieder to October 19, 1814, when, on a Wednesday perhaps not so different from this one, Franz Schubert penned Gretchen am Spinnrade. The genre reached its conclusion, for some, with Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder of 1948. This evening’s program offers a selection of the most influential Liederkomponisten from this so-called Romantic period (plus a special case by Mozart!) and some of their most representative, and most beloved, songs.

How to define this, what the noted American musicologist James Parsons calls the “modern Lied”? It is a special kind of interaction between German lyric poetry and music composed in such a way so as to make audible musical ideas suggested by the verse. Irrespective of the relative weights of textual and musical concerns in individual cases, for the genre as a whole, the resulting mixture is a union that has an effect more potent than either poetry or music alone. Indeed, “mixture” is not strong enough: one may get closer to the mark by conceiving of the fusion of poetry and music into a Lied as an irreversible chemical reaction. Factoring in the emotional impact of this cultural alloy, one may even conclude that alchemy was not a mythical process, but a musical one.

Lyric poetry is the departure point for, and the raw material of, a Lied. Lieder composers are often associated with particular poets: Brahms is virtually alone in having set the poetry of his older contemporary and friend, Klaus Groth (including Wie Melodien zieht es mir, sung by CH). Hugo Wolf more than any other is associated with Eduard Mörike (Das verlassene Mägdlein, sung by AB). Robert Schumann wrote one Liederkreis (“song cycle”) on poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (including Aus der Heimat hinter den Blitzen rot the first song in Op. 39, sung by AH).

Schumann wrote several other cycles and individual songs on poems by Heinrich Heine (including Dichterliebe, op. 48, from which I will recite Hör ich das liedchen klingen). Heine was and is regarded as a master of German Romantic irony, one of the crucial ingredients to so much of the poetry in the canon of Romantic Lieder. We can hear this irony most clearly with modern Canadian ears in the final work on this program, when a stereotypically Teutonic, serious dialogue between two German soliders suddenly, and comically, change their tune.

The incredible polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is perhaps the most important poet for the Lied: his poems were set as Lieder by every composer on the program (and scores of others—pardon the pun) including Mozart, whose Das Veilchen prefigures the highly personal fusion of music to poetry that is the hallmark of the Romantic Lied. (One can hear this celebrated relationship of music and text in the staccato notes that accompany and depict a young maiden’s light footsteps, and in the chromatic harmonies and mournful vocal line that accompany and depict the violet’s withering and death.)

Of course a one-evening survey cannot be exhaustive: some other important composers of Lieder not represented this evening include Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, and Franz Liszt. Nor was the Lied exclusively a male domain: many fine examples flowed from the pens of Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, and Josephine Lang.

The Lied is a comparatively compact genre when judged against those other prestigious genres and forms of the long nineteenth century, so well-represented on disc and in the concert hall, of opera, symphony, sonata, and string quartet. As GY will sing this evening, “auch kleine Dinge”—even little things—can be precious and delight us.

Lieder fuse the themes and emotions of opera, the intellectual rigor of large-scale instrumental forms, and the accessibility and timeless familiarity of folk song, into the duration of a popular tune. Lieder are compact, yes, but by no means merely ‘small’. Their ‘densities’ are very high, great masses of beauty forged and folded up to fit onto a few printed pages. Their potential is realized by their unfolding in performance, experienced as song rather than as pre-concert remarks, and so: I thank you for your attention.

On behalf of all involved in putting on this Liederabend, we hope you enjoy this evening’s performances, and we thank you for being here.