Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The earliest German lieder we have in the concert repertoire come from the more than 30 works that Mozart wrote between 1768 (at the age of twelve!) and his death in 1791. His mature songs reflect his skill as an opera composer in their sensitive treatment of the text, bolstered by large-scale structural key modulations and delicate pictorial touches in an independent piano accompaniment.
Needless to say, it was not ever thus. The publishing tradition from which these songs emerged was much less expressively rich with composers pursuing the ideal of folksong-like simplicity in scores often consisting of a mere two staves. The keyboard player – who, in amateur performance, might well be the singer – was expected to play along with the top-line melody while improvising a suitable harmonic accompaniment from the bottom line, perhaps joined by a cello for a bit more ‘oomph’ in the bass register. Haydn’s 12 Keyboard Lieder of 1781, for example, were published in this way.
By the 1780s, however, Mozart’s reflexes when writing vocal music tended instinctively to the multidimensional sphere of the operatic. Each of his songs in this recital deploys its vocal and instrumental resources to create a mini-drama, a comic cameo or a psychological scene, much in the manner of the Romantic generation of composers who were to follow.
Das Veilchen (The Violet) is likely the most famous of Mozart’s songs. The text, by Goethe, is from the singspiel Erwin und Elmire (1773-74), which tells of how a young woman coldly tramples on the affections of a sincere young suitor, only to realize her mistake and be united with him in the end. She sings this song in recognition of her mistake, the violet being a metaphorical stand-in for the crushed and crumpled young man who nonetheless remains true in his feeling for her.
Mozart, in setting this text, creates a different mood for each verse. Notable is how the tripping steps of the young woman are evoked in the piano at the words mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn (light in step and merry in mood).
The accompaniment of Komm, liebe Zither (Come, beloved zither) was not written for the piano at all, but rather for that miniature monarch of the sub-balconic serenade, the mandolin (which the piano arrangement ably imitates). In a foreshadowing of the later appearance of this instrument in the Don’s aria Deh vieni alla finestra from Act 1 of Don Giovanni (1786), this song features an aspiring lover who shares his girl troubles with his plucky little instrument, hoping that as his Leoporello it will do all the fretting for him and pull strings to win him the object of his heart’s desire. What is a rather ordinary poem, on a fairly standard theme, gets transformed in Mozart’s hands into an engaging duet between a sentimental young man and his chatty instrumental servant.
The term ‘explicit’ is not a word that normally comes to mind when describing Classical-era lieder, but An Chloë comes as close as one would wish to deserving the epithet. Setting prudish fans a-flutter to cool the blushing cheeks of maidens and matrons alike is this read-between-the-lines scene of serious hanky-panky, hidden behind a verbal screen of fairly transparent meaning.
Mozart plays the innocent here. Setting this ‘wink- wink’ text in the style of a simple, whistle-able folksong melody, he loads the score with all the sigh motives and dramatic pauses of an operatic love scene. While not quite as rhythmically and randily realistic as Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier overture, Mozart’s setting nevertheless leaves us in no doubt that by the end our ‘exhausted’ horizontal hero is reclining snugly next to his love interest, and probably having a cigarette.
Bringing us back down to earth is Abendempfindung (Evening feeling), an elegiac meditation on death. When composing this work in June of 1787, Mozart likely had death very much on his mind. His father Leopold had died just the previous month, and he and his wife Costanze had already lost two infant children in their young marriage.
The flow of the text is given a dramatic quality by the way in which the smooth cantabile vocal line of the opening alternates with a simpler, more direct recitative style of delivery to give the impression of emotions that interrupt the singer in mid-thought.
Ludwig van Beethoven
If there were action comic books for classical composers, there would surely be one for Beethoven. Few composers can lay claim to the super-hero status that this rebellious symbol of liberty and humanitarian values has become in popular and political culture around the world. Was there really any competition in the choice of the Ninth Symphony for the concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Surely not.
And yet the 80 or so songs of this composer reveal a side to him quite different from that of the heroic and high-minded herald of freedom and democracy. Without the bullhorn in hand, he reveals himself to be witty, affectionate, and just as likely as any adolescent to fall victim to a pretty face and an alluring smile.
His mid-career Lied aus der Ferne (Song from afar), published in 1810, addresses the familiar problem of what to do when you are here, and she is not. At such times, words like Sehnsucht (yearning) come spontaneously to the mind of your average 19th-century young man of sensitivity and feeling, who will inevitably head off for a walk in the upland forested regions of the German countryside to find suitable poetic parallels for that expansive swelling feeling in his chest that tells him he is alive.
Beethoven brings the scene to life for us in a setting that gives a picturesque musical description of the successive scenes capturing the young man’s attention. A lengthy introduction replete with piano trills in the high register informs us that aviary wildlife is warbling nearby and the dance-like rhythm of the vocal line gives plausibility to the toe-tapping upswing in his mood.
The accompaniment changes for the second verse in imitation of the rhythm of his footfall as he trudges uphill while the third verse lets us hear the bout of tachycardia that afflicts him at the top of the hill. The rosy-cheeked optimism of the first verse then returns to round out our brief excursion into this Grouse Grind of the human heart.
Der Kuss (The kiss) finds Beethoven in a more jocular mood. Here we meet up with the ever-attractive girl-about-town Chloë – fresh from her engagement in the previous song by Mozart – beset once again by the attentions of a male suitor with conquest on his mind. Part of the joke here is the way the poem repeats the pursed-lip front-vowel ü sounds in the words Küss (kiss) and Müh’ (effort), forcing the singer into a visual gag by making him adopt the facial configuration of a kiss.
Reckoning it easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, our young swain makes bold to initiate the much-desired lip-lock. Chloë, he is not surprised to learn, turns out to be one of those girls who in mock annoyance and disingenuous discouragement is wont to say: “I’ll give you exactly two hours to get your hand off my knee, or I shall write a letter.” Beethoven makes the punch line (that she didn’t scream then, but oh boy did she scream later) into a series of Benny-Hill-style elbows in the ribs, with numerous text repetitions for leering comic effect on the last page.
More characteristic of Beethoven in a straightforward lyrical mood is Ich liebe dich (I love you), in which melody flows unimpeded over an evenly uniform accompaniment pattern, untroubled by sudden dramatic inflections or intruding thoughts: a perfect embodiment of the poetic sentiments of the text.
The picture of love presented in Beethoven’s early song Adelaide from 1794-1795 is the idealized one of unattainable love – a theme that was to repeat itself in Beethoven’s personal life. (No one, apparently, took the trouble to introduce him to Chloë.)
Adelaide offers many poetic parallels to the scene presented in Lied aus der Ferne: a lovelorn swain wanders alone in a garden where he experiences the presence of his love interest in every natural feature of the landscape, calling out her name in ecstasy at regular intervals. The uncertain, searching mood of the piece is evoked by the 2-against-3 pattern of the piano opening, indicative of the complex emotions swirling in the singer’s heart. The piano writing, unusually assertive for the time, supports the depth of feeling expressed by the singer.
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine
Mendelssohn, like Mozart, began writing songs as a child and continued for the rest of his life, with rarely a month that didn’t produce a new song from his pen. And yet this composer’s song output has suffered in comparison with that of other Romantic-era composers such as Schubert and Schumann who typified more intensely in their music and in their lives the dark psychological and emotional concerns of this age – concerns which Mendelssohn seemed to float above with a blithe cheerfulness.
Consider a song such as Neue Liebe (New love), with a text that evokes a supernatural sighting of forest fairies returning from the hunt with a load of stag antlers as their catch. The singer is torn between thinking he is intercepting a sign that could either be foretelling romantic bliss, or his own death. Spooky stuff, this, halfway to ghoulish, even. But while Schubert in his setting of Erlkönig paints the aspect of real danger in such a fairy encounter, Mendelssohn presents the scene, musically, from the fairies’ point of view, with a light, airy, scampering rhythm much akin to the mood evoked in his famous scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Typical of the un-neurotic approach of this composer to his poetic subject matter is the miniature Gruss (Greeting), which paints in a few short breaths, the sheer exhilaration of the arrival of spring.
More psychologically complex is Morgengruss (Morning greeting), in which poet Heinrich Heine sends up the cliché of a lovers’ farewell at daybreak. The young man looks up at her window for a last farewell, a parting gesture which doesn’t come. ‘No matter,’ he thinks, making the best of a bad situation, ‘it’s probably just because she is dreaming of me.’ Mendelssohn tones down the savage irony of Heine’s text, but still gets the message across with a grinding forte dissonance on the word mir (‘she dreams of me-e-e-e’), suggesting a subtle ‘Yeah, right!’ from the composer.
Darker in tone, with a tumultuous piano accompaniment to match, is Allnächtlich im Traume seh’ ich dich (Each night I see you in my dreams). Here the mode is minor and the deep disturbance in the night-dreamer’s psychology realistically presented. Exceptionally ingenious in Mendelssohn’s word setting is the harmonically inconclusive way that way the vocal line ends, leaving it for the piano to cadence definitively in the home key, a musical representation of the dreamer’s bewilderment and disorientation when he awakens from his dream.
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On wings of song) features one of Mendelssohn’s best known melodies. In typically Mendelssohnian fashion, it eschews a literal painting of the text (set in the exotic locale of India) to concentrate on its purpose as a drawing-room seduction poem. And seduce it does through a perfectly balanced melody lovingly constructed with contours that symmetrically rise and fall, and a floating arpeggiated drawing-room accompaniment reminiscent of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Reiselied (Travelling song), by contrast, is definitely not meant for performance in the amateur drawing room, with its story of high drama and virtuoso piano accompaniment to match. Similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig, it features a breathless horseback ride by night, with the wind and racing horse hooves painted by a moto perpetuo pattern in the piano that almost overshadows the vocal line. Light and dark, danger and relief alternate in this song as the worrying piano figuration in the minor mode changes to a lighter, more buoyant major-mode oom-pah-pah pattern when happier thoughts pass through the mind of the rider, a young man racing to see his beloved.
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine
These six songs come from the final period in Schubert’s life. Composed to a set of poems by Heinrich Heine, they were published posthumously in a collection entitled Schwanengesang (Swan song) in 1829 and it has been suggested that their bitter irony and tragic cast of thought make them a logical continuation of Die Winterreise, Schubert’s song cycle of the lonely wanderer treated harshly by the world which ends with a desolate picture of the lonely and lamentable Leiermann (hurdy-gurdy man).
Those who think of Schubert as a composer of ‘light’ Viennese melodies that paint the delicate flutterings of the human heart will be thrown back against the wall by the majestic grandeur and symphonic conception of Der Atlas. Atlas is the mythological figure who, after losing in a war involving the Titans and Zeus was punished by the father of the gods by being made to hold up the skies eternally. The distress of this fallen hero is symbolized by whirling tremolos in the piano, his staggering under the immense weight he bears by the two hammer-stroke octaves that begin in the first bar and continue throughout.
Ihr Bild, a song of irretrievable loss, is as spare and sonically undernourished as Der Atlas is stormy and overbearing. The bare unisons bespeak utter desolation and the numbness of loss while intervening passages in chordal harmony evoke happier days that will never return. Throughout, the steely gaze of the singer’s persona is utterly chilling.
A much less emotionally complex tone is struck in Das Fischermädchen (The fisher maiden), a barcarolle of guileless simplicity that paints the scene, musically, from the young girl’s point of view, although the narrator is a cynical seducer, trying to convince the girl to ‘trust him as she trusts the waves’. Heine’s subtle irony is toned down in Schubert’s more buoyant setting of the scene.
Desolation returns in Die Stadt (The town) as the poet sits in a rowboat heading for the town where his disappointment in love began. The boatman’s oars are rhythmically sketched in the tremolo pattern of the piano accompaniment, and the misty shapes of the town in the distance by impressionistic overlay of harmonies over top. This imaginative conception of the scene in sound, painting the poet’s despair so starkly but with so few gestures, is far in advance of its time.
A mysterious chord progression begins Am Meer (By the sea), painting a scene of mysterious calm. There seems to be nothing these two estranged lovers can say to each other. The music depicts both the shadow of their former happiness in eerily placid passages in the major mode that alternate with chromatically tortured tremolo passages emblematic of their pain.
Der Doppelgänger is the pendant piece to Der Leierman from Die Winterreise: a lonely figure standing in the middle of human society but utterly alienated from it by his inner pain. Schubert gives the scene a tragic dimension of fateful inevitability by placing the singer’s vocal declamation – it could hardly be called ‘melody’ – over a recurring passacaglia pattern low in the piano accompaniment, as mournfully dark as anything out of Mussorgsky.
Six Songs on texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Auf dem See (On the lake) likely dates from sometime around 1817 and recounts a boat trip taken by Goethe with friends in 1775 while on vacation. The goldne Traüme (golden dreams) of the second verse is likely a reference to a young girl that Goethe was infatuated with (and trying to forget). The rocking rhythm which Schubert creates in the piano accompaniment is not only astonishingly evocative of the movement of a boat bobbing among the waves, but also a perfect foil for the wide-ranging melody that it supports above.
More philosophical concerns stand at the centre of Grenzen der Menschheit (Limits of Mankind), composed in 1821. The poem dates from 1775, when Goethe was grappling with the concept of Fate and its role in human existence. Schubert’s setting reaches for the sublime in confronting the poet’s thought in music: the stern and implacable chord progressions of the piano accompaniment evoke the majesty of the gods while the low range and unadorned declamatory style of the vocal line lends prophetic heft to the text. The extreme dynamic range (from ff to pp) in this work stands witness to the stark divide that separates human and divine destinies.
Appreciation for the young male form is present, as well, in Ganymed (Ganymede), Goethe’s evocation of the ancient Greek legend of Zeus bringing the most handsome of men, the young Ganymede, up to the heavens on a cloud to become his cup-bearer. The sensuality of the scene is matched by Schubert’s rapturously arching phrases and the ever-increasing pace of the action conveyed through increasingly lively figuration in the piano.
Erlkönig (The Elf King) was published as Schubert’s Op. 1 and along with Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) counts as one of the founding works in the development of the Romantic lied. This macabre story, cast in the popular and sensationalist genre of the strophic ballad, derives from a terrifying night ride actually undertaken by Goethe in 1779 with a seven-year-old boy, the son of a close friend, in the saddle in front of him. The demonic energy of the ride is conveyed in the pianist’s (incredibly difficult) battery of octaves that pulse throughout, a dramatic foil to the four distinct voices heard within the poem: the narrator, the boy, the father, and the lurid, luring voice of the Elf King himself, whose ‘desire’ for the young boy is fraught with a menacing hint of pedophilic lust.
Wanderers Nachtlied II (Wanderer’s Night Song 2), the second poem by Goethe with this title, derives from a mountain hike that the poet undertook in 1780 into the beautiful forested mountains of Thuringia where, struck by the peace and calm of the view, he etched this poem into the wall of the hut where he was staying. Visiting the hut again, fifty-one years later on his eighty-second birthday in 1831, he teared up at reading his words still visible on the wall: Warte nur, balde ruhest du auch (Just wait, and soon you, too, will be at rest). Schubert captures the hushed, contemplative atmosphere of the scene in this famous setting, sung pp throughout, with simple harmonies and placidly even tone colour to create a mood of absolute serenity.
An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Kronos) combines Greek legend and human life in the extended metaphor of the coach journey. Kronos the Titan was father of Zeus and often identified with the figure of Chronos (Time). In this poem, the poet declares, with the bravado of youth, his desire to go down in a blaze of glory at the peak of his powers rather than submit to a humiliating decline in old age. Schubert here composes with a muscular aggressiveness not normally associated with him but admirably suited to this text evoking the invulnerability of youth.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014