Nuts & Bolts: Lieder

What are lieder, and why are they more than just songs? Michael Scott Rohan, with the help of a new Schumann reissue from Gérard Souzay, looks at the fine art of songwriting.

Unlike some of the other terms in this series, lied isn’t a rigid technical definition: it simply means ‘song’ in German. Musicians have borrowed it to describe what is sometimes called art-song – the style created by German composers throughout the nineteenth century, sparked off by the equally extraordinary flowering of German Romantic poetry that began with Goethe and produced Heine, Rückert and others. Even this definition can be pretty hard to pin down, though. A typical lied is a short poetic setting for solo voice and piano; but lieder are so diverse that almost any rule you make will sprout exceptions. So what is a lied?

Keep good accompaniment
One characteristic is the importance of its accompaniment. Eighteenth century songs were mostly written for the singer; the accompaniment remains just that. In Mozart’s songs, such as Das Veilchen, it often takes on more character, and by the time of Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte, the piano has a distinct share of the musical expression. One achievement of the great creators of lieder, Schubert and Schumann, was to raise the accompaniment to equal status. The interplay of voice and instrument is one of the things that makes lieder so fascinating, two interpretations blending to form a greater whole. With an intelligent singer and accompanist, lieder can offer some of the most deeply fascinating musical experiences around – and one whose directness and intimacy make it very well suited to listening to on CD.

Part of the lied’s character derives from its source, of course. A lied is a composer’s response to poetry, but not in the same direct, dramatic way that opera reacts to text. Lieder singers do not usually act, but they may subtly suggest character voices – they comment, like the narrator of a story, by pointing and inflecting the way they sing the words. And accompanists will interpret the piano part in the same way, with varying tempo and dynamics, for example. But each has to support and supplement the other. Every aspect – the pace of a song, the inflection of a phrase, its volume – has to be settled between them. The final performance is usually the product of a lot of give and take at rehearsals.

Recognising this, though, is actually rather a recent phenomenon. After the great cultural watershed of World War I the lied went into something of a decline. Its revival in the early 1950s was due in large part to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with his intellectual, analytical style, and beautiful voice. Other singers of the same generation, such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Gérard Souzay and Peter Pears, and accompanists such as Gerald Moore and Geoffrey Parsons, bolstered the revival. Fischer-Dieskau’s style has fallen from fashion in favour of more fluent, less emphatic readings, but without him lieder would not be where it is today.

Where to start
The place to start with lieder, like Fischer-Dieskau, is with Schubert, the definitive lieder composer. In his 600 or so songs every aspect of the genre has its roots. But he did not come out of nowhere; the songs of almost forgotten composers like Goethe’s friend Zelter, J F Reichardt, Zumsteeg and Schubart (note the spelling) inspired both him and his near-contemporary Carl Löwe, whose flamboyant ballads are becoming increasingly popular again. After them came Schumann, another amazingly prolific composer who raised the piano part to virtuoso status. He inspired giants such as Liszt, Wagner and Brahms, but their songs, though fascinating, are secondary to their major works. The same can be said of Mahler and Richard Strauss, whose orchestral songs are their greatest. Only one composer owes his status entirely to lieder – Hugo Wolf, whose elegant, seamless and often mannered miniatures embody both the height of the lied and its decline.

Many twentieth century composers in Germany and abroad continued to write lieder, including Pfitzner and the Finn Yrjö Kilpinen, and many others, including Vaughan Williams and Britten, were deeply influenced by the style, but its time had passed. It remains thoroughly rooted in the nineteenth century and in Romanticism; but from this world at once more innocent and more tormented it still speaks to us today.

How to compose a lied
Find an inspiring poem, preferably already in song form. Nature and human feelings, disappointed love, loneliness, alienation etc. were all favourite themes of the Romantics. Try Heinrich Heine; most composers did.
Decide how you want to set it. Strophic, similar music for each verse; durch-komponient, ‘through-composed’, to music which develops through the song; or a mixture, as in Die beiden Grenadiere.
Compose your music in response to the poetry, Being an immortal genius helps.
Arrange your vocal line to suit. Bright and cheerful or dark and sombre? Male or female singer? High or low voice?
Keep it simple. Lieder were inspired by folksong. Almost anybody can sing most of them. It’s how that makes the difference!
In the piano part use variations of your themes, effects of harmony, tone colour and so on to characterise the words.
Opening and conclusion define a song’s character, often by using changes of key.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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