Though songs have existed throughout the ages, the art song as we know it today was a product of the Romantic era. The Lied (plural, Lieder), as the new genre was called, is a German-texted solo vocal song, generally with piano accompaniment. Among the great Romantic masters of this form of art song are Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms as well as Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Schumann. Some composers wrote groups of Lieder that were unified by a narrative thread or descriptive theme. Such a group is known as a song cycle.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is one of the Lied’s pre-eminent masters. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven certainly composed some fine songs, but it remained for Schubert to achieve real perfection in a previously unattained unification of poetic text and music. His wonderful sense of melody and expressive harmony combined to explore the text of a poem to a much greater depth than ever before. The incredible variety of mood, feeling, emotion and even the profound drama achieved by Schubert in his more than six hundred songs were unprecedented.
The texts he set to music come from the greatest of German lyric poets — Goethe, Schiller and Heine — as well as lesser poets like Müller (who are today remembered primarily because of the Schubert songs inspired by their texts) and finally, friends like Mayrhofer and Schober, who were part of Schubert’s circle of friends.
Schubert’s very first compositional masterpiece was, in fact, not a symphony, a piano sonata, nor a quartet, but rather a song — “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”) based on a Goethe poem from his Faust. In a brilliant master stroke, Schubert takes the rapid spinning of the wheel as the basis of his piano accompaniment, unifying the song through its changing moods and capturing all the complex emotions as Gretchen recalls her lover. At the climax of the song, with Gretchen overwhelmed with deep emotion, the spinning wheel (and the piano accompaniment) comes to a momentary halt, tentatively resuming its whirring as she recovers — a magical moment in a song written in 1814 at the ripe young age of seventeen. The vividly intense emotions of the young girl are captured perfectly by the music.
As well as encapsulating the most intimate of emotions, Schubert achieved epic drama in songs like “Erlkönig” (“The Erl King”). Here, too, the song is unified by having the piano part this time imitate the galloping of the horse, as it did the spinning wheel in “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” In “Erlkönig” too, there is a slow buildup of tension. The four separate voices of the narrator, the frightened child, the reassuring father, and the chillingly seductive Erl King are brilliantly contrasted. It is a tour de force of concentrated high drama, breaking new ground in the song literature. Schubert’s ability to respond so passionately to imaginative poetry enabled him to produce songs whose unity of conception and level of expression have not been surpassed.
Both “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig” are set to texts by Goethe (as were many other Schubert songs). In fact, it is Goethe, as seminal to German literature as Shakespeare is to English, who is the very wellspring of the German lied. A total of fifty-nine poems by Goethe were set to music by Schubert, some of them in several different settings.
Schubert’s more than six hundred songs comprise four principal types — first, the simple strophic song which repeats the same music for each successive verse; second, the modified strophic song, in which successive verses are not just set to exactly the same music but where any number of varied techniques introduce new musical ideas along with the repeated music; third, the durchkomponiert (through-composed) song where various melodies and interpolated recitatives are unified by a repeated, basically unchanging piano accompaniment; and finally, the scena, which is made up of separate episodes, each of different mood and tempo.
The amazing variety of Schubert’s melodies, their warmth, pathos, directness, and strength are astonishing, as is the fertility with which he poured forth so many masterpieces of the genre.
One hallmark of Schubert’s work is his constant shift from a minor key to a major (and, less often, vice versa) to represent an emotional change. Then, too, he often shifts suddenly into the key a major third below his tonic, as in “Nacht und Träume,” (“Night and Dreams”) where the shift is from B major to G major. Another element of Schubert’s greatness is the way in which his piano accompaniments capture the inner essence of a poem or the details of a nature setting. He has at his command an endless variety of pianistic devices to portray, for example, the shimmering of nighttime stars or the running water of a brook or the glint of light falling on water. He is a master at condensing a dramatic source into lyric terms, essentially reducing opera with an orchestra to voice with piano, thereby distilling the work of an entire company of participants down to just two — a singer and an accompanist.
Tonight, we will listen to Schubert Lieder performed by two different singers, to break it up into most in a male voice but some in a female voice. The male baritone we will hear is by far the foremost interpreter of these pieces over the last century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The soprano is Elly Ameling. Many prefer Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, but Ameling has a simplicity in her singing that I thought paired well with Fischer-Dieskau.
Most of the songs are text by Goethe. I will have notes and translations on just two of the songs tonight.
- Elly Ameling, Jörg Demus – Schubert: Gretchen Am Spinnrade, Op. 2, D 118
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Wandrers Nachtlied, D. 224
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Wandrers Nachtlied II, D.768 (Op.96/3)
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Ganymed, D. 544 (Op.19/3)
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Jägers Abendlied, D. 368
- Elly Ameling, Jörg Demus – Schubert: Du Liebst Mich Nicht, D 756
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: An Schwager Kronos, D. 369
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Meeres Stille, D. 216 (Op.3/2)
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Prometheus, D674
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: An den Mond, D. 296
- Elly Ameling, Jörg Demus – Schubert: Die Vögel, Op. 172/6, D 691
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Auf dem See, D. 543
- Elly Ameling, Jörg Demus – Schubert: Der Jüngling An Der Quelle, D 300
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Erster Verlust, D. 226
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Der Musensohn, D.764 (Op.92/1)
- Elly Ameling, Jörg Demus – Schubert: Der Musensohn, Op. 92/1, D 764
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Der König in Thule, D. 367
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Schubert: Erlkönig, D. 328 (Op.1) – Wer reitet so spät
English Translation of Gretchen am Spinnrade
My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.
Where I do not have him,
That is the grave,
The whole world
Is bitter to me.
My poor head
Is crazy to me,
My poor mind
Is torn apart.
For him only, I look
Out the window
Only for him do I go
Out of the house.
His tall walk,
His noble figure,
His mouth’s smile,
His eyes’ power,
And his mouth’s
and ah! his kiss!
My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.
My bosom urges itself
Ah, might I grasp
And hold him!
And kiss him,
As I would wish,
At his kisses
I should die!
The Erlkonig is one of the most chilling pieces I know, and if you are easily disturbed, don’t listen!
Schubert composed his this for solo voice and piano in 1815, setting text from the Goethe poem. Schubert revised the song three times before publishing his fourth version in 1821. The song was first performed in concert on December 1, 1820, at a private gathering in Vienna, and received its public premiere on March 7, 1821, in Vienna.
The four characters in the song – narrator, father, son, and the Erlking – are usually all sung by a single vocalist; occasionally, however, the work is performed by four individual vocalists (or three, with one taking the parts of both the narrator and the Erlking). Schubert placed each character largely in a different vocal range, and each has his own rhythmic nuances; in addition, most singers endeavor to use a different vocal coloration for each part.
The Narrator lies in the middle range and is in minor mode
The Father lies in the low range and sings both in minor mode and major mode.
The Son lies in a high range, also in minor mode, representing the fright of the child.
The Erlking’s vocal line, in a major key, undulates up and down to arpeggiated accompaniment; a striking contrast as the only break from the triplet figure in the accompaniment until the boy’s death. The Erlking lines are typically sung in a softer dynamic.
A fifth character, the horse, is implied in rapid triplet figures played by the pianist throughout the work, mimicking hoof beats
“Erlkönig” starts with the piano rapidly playing triplets to create a sense of urgency and simulate the horse’s galloping. Meanwhile the bass adds a horror theme to the piece. These motifs continue throughout. Each of the son’s pleas become louder and higher-pitched than the previous ones. Near the very end of the piece the music quickens, as the father desperately tries to spur his horse to go faster, and then slows down, as he arrives. The piano stops before the final line, “In seinen Armen das Kind war tot” before ending with a dramatic perfect authentic cadence.
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.
Father: “My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
Son: “Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?”
Father: “My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”
“You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I’ll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has some golden robes.”
“My father, my father, and don’t you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves.”
“Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”
“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”
“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”
It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.