Tag: Mahler


September 17, 2012

“Romanticism” was first referred to describe concepts in German literature in 18th Century, when the literature was said as “romance-like” or “narrative”. It was used and its concept widely applied in 19th Century in music. Romanticism emphasizes the emotion, the inner feeling of mankind. It is about the naïve and folklike, the strange and surprising, the fairylike and remote, the joy and pain. Music then rose to be the highest rank of all arts as the most able means to express the inner soul and thoughts of man, to voice the inexpressible.

Music was then closely related to other arts, especially the literature. At that time, the most favorite topics for writers and composers were: the nature, the moonlight, the dream, the river, lake and forest, the joy and pain of love, the fairy tale, the supernatural etc. There was a rise of the middle-class in Europe so that the audience became more educated and music became more amateur and domestic on one hand. Musicians became the moral leaders of the society.

“Lied” (art song) got gradually popular in 19th Century. It first appeared in 15th Century when poetry was meant to be sung, like those stanzas by Homer. As a matter of fact, “Lied” meant poem with music or without (plural: “Lieder”). It was always associated with the primitive and then the folk poetry. Around 1750, there was an increase in interest for folk art, folk poetry and folk music in Western Europe. As lied was a combination of poetry and music, it was the best means to the music, and then the singer and the pianist to the audience.

At first, since lied was required to be written in folk and simple manner, it was only for the amateur and the leading German composers did not care about this genre. Goethe was the very important figure in German literature of the time to cast great influence on development of lied. Goethe insisted that his poems should be set in a very simple and folk-like manner and repetition of words, extensive melisma and ornaments should be avoided as much as possible. This was to reveal the meaning of the poem very clearly through the composition of music.

Goethe’s “music advisers”, Ielter and Reichardt, set a lot of his poems to lieder. The “WandersLied I” was set in both composer’s songs. They were the leading composers of the Berlin song school. The other younger generation of composers were Berger and Klein. Berger’s song collection with the setting of Müller may have influenced that by Schubert.

In general, this North German group of composers was more in favor of setting Goethe’s poems (and others’) faithfully in their music. Zumsteeg, of the South Germany, had more variety in music since he was geographically farther away from Goethe who thus had less influence on him. His setting of Berger’s “Leonare” was full of recitative style, arioso, simple song melody and dramatic interlude for piano. The other song for Goethe’s “Colma” was about the Romantic were used, e.g. the tremolo octave, figuration was used to depict the roaring wind and the descending scale the waterfall in the right hand of the piano accompaniment.

Both Zumsteeg and Schubert set Kosegarten’s “Nachtgesang” in their lieder. Zumsteeg’s setting reveal his faithfulness to the poem’s structure, thus very harmonically simple musical setting and chordal accompaniment, while Schubert had more variety musically, with wide leap and more harmonic interest to bring out the essence of the poem.

The reason Schubert set the kind of third-rate poems to his song is that the delicacy of the rhyme and meter of the first-rate poems creates a serious problem to the composer. The other problem would be how to depict the meaning of poem in the music: whether to be truly faithful to the poem or to suggest another side of meaning is the choice of the composer. (Plantinga)

Schubert raised the status of lied to the highest at the time as he artfully combined poem and music together. He was much more academically and literally educated than the other composers of the time as he was the son of schoolmaster and was raised to be one. He knew how to render the meaning and the structure of the poem and skillfully applied that to his setting of poems to music. He was in much favor of Goethe, Müller and Heine’s poems.

“Gretchen am Spinnrade” is a poem of ten stanzas from Goethe’s “Faust” Part I. It is about the maid’s infatuation with the Faust. The piano accompaniment has the figuration of the spinning of the wheel throughout except the stop in between when Gretchen was overcome with intense emotion. As the emotional intensity increased, the modulation was applied to one step higher and higher, from Eb to F, G & finally A minor. The lied is in tripartite form which Schubert favored to neglect the strophic setting of Goethe’s poem.

“Erlkonig” (1815) is another lied with Goethe’s poem. This is a Danish legend and is a ballade. It has four characters: narrator, father, child and Erlking. The singer is required to portrays the four different characters. Here the piano accompaniment always present the figuration to depict the galloping of horse. It is a very difficult accompaniment which was unusual of the time as the amateur status of lied still prevailed. The music is actually in through-composed structure though one may argue the music sounded like repeated and varied very little in strophic manner. The tonality of “child” is always ambiguous, that of “king” in major key and with simple melody (except the last time in minor) and the “father” very assuring. The father and child’s melodic register are set in low vs high tessitura.

Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” is the first lieder cycle which is a collection of songs with similar mood and theme of poems set. Then comes Schubert’s “Winterreise”, “Die Schöne Müllerin” and Geshwanengesang”. Schumann also has “Dichterliebe” and “Liederkreis”.

Schumann’s “Mondnacht” from “Liederkreis” (with text by Eichendorff) (1840) depicts the calm and beautiful moonlight. The piano accompaniment has the prelude which depicts “the kissing of the earth”
with descending line, and it is repeated as interlude, and postlude which encapsulates and ends the song. The prelude sets the mood for the voice which has very simple melodic and the lyrical line throughout.

The Golden age of lied was built by Schubert and Schumann, with the praise of love and of German poetry. Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler also wrote some lieder, but especially Mahler used orchestral accompaniment instead for the voice. Wolf also has a big collection of songs, and he tends to be more faithful and to reveal the meaning of poems.

Teresa Wong

Further Reading:

Fredrich Blume. Classic and Romantic Music: A Comprehensive Survey.
Leon Plantinga. Romantic Music: A History of Musical Style in Nineteenth-Century Europe.
Charles Rosen. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven.