Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems
Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems

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Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems

3 Schubert and the Lied

Schubert set to music the words of a wide range of poets, from those who were internationally famous to others who were known only locally and were among his group of friends. Schubert was capable of making a first-rate song out of a mediocre poem, and often did so. But of all the writers he set, Goethe was the one who most consistently inspired him to write songs of startling power and originality. The first of his songs to be widely acclaimed as a masterpiece was his famous setting of Gretchen's song at the spinning-wheel from Faust, composed in 1814 when he was just 17 years old. ‘Erlkönig’ (‘The Erl-king’), which rivals ‘Gretchen’ for the position of Schubert's most famous song, followed in 1815. ‘Ganymed’, one of the songs that so impressed Vogl in 1817, is also a setting of Goethe. In all, Schubert wrote more than 70 songs to words by Goethe – more than one in ten of his output.

As I mentioned in Section 1, the songs that Schubert wrote for one voice and piano are known as Lieder, the plural of Lied. Lied is simply the German word for ‘song’, but it has come to be used specifically to refer to songs in German for voice and piano. Even in England, a concert of such songs is usually referred to as a ‘Lieder recital’. These Lieder became increasingly popular in German-speaking countries in the second half of the eighteenth century. A number of factors encouraged this trend: the growth of the middle classes with an appetite for domestic music-making, the rise of the piano as an instrument in the home, and a growing fashion for songs in a direct and simple style, which developed partly as a reaction to the complexity and artifice of the Italian opera aria with its elements of display and its international star singers.

One important factor in this development was the influence of folk-song, an influence which was also important in Goethe's writing. One of Goethe's mentors as a student was Johann Gottfried Herder, who published two important volumes of folk-songs in 1778, and who encouraged Goethe to collect folk-songs himself. It was Herder who coined the term Volkslied (folk-song) – a word which, in English as in German, has become so commonplace that one hardly ever thinks about the assumptions and meanings that lie behind it. A number of other collections followed, which included examples from across Europe, English and Scottish examples being particularly valued. One of these collections, Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn, 1806–8), was dedicated to Goethe, and was described by him as an essential volume for any household. Something of the impulse underlying this interest in folk-song is shown by the preface to a collection by J.G. Naumann (1784):

The times in which dazzling and forced styles found approval are past. Men who had a deeper feeling for the simple tones of nature quickly recognized those errors and took care to avoid the rocks of false taste.

(Quoted in Smeed, 1987, p. 29)

Folk-song was not the only element encouraging writers towards simplicity. In ‘Lieder c.1740–c.1800’, James Parsons points out that German poets and composers throughout most of the eighteenth century emphasised the need for simplicity and naturalness in the writing of songs. The origins of this approach, Parsons argues, go back to a time before Herder's interest in ‘folk-song’, to the Neoclassicism of the 1730s. J.C. Gottsched, professor of poetry at the University of Leipzig in the 1730s, begins his treatise on the art of poetry (1730) with a quote from the Latin poet Horace's Ars Poetica: ‘In short, everything you write must be modest and simple.’ Gottsched instructs the song composer to strive for ‘nothing more than an agreeable and clear reading of a verse, which consequently must match the nature and content of the words.’ Later in the century, writers praised song that was devoted to ‘the noble simplicity of unadorned expressions’ (Johann Peter Uz, 1749) and ‘the touching joy of unadorned nature’ (Christoph Martin Wieland, 1766–7). This emphasis on classical simplicity, Parsons writes, is a counterpoint to the better-known promotion of classical virtues in the visual arts, exemplified by Johann Joachim Winckelmann's praise for the ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ of Greco-Roman sculpture (1755) (all quotations in this paragraph in Parsons, 2001, p. 669).

But it is important not to be simplistic in our thinking about these calls for ‘simplicity’. In what way is the simplicity of a folk-song like the simplicity of ancient Greek sculpture? Could one really describe the subtle and complex Latin odes of Horace as ‘simple’? It does not take too much thought to realise that such appeals to old or rustic models were more to do with modern writers’ perceptions than with the actual qualities of the models themselves. Writers and musicians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries sought inspiration in what they saw as the purity of the ancient past and of the unaffectedly rural.

From our perspective, it is easy to see that the ideas of ‘classical’ simplicity, the interest in folk-song, the emphasis on ‘nature’ and the direct expression of feelings, came together in an extraordinary way in the writings of Goethe and Schubert. But this was exceptional: the overwhelming majority of German songs were not the work of great composers, but pleasing and quickly composed settings turned out at high speed for the domestic market, by hundreds of largely forgotten composers, both professional and semi-professional. The sheer quantity of songs published in German-speaking countries reached an extraordinary climax in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. ‘Has there ever been an age more prolific in song than ours’?, wrote the editor of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1826 (quoted in Parsons, 2001, p. 671). By that date, more than a hundred song collections per month were being published. It was a huge and successful market.

Schubert himself wrote over 600 Lieder. This is often cited as remarkable, and it is indeed a large number to have been written by a composer who lived only to the age of 31. But the sheer number is not the point. There were plenty of composers around 1800 who wrote many hundreds of songs, among them Reichardt and Zelter, both of whom were closely associated with Goethe (as Schubert was not). What is remarkable about Schubert's output is the range and quality of his writing, and the creative imagination which he brought to the musical setting of poetry. These qualities made his songs extremely influential on later composers. A succession of German composers wrote Lieder through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss, and they all acknowledged Schubert as the pioneering master of the genre.

Ironically, the very quality of his talent limited his success during his lifetime. He composed songs with a great range of mood and complexity, from simple settings much like those of most other composers to highly dramatic and emotionally intense works, often very difficult to sing and to play. These were not suitable for the average amateur performer who regularly bought the latest monthly offerings of the publishing companies. While certain of Schubert's songs quickly became well known and were published soon after he wrote them, the great bulk of his work lay virtually unknown until after his death. This applies not only to songs, but also to his major instrumental works. The ‘Great’ C major Symphony, for example, now acknowledged as one of the most important works of the period, sat with most of Schubert's instrumental compositions in a trunk in the house of Schubert's brother Ferdinand, until the composer Robert Schumann visited him in 1839. Following this discovery, Mendelssohn conducted a performance of the work, in an abbreviated version, later that year in Leipzig. But when he attempted to rehearse it in London with the Philharmonic Society in 1844, they refused to play it. The same had happened two years earlier in Paris under the conductor Francois Habaneck. Many of Schubert's major works similarly suffered from decades of neglect and misunderstanding.

One particularly poignant fact is that Goethe knew nothing of Schubert's talent until it was too late to help him. In 1816 Schubert's friend Josef von Spaun gathered together two volumes of Schubert's Lieder to send to Goethe, hoping that the great man would help in promoting the publication of the young composer's works. The collection included three settings of Goethe's words, which are now among Schubert's most famous songs: ‘Heidenröslein’, ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, and ‘Erlkönig’ (all of which we shall be studying in this course). The first volume was sent to Goethe, but he never opened it and it was returned to von Spaun. By this stage of his career, no doubt Goethe was inundated by requests from hopeful composers and writers, as famous authors always are. But it is a sad thought that, if Goethe had realised what the package contained, Schubert's career could have been quite different from that of a struggling, provincial composer with little recognition outside his immediate circle.

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