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

5 Conclusion

Robert Wilkinson (2005) has suggested that Romanticism in the end became ‘the dominant view of art in Europe, and we are to this day its heirs’. This is nowhere truer than in song. Even if you have never encountered German Lieder before, you may have been struck by how the emotional directness of Schubert's writing seems like something familiar from much more recent times. The attempt directly to express emotional experience in poetry and in song, often without explanation or narrative, is characteristic of Romantic writers and composers. Of course, poetry and music had sought to express emotions for centuries before Goethe and Schubert. There have, for example, been love-songs and love-poetry since ancient times. But concentrating solely on the essence of the moment is a characteristically Romantic thing to do, and in the field of music it was to be one of the central features of song-writing through the nineteenth century into the twentieth. One could go so far as to say that the modern popular love-song, from American writers of the 1920s and 1930s such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin through to rock and pop songs of the twenty-first century, are later developments from this intense fusion of poetry and music that was created in the early nineteenth century.

An important element in the drive towards directness and ‘simplicity’ in song was the interest in what Goethe's mentor Herder called ‘Volkslied’ (‘folk-song’). In the Introduction to this course I said that this term is now so commonplace that we rarely consider its underlying implications. The concept of a ‘folk-song’ suggests that the words and music have come from ‘the people’ rather than from an author and composer. The anonymity of folk-song is taken to be a virtue in itself, as if it has sprung from the soil. Of course, music and poetry do not actually arise like that; someone, sometime, thought up the words and the tune (though it is characteristic of folk-songs that they are passed down through oral tradition, and different versions often result). The idea that simplicity and naturalness in music and the arts generally were to be preferred to the elaborate and artificial has connections with Enlightenment ideas about nature and the concept of the ‘noble savage’. But by the end of the eighteenth century this elevation of the simple and the natural was taking on a new dimension that can be seen as Romantic, because of its association with individual feeling and experience. In England Wordsworth was its chief exponent, especially in his Lyrical Ballads (1798). In Germany Goethe's supremacy in this field helped to fuel the association of ideas of purity, truth, nature and simplicity with German nationalism, an increasingly powerful force throughout the nineteenth century. The simpler kinds of Lieder, which Goethe preferred, remained close to the model of folk-song. Schubert sometimes wrote Lieder like that throughout his career (as in ‘Heidenröslein’), but he also stretched the concept of the Lied in highly adventurous and imaginative ways.

I used the term ‘psychological drama’ to describe Schubert's settings of ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Ganymed’ (a description that could already be applied to Goethe's poems). One particular example of this approach is ‘Erlkönig’, which is both a ballad and a horror story. Horror stories in various guises became very popular in the early nineteenth century. The fascination with the ‘Gothic novel’, often with medieval settings and evoking the supernatural, reached a peak in England in the early nineteenth century. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written in 1818, three years after Schubert's setting of ‘Erlkönig’. In opera, Weber's Der Freischiitz (1821), a story involving the devil and magic bullets, set a fashion for operas with a supernatural element. Of course, this idea was not entirely new: Mozart's Don Giovanni culminates in the spectacular intervention of the dead Commendatore from beyond the grave. Goethe's Faust, similarly, is a modern reworking of a medieval story of a pact with the devil.

Schubert's particular contribution to this field was to create Lieder that drew out with extraordinary intensity the emotional situation of those overtaken by supernatural forces. In another famous song, ‘Der Doppelganger’ (1828, to a poem by Heinrich Heine, one of the most important German Romantic poets), a man visits the house of his former sweetheart at night, to be confronted by his own ghost. Schubert makes of this a song of terrifying power.

Even when not dealing with the supernatural, Schubert is frequently grappling with the inner struggles and resolutions of the human mind. The defiance of Prometheus, the ecstasy of Ganymede, the anguish of Gretchen, the calm resignation of the Wanderer, all are expressed in music so subtle and expressive that one has a sense that it is not merely beautiful, but is somehow conveying insights into the human condition.

An important Romantic element of Schubert's method is his freedom with traditional musical forms and procedures. The ‘rules’ of setting verse have always been flexible in practice. Goethe's preference for adherence to the structure of the poem only went so far, as the settings of Zelter demonstrate. Composers before Schubert, notably Beethoven, stretched the conventions of word-setting. But Schubert went further than any previous composer in giving his imagination free rein, moulding the possibilities of the words in ways that sometimes take them far from their original structure as poems. It was not only in his songs that Schubert did this. His way of writing large movements in his instrumental works is extremely free. Some of his late works, such as his last String Quartet in G major and the second Piano Trio in E flat, had to wait until the second half of the twentieth century before their extraordinary qualities were fully appreciated. Before that time they were often described as ‘curate's eggs’, works with marvellous music in them, but too long and somewhat disorganised in their construction.

All of this marks Schubert out as a composer with strongly Romantic elements in his music. By comparison, Mozart was a composer of the Classical period, whose way of writing was moulded by eighteenth-century aesthetics. Mozart never wrote anything remotely as free in structure as ‘Ganymed’. The music seems guided solely by imaginative recreation of a developing psychological situation. It is not written according to any classical conventions. It is a song as free as any in Romantic music. And yet Schubert has Classical elements too. He, like Beethoven, is often described as straddling the Classical and Romantic periods, and combining both tendencies. ‘Erlkönig’ and ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ are beautifully structured songs. The way they are constructed out of very little material, and the way their refrains are repeated, give them a structural integrity which is as strong as in Classical composers such as Mozart and Haydn. But the way Schubert uses these structural devices to create gradually increasing emotional intensity is thoroughly Romantic, and puts him at the beginning of a musical line that was to lead to the full-blown Romantic orchestral works of Liszt and operas of Wagner.


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