The resurgence of German literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was essential to the emergence of a purely German art song tradition. Sensitive poems by famous authors such as Goethe and Heine were set to music, as were lyrics by lesser poets. To start with this was first and foremost intimate music for the home. The emergent bourgeoisie’s interest in volkstümliche (popular, folkloristic) matters is reflected in characteristics such as simple, catchy tunes with uncomplicated melody lines. The accompaniment is supportive, and the tempo is that of normal speech rhythm. This corresponds well with the general attitudes of the classical and Empire styles towards clarity, simplicity and stringency, and exemplifies its dispute with the opulence of the Baroque and the elaborate ornamentation of the Rococo.
Among Mozart’s extensive vocal works his concert arias are predominant, alongside a mere handful of songs in the lied tradition. The dramatic aspect is subdued in the humorous-sentimental Das Veilchen (The Violet) to Goethe’s text, about the violet that dreams of being picked to adorn a woman’s breast, but is trampled upon by the same woman.
The canzonetta has Italian models dating from the Renaissance era, also emanating from unsophisticated culture. Over the centuries it spread throughout Europe, gradually developing from a part-song to a solo with an intricate instrumental accompaniment. Haydn’s English Canzonettas are good examples of the tradition in its later stages – art songs before the advent of the lied. At the pinnacle of his career Haydn made two highly successful major tours to England. In these songs, which were clearly composed for domestic performance, Haydn followed current London fashion and produced some of his most popular songs.
It was Schubert’s huge production of lieder that turned the lied as a genre into a significant tradition in the Romantic era. Over six hundred songs are extant, the number all the more impressive considering that he was only just over thirty when he died. Subjected to his treatment the lied progresses from being a song style of the masses to a profound, eloquently conceived expression of the search of the Romantic artist. Schubert’s great contribution to the tradition is his unflinching sensitivity to the mood of a poem and the sense of how to express this through music. On many occasions he elicits an almost operatic intensity without superficial gestures in these miniature atmospheric images.
In Brahms’s lifetime the lied took on a larger format on the concert stage. However, for Brahms the connection with folk art was still important. Throughout his life he had collected folk tunes, both out of love for the material itself and with the intention of using it in vocal and instrumental compositions. It is this singability and musical clarity that has given his ‘Romantic-Classical’ style its patent appeal. More radical composers of the time, such as Berlioz and Wagner, never used folk music as raw material; they wanted their music to be free and new. Brahms however anticipated the following generation of composers, such as Mahler and Bartók, who found a significant amount of their raw material in folk music. In 1894 Brahms, determined to end his career as a composer, critically evaluated his works, discarding some and completing some unfinished sketches. The collection of German folk songs is a result of this ‘spring cleaning’. As it includes songs from the greater part of his career, in many ways it sums up his achievement and presents his musical testament.
Text: Morten Eide Pedersen
English text: Roger Martin