Lately, I've often thought that the best contemporary songwriters (e.g., Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello, Mark Eitzel, Richard Buckner, among many others) are working in the tradition of "lieder" (though my knowlege of classical music is almost nil). The following article from the British paper the Guardian seems to confirm this and actually makes me want to hear some of the works mentioned (after I've absorbed to the new Rufus Wainwright).
A highlight: "Lieder have the potential to explore some of the most profound existential crises known to humanity." Such as, like Warren Zevon said, having your sh*t f*cked up.
Unhinged, gruelling, hallucinatory... Tim Ashley celebrates the intensity of the lieder
Thursday October 30 2003
'Schubert's dynamics go from scream to whisper, not from loud to soft!" The words are spoken by Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's film The Piano Teacher. She is barking at a pupil who is attempting to play the accompaniment to Im Dorfe (In the Village) from Schubert's song cycle Winterreise. The pupil delicately repeats the passage. Huppert ousts him from the piano stool and plays it herself, the chords suddenly hanging in the air like icicles. "Don't you know what it's like to be cold?" she asks.
A study in female sadism, The Piano Teacher ranks among the most disturbing films of recent years, rousing revulsion in many viewers. Yet few critics noted that its main points of musical reference came from Austro-German lieder, and none discussed whether they were appropriate.
The extreme world of The Piano Teacher seems, on the surface, light years away from conventional ideas of the modern song recital. Lieder are often regarded as slight or rarefied. Performances take place in venues that smack of bourgeois safety: one thinks of the art nouveau beauty of London's Wigmore Hall or the refinement of the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh. Anyone going to a lieder recital for the first time can find themselves up against confusing terminology. The correct term for what you hear is "art songs". Lieder are simply art songs to German texts. The French equivalent are "melodies". If the words are in any other language, "songs" usually has to suffice.
All of this has saddled art songs with a reputation for preciosity and snobbishness. But nothing could be further from the truth. A song, by its very definition, implies a single individual giving voice to either emotion or narrative by means of melody. Emotion is therefore presented in isolation, and it is no coincidence that the major period of lieder composition came with the Romantic movement and its emphasis on individualism. Nor should it surprise us that the form's potential for the concentrated depiction of individual emotion is vast. Lieder have the potential to explore some of the most profound existential crises known to humanity.
The birth of the form is usually dated October 19 1814, the day the 17-year-old Schubert composed Gretchen am Spinnrade. It was not his first song, but its fusion of sound, sense and psychology changed music history. Schubert took as his text a passage from Goethe's Faust in which Gretchen, abandoned by the eponymous hero, sits at her spinning wheel, full of desire and longing. The repetitive return of the vocal line to its refrain expresses her obsession, before it reaches a climax, at once erotic and nostalgic, at the thought of "dying in his kisses". The trundling piano accompaniment mirrors the movements of the spinning wheel, its speeding up and slowing down, its stops and starts. In less than five minutes of music, Schubert remorselessly exposes a woman's psyche.
Gretchen am Spinnrade was the starting point. Schubert wrote over 600 songs and remains arguably the greatest lieder composer, by virtue of his astonishing emotional range and his almost uncanny ability to create entire worlds in miniature from his chosen texts. Life histories are encapsulated in the briefest of musical spans. His singers' emotions are frequently reflected, almost metaphysically, in the landscapes. His dynamics, as Huppert puts it in The Piano Teacher, might go from "scream to whisper", but so do his songs, encompassing every shade of expression in between.
For many, Schubert's greatest achievement lies in his two song cycles: Die Schone Mullerin, and Schwanengesang, the posthumously published collection of his last songs. The song cycle itself was not Schubert's invention. The first major example is Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, which deals with obsessive love and explores an essentially static emotional situation by means of thematic and rhythmic cross-references between songs. By linking contrasting songs together sequentially to form an extended narrative, however, Schubert was able to expand the psychological depth and range of his material.
Die Schone Mullerin and Winterreise are extended psychodramas dealing with lost love. The former is elegiac, and the latter profoundly tragic. Winterreise takes the listener to the edge of madness, which is why Haneke uses it to accompany Huppert's ravings. The songs of Schwanengesang, harrowing and hallucinatory, occupy even more extreme territory, as Schubert presents us with Atlas, bearing the agony of the world on his shoulders, and with Der Doppelganger, in which a madman finds himself relentlessly pursued by his alter-ego, real or imagined. In addition to establishing the lied as a major art form, Schubert took it to the limits of human experience. His successors, in Germany and elsewhere, seized upon its potential for the expression of intense emotion.
For Schumann, who was prone to bouts of depression, the lied was essentially confessional, an outpouring of love for his wife Clara and an expression of his most intimate emotions, some of which can make listeners uncomfortable even today. Brahms's songs are shot through with fierce intimations of mortality, culminating in the sparse Vier ernste Gesange of 1896, his last work and essentially his farewell to life. In France, Henri Duparc responded to the poetry of Baudelaire with some of the most decadently erotic music ever penned. In Russia, meanwhile, Mussorgsky produced the sinister, savage Songs and Dances of Death and Tchaikovsky poured his closet homoerotic desires into the frenzied settings of the lyric poets of his day.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a number of composers forced a reappraisal of the art song's parameters, and the emphasis on emotional extremes intensified even further. Influenced by Wagner and anticipating Freud, Hugo Wolf began to use deliberate dislocations between voice and accompaniment to explore splits in the human psyche between the ego and the unconscious. Kennst du das Land, arguably his most famous song, takes as its text one of Mignon's poems from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister. Schubert had previously set it as an elegy; Wolf steers it towards trauma. The lurching chromatic accompaniment suggests violent mood swings. The blurring of the identity of the person to whom the song is addressed - "beloved", "protector" and "father" in turn - hints at deep psychological disturbance.
Mahler, meanwhile, took the art song from the recital venue to the concert hall by replacing the piano accompaniment with orchestra. His entire output, however, is song-saturated; many of his symphonies are thematically related to vocal material on which he was working contemporaneously. His songs are frequently grim, a catalogue of human misery shot through with mordant humour and flashes of spiritual or psychological calm. His Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) ranks among the most harrowing works ever written, and there are many, first among them Mahler's wife Alma, who wished it had never been composed. Yet the subject of parental grief could perhaps have been tackled musically only as a song cycle: any other form would simply have diluted its impact.
As with Schumann, many of Richard Strauss's songs are essentially confessional. Many critics have seen them as constituting an extended hymn to the female voices he adored so much, though most of his songs were written as a declaration of love for his soprano wife Pauline. It is with Strauss that musical Romanticism and the art song reach their final expression in the Four Last Songs. Written when Strauss was dying and first performed posthumously, they look back with profound contentment over his life and his marriage, before calmly anticipating the gathering darkness that signals the approach of death.
The great lieder composers probe the human psyche with a concentrated density permitted by no other genre, not even opera, which, with rare exceptions (principally Schoenberg's Erwartung) portrays social, emotional and erotic interaction. The lieder singer is always alone, baring his or her soul in isolation, taking us with them on a journey into territory fraught with joy and danger. Far from being safe, the lieder recital can rank among the most searing experiences any music lover can undergo.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited