Music > Songs (Lieder)
As music is so notoriously subjective, there is hardly any aspect of it, apart from established facts, on which everyone is agreed. There is, however, almost universal agreement that Schubert was the greatest songwriter who ever lived. His first undisputed masterpiece was a song – Gretchen am Spinnrade, to a text by Goethe – written when he was seventeen, an age at which Mozart, the most famous prodigy in the history of music, had yet to write a truly great work.
Music seems to have poured from Schubert’s pen as naturally as rain falls from the clouds – and according to the testimony of friends, family, and all too many biographers it was mostly in the clouds, figuratively speaking, that Schubert had his head. It is true that he was unworldly, almost to a fault. His indifference to the practicalities of daily life was both breathtaking and serene. He was convinced of his destiny, without any hint of arrogance, and once confessed that he thought the state should keep him, as he had been put on the earth for no other reason than to compose.
But having finished a piece, he often forgot all about it as his mind turned at once to something new. The image of Schubert as a lifelong innocent – though his life was admittedly short – was popularly accepted for most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, but its falsity is easily demonstrated on the basis of his songs alone. One year, forty-five songs and ninety compositions after Gretchen, Schubert, now eighteen, produced another Goethe setting: the terrifying, transfixing Erlkönig (‘The Erl King’). Schubert did not, of course, invent the accompanied song.
But no-one in living memory had ever delved so deeply into the reaches of human emotion, nor attained such a peak of drama and demonic energy. A song was basically a pleasantly diverting form of domestic entertainment. The musical setting of great poetry in this context was all but unheard of. Even Beethoven scarcely attempted it. What sets Schubert’s songs apart from those of anyone before him, however, is not the quality of verse that he set but his extraordinary ability to inhabit its very spirit and recreate it in music, so that the two become one. The quality of the music was independent of the quality of the verse. In many cases, as when he set the lyrics of his friends Mayrhofer and Schober, his music so far transcended the limitations of their texts as to render them almost entirely redundant.
Literary quality was never the deciding factor for Schubert in choosing his texts; his sole criterion was their musical potential, which time and again he realised to an almost miraculous degree. Many of Schubert’s songs can succeed almost equally well without the voice. His genius for capturing the emotional and spiritual essence of the verse was so supreme that the words, so vital to the composer’s initial inspiration, are no longer of crucial importance to the listener’s experience of the music. Schubert 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.
Manuscript of Gretchen am Spinnrade
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. The greatest concentration of superlative songs, however, is to be found in the three ‘cycles’: Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang. Schubert's music for male chorus and mixed voices is relatively unknown. Nachthelle and a couple of other pieces get an occasional performance, but the bulk of this music is ripe for rediscovery.
These part-songs draw their texts from the same outstanding German poets; Schiller, Goethe, Grillparzer, Seidl, and others that he used for his solo songs, and into them he poured the same melodic inspiration that makes the songs so popular. These pieces owe their existence to a social phenomenon of Schubert's time, the growth of music-making among the middle class. Schubert had none of Beethoven's counts and princes among his admirers, but he did number many talented artists, teachers, writers, and poets in his circle, people who were amateur musicians themselves and who could appreciate the beauty of his compositions.