Tuesday, June 2, 2015

German Lieder: Schubert

Have you heard the musical term “lied”? Similar to how we have popular songs in our culture today, “lied” is a word used in reference to German 19th-century popular song. Of course, popular songs were in countries besides Germany, but we’ll talk about those later this month.

During the 19th century, there was a strong public interest in amateur music making. People often held performances in their homes as forms of entertainment among friends. The lied therefore was typically simple, containing an easy-to-sing melody and a keyboard accompaniment suitable for most amateur musicians. Early on, this accompaniment was subordinate to the melody, however by mid-century, keyboard lines held equal significance as the vocal part. Composers often chose strophic poetic texts that they would then set to music, giving each syllable a note. The Romantic era focused on feelings and emotions and we can see these traits in many texts.

The 19th century saw a significant increase in lied publication. While on average one collection was published per month during the 18th century, this increased to more than one hundred per month during the 19th century! Composers sought to write lieder like never before, knowing that the result could be quite lucrative.

Now you may be wondering which German composers produced a significant lied output. Franz Schubert (1797–1828) wrote over 600 lieder, many performed in his home as part of concerts known as Schubertiads. Goethe poems seem to be a favorite for Schubert to set to music. Today we’ll look at one of these, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” from Goethe’s Faust. Schubert sought to fully convey the text through the musical accompaniment and he successfully accomplished this as you can hear the wheel spinning along in the piano line. As Gretchen reflects on her lover’s kiss, the wheel stops. It is not long before it picks right back up again. Listen below and follow along with the English text translation. Can you hear the wheel?

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.

Where I do not have him,
That is the grave,
The whole world
Is bitter to me.

My poor head
Is crazy to me,
My poor mind
Is torn apart.

For him only, I look
Out the window
Only for him do I go
Out of the house.

His tall walk,
His noble figure,
His mouth's smile,
His eyes' power,

And his mouth's
Magic flow,
His handclasp,
and ah! his kiss!

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.

My bosom urges itself
toward him.
Ah, might I grasp
And hold him!

And kiss him,
As I would wish,
At his kisses

I should die!

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