A major glossy magazine that used to be devoted largely to music -- but long ago fell under the spell of Hollywood celebrity -- still continues to cover music, specializing in listicles that seem designed mainly to provoke ire in those who care more about music than does said magazine (named after a classic blues song, in case you can't guess without a hint). This summer it unleashed a list of songs that, with that aging publication's ironically weak sense of history, managed to overlook the vast majority of the history of song. To put it bluntly, if you're claiming to discuss the best songs ever written and you don't even mention Franz Schubert, you're an ignoramus. My ire over this blinkered attitude towards music history festered for months, so I finally decided to do something about it by writing about some of the timeless songs omitted in the aforementioned myopic listicle. There are so many great songs in the history of classical music that no one article could contain it, so first I focus on one particularly rich tradition, the German lieder. I plan to write a sequel covering classical songs from other traditions, though I admit that my track record of completing these big projects has been a bit spotty!
Mainstream listeners often overlook Beethoven's lieder amid the richness of his more famous output, but the six-song An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), composed in 1816, is considered the first song cycle and thus is historically important to connoisseurs of song. The composer brings to the form the inventiveness and willfulness that characterizes so much of his work, although it must be noted that in his mind, "lieder" denoted strophic songs (every verse using the same music), and the songs of An die ferne Geliebte are through-composed (changing with every new verse). However, that is a distinction that soon faded, and this cycle is considered a milestone in the lieder tradition. Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, by far the most praised exponent of the art of lieder, adds levels of emotional shading through his careful attention to the texts, and includes in this program a set of songs (Op. 83) setting poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose work was important in raising the quality of texts used in lieder. This CD includes an additional eighteen lieder and other songs by Beethoven.
Schubert's lieder are his greatest contribution to music history, not least his three great cycles -- Die schöne Müllerin, Die Winterreise, and Schwanengesang. The most famous and immediately appealing cycle is Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill), which sets twenty poems of Wilhelm Müller that tell a melodramatic tale of a simple man who falls in love but, rather easily discouraged, commits suicide in despair.
Less overstated and more psychologically profound is Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey), also setting poems of Müller. Written in 1827, it has been called the finest of all song cycles. One night in the dead of Winter, a man slips out of a village. As the poems tell us his thoughts, we learn he has had his heart broken by an unfaithful woman. He frequently relates his sorrow to the cold, dark, desolate landscape he passes through, the crow which flies overhead, the dogs that bark at him in the night, etc. Meanwhile, bittersweet memories of happier times change the mood yet ultimately only add to his anguish. By the twenty-third song, the protagonist seems to be hallucinating, seeing three suns in the sky. In the twenty-fourth and final song, he comes across an old man who, despite being shunned by people and beset by growling dogs, is playing a hurdy-gurdy with stolid determination. The image of music as eternal solace for the lonely offers a final glimmer of hope, or at least peace, in an otherwise bleak cycle.
Schubert's consummate mastery of the lieder form is apparent throughout. Even within the dominating mood of despair mingled with resigned resolution, he finds enough variety to give each song individual characterization. He does this not only with the harmonies and melodies and tempos, but also the style of the piano accompaniment; the pianist is practically an equal partner with the singer.
This classic recording from 1954 matches a superb bass-baritone with arguably the best lieder accompanist ever. Hans Hotter's dark tone perfectly matches the material. While certainly not ignoring the words, Hotter emphasizes the long line, to good effect; it adds to the intensity of this most intense of song cycles. Not that he sings in an undifferentiated manner: his tone always matches the mood of the text. In material often treated with nearly excruciating fussiness, attempting to wring every subtlety from the words (a criticism of Fischer-Dieskau), Hotter's approach is refreshing. Moore is always supportive and often sets the mood with his articulation and phrasing. Though the sound is mono, it hardly matters: the musicians have strong presence, and noise is not an issue.
Citing just one CD is severely under-representing Schubert in this field; Fischer-Dieskau recorded all of Schubert's lieder for baritone range, a monumental and educational effort that occupies 21 CDs.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Jörg Demus, Günther Weissenborn (Deutsche Grammophon)
Schumann, the most consciously Romantic of composers with his multiple personalities and self-referential writings, penned some of the most musically and psychologically complex lieder. His major cycle is Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love), a sixteen-song set written in 1840 that sets poems by Heinrich Heine. Schumann matches the feverish intensity of the poems with chromatic music that mirrors the poet's shifting emotions and extreme moods. Schumann had warmed up for this cycle with the slightly earlier Liederkreis, Op. 24 (the title just means "song cycle," and he used it again for his Op. 39), also setting poems of Heine. Perhaps not coincidentally, both sets conclude with a poem speaking of burying the songs; this emphasizes the self-consciousness of Romanticism.
This is not an actually available two-disc set, alas, but it is two CDs (later released separately) in the twenty-one disc Fischer-Dieskau Edition box from 2000. There is a two-disc set that overlaps some of these recordings, but using later recordings with pianist Christoph Eschenbach on some material. A little advice regarding Fischer-Dieskau: the earlier, the better. The older he got, the weaker his upper range became and the more he overcompensated with fussy interpretations. So the 1960 and '65 recordings with Demus are prime recommendations, and later remakes of Dichterliebe (which DF-D released four recordings of), etc. are less vocally rich -- in particular, don't let his team-up with pianist Alfred Brendel seduce you with its brand-name allure. The CD containing Dichterliebe also includes two sets in 1957 mono with Weissenborn, 12 Gedichte (poems by Justinus Kerner) and a further assortment of seven lieder, a very welcome bonus on which DF-D's quiet high notes are things of beauty and a lesson in sensitive singing.
Brahms: Four Serious Songs, op. 121; 10 assorted Lieder
Hans Hotter/Gerald Moore (EMI Classics)
It is cheating a bit to include Brahms's Four Serious Songs in a lieder overview, since these settings of Biblical texts technically aren't lieder, but they are certainly coming from that tradition and fit well alongside Brahms's lieder. If anything, I should include more Brahms lieder than this, but this particular recording is one of the glories of the literature; singing doesn't get any better than on these 1951 and '56 recordings. The Four Serious Songs have never been projected by a more beautiful, finely modulated voice, and the legendary Hotter -- the finest lieder singer before Fischer-Dieskau, and there are observers who feel Hotter was never actually dethroned -- is fully aware of the texts, while showing that awareness subtly rather than pointedly. The selection of other lieder is delivered with the same gorgeous finesse and rich tonal sheen, and accompanist Moore is -- as always -- supreme in this role. (Also on this disc is perhaps the most beautiful recording of Bach's Cantata for baritone "Ich habe genug," BWV 82 -- not lieder, but a must-own). There are so many riches here that finding this import is a necessity. (Note that an additional eight assorted lieder from the 1956 session drawn on here can be found on a Testament reissue simply entitled Lieder Recital.)
Lieder originally were for voice and piano, but later in Romanticism came orchestral lieder. This is the supreme example, a setting so monumental that Mahler secretly considered it a symphony. Mahler wrote the six-movement song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) in 1907-08 after learning of his heart problem. The nostalgic yet angst-ridden texts are from German poet Hans Bethge's collection The Chinese Flute, paraphrases of eighth-century Chinese poems. Mahler chose some of the most poignant ones; the movements are "The Drinking Song of Earthly Woe," "The Lonely One in Autumn," "Of Youth, "Of Beauty," "The Drunken One in Springtime," and the half-hour-long "The Farewell," the latter combining several poems. It's a meditation on -- and wailing against, but acceptance of -- aging and mortality against the backdrop of the eternal cycles of nature, with the orchestral colors lending both variety and intensification of emotion. I don't think there has ever been a more beautiful and profoundly musical recording than this 1964-66 one with alto Christa Ludwig and ill-fated tenor Fritz Wunderlich.
Some connoisseurs, however, prefer it to be sung by two men (tenor and baritone), which seems to fit the autobiographical nature of the work. For that lineup, it's hard to beat the classic late-'50s recording by tenor Murray Dickie and Fischer-Dieskau with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzki (also on EMI).
Wolf (1860-1903) was the epitome of the emotionally troubled Romantic artist, a love-triangle-obsessed bi-polar genius alternating between periods of prolific output and barren stretches of depression culminating in syphilitic brain rot, a suicide attempt in 1899 when he was no longer able to compose, and then self-incarceration in an asylum until the end of his life. In his short, turbulent lifespan, Wolf specialized almost exclusively in concisely compressed lieder, creating an insular style full of slippery chromaticism that it can take a while to warm up to. Once one acquires a taste for it, though, it is eerily compelling. Hotter's dark tone is perfect for this music, as is his emphasis on the long line in Wolf's serpentine melodies. This album collecting EMI sessions from 1951, '53, and '57 is considered a classic by lieder aficionados.
Near the end of his life, Strauss (1864-1949) did autumnal rumination as well as any composer ever did, reaching his peak with his famous Four Last Songs, written the year before his death. He started by setting the Joseph von Eichendorf (1788-1857) poem "Im Abendrot" (At Sunset), then three by Hesse; the order in which they were published (with "Im Abendrot" coming last), and even their being published as a set, were decided after the composer's death.
Alexander von Zemlinsky: Six Songs, Op. 13; Richard Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder; Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53; Schoenberg: "Lied der Waldtaube" (Song of the Wood Dove) from Gurre-Lieder
The music of Zemlinsky (1871-1942), a Late Romantic composer verging on modernism in the fin-de-siècle-Vienna idiom, has been much-revived in recent years, albeit mostly on recordings. His Six Songs, Op. 13, on poems of Maurice Maeterlinck are small masterpieces for mezzo-soprano and full orchestra. Dating from 1910 and 1913, they are ripely Romantic works bursting with expression. Harmonies are sometimes ambiguous (think Tristan und Isolde but more '30s Hollywood), but the rich melodies -- not only in the vocal line, but also in the strings and woodwinds -- always pull the music forward as it expresses a nearly decadent Weltschmerz, or sometimes an almost painful yearning, entirely apt to the purple poems. This album's four-composer program also lets me squeeze in Wagner's only famous lieder, plus a few pieces by composers covered elsewhere in my little survey. Alas, Pecková's Zemlinsky isn't available on YouTube.
Schoenberg: 2 Songs, Op. 1; 4 Lieder, Op. 2, Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, Op. 15
Donald Gramm/Ellen Faull/Helen Vanni/Glenn Gould (CBS Masterworks)
Schoenberg's atonal fifteen-song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens) is an Expressionist masterpiece. In setting to music a group of poems by Stefan George about the disintegration of a relationship, the composer also commented on the disintegration of tonality (though note that this is not yet twelve-tone/serial music, which Schoenberg would famously develop a little later). Written in 1908-09, Op. 15 was his great break from tonality, which he had stretched as far as it could go. It is disturbing and far from easy listening, but quite powerful; pianist Glenn Gould, the impetus behind this 1966 release, offers exactly the febrile atmosphere the music requires, and mezzo-soprano Helen Vanni handles the difficulties of the vocal line with aplomb. Two earlier sets of songs (Op. 1 with estimablt bass-baritone Gramm, Op. 2 with underrated soprano Faull) show just how advanced Schoenberg already was at the beginning of his career while contextualizing how much further Op. 15 went.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Margit Weber, Karl Engel (Deutsche Grammophon)
DF-D's devotion to lieder combined with his celebrity to bring lieder obscurities to light. A particularly rewarding example is his long advocacy of German-Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957), who devoted his career to vocal music. Critics emphasized the backwards-looking aspect of his lieder, which are admittedly less radical than those of Schoenberg and Webern but nonetheless are more modern (sometimes with bitonality) than he was given credit for. Though he often drew from the same poetic pool as the previous century's composers had, he also set words of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) and thus dealt directly with modern themes of alienation that found vivid expression in his music.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-basedcomposer, poet, andeditor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Dayswas heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.