This week, our music theme is German Lieder. What is German lieder? Lieder is the German word for song. Therefore, German lieder is German songs. However, the term is usually used in reference to German songs of the Romantic Period (19th Century) written for voice and piano.
Lieder is unlike other classical vocal music in that the piano does more than merely accompany. The piano and voice have an equal relationship and are of equal importance in the storytelling of the song. Take, for example, the famous lied “Der Erlkonig” by Franz Schubert. Erlkonig tells the story of a young boy riding home in his father’s arms on horseback. While riding, the boy sees an “elf king”; a frightening supernatural being of sorts, yet this father does not see it and tells the boy he must be imagining it. The song traces the boy’s feelings of fright as the story unfolds, eventually ending with the elf king grabbing the boy. The father urges the horse to hurry home in the story but the boy is dead when they reach their destination.
In this story, each of the five characters of are given their own traits in the song, so that they are distinguishable by the two people performing the piece: the vocalist and pianist. The horse and it’s movement is depicted in the piano part, while the narrator, boy, father, and Erlkonig (elf king) are all depicted in the vocal line. The piano reflects the mood of the poem, while the voice verbally says what is happening.
The most common composers of German Lieder during this time are Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Hugo Wolf. Schubert is possibly the most well-known lieder composer composing 600 pieces alone before dying at the young age of 31. A famous poet whose poems many composers set to music, especially Schubert, was Goethe. The poetry typically used for German lieder was not chosen for its “literary merit, but its emotional tone”. In other words, poems were usually chosen for their personal and emotional subject matter rather than how eloquently they were written.