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Follow the Lieder

Because they are there: that must be one reason why the huge corpus of Schubert songs has proved to be irresistible to a singer like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. No great performer of today or perhaps any other era has been so fascinated by the sheer extent of the musical repertory available to him. It is claimed that Fischer-Dieskau is the most recorded musician in the classical catalogue, and his most celebrated effort, released in 1970 by DGG, is a monumental collection of more than 450 Schubert songs on twenty-eight discs.1 This represents about 75 percent of the total number and 85 percent of those suitable for male voice. He has also written a book about Schubert’s songs, now published in English, the sort of book that works through the entire corpus and finds at least a few words to say about nearly every member of it. This book seems to have been impelled largely by Fischer-Dieskau’s enthusiasm for the manche schöne Perle, as Heine might have put it, which rest in the depths of the Schubert complete edition.

But conquest, or salvage, cannot be the only reason. Clearly for Fischer-Dieskau, as for many other musicians, the Schubert songs occupy a unique place in the aesthetic firmament. This composer stands apart decisively from the others who followed him to form the great nineteenth-century Lied tradition, in a way that is hard to explain on the basis of compositional technique, the Zeitgeist, or even individual talent. The fact that there are slack moments in certain Schubert songs—in many Schubert songs, if we assume Fischer-Dieskau’s perspective—seems to make no difference to the enthusiasts. Every song and every gesture within the songs have a special resonance which separates them from those of other composers. There is a special mystery about this music, a mystery too about the devotion it inspires.

Fischer-Dieskau, who is a very distinguished singer but not a very distinguished critic, contributes little to its elucidation. What raises Schubert so far above other composers, he writes, is that he is (in italics) “authentic“: which is no more helpful than the traditional rhetoric as relayed by, for example, his friend and collaborator Gerald Moore, the great piano accompanist:

This book was written under compulsion, the compulsion of my love for Franz Peter Schubert. I cannot leave him alone and find myself in the evening of my life turning more and more to the master whom Artur Schnabel described as the composer nearest to God. No one ever expressed himself with such utter lack of artificiality; so spontaneous is his song that the process of transplantation from mind to manuscript without loss of freshness or bloom is miraculous. His heart was full of music which in its unerring directness, unsurprising naturalness and sublime eloquence uplifts the soul.2

But one must not throw stones in the glass house of Schubert criticism. Academic critics, such as they are, seem equally at a loss when dealing with Schubert’s strengths or his weaknesses—in the instrumental music as well as in the songs, but especially in the latter. The strictly technical criticism (“analysis”) that is so popular in this country is in any case better suited to large works than to small ones. The difficulties of implicitly equating complexity with character and value can be manageable when the critic considers the whole span of a symphony and has room to maneuver; they become troublesome within the limited compass of a song and positively nasty with a simple song. Why is a simple Schubert song better than a Beatles song? students used to ask in the Sixties; they still ask it about Schubert and Hugo Wolf.

Some recent highly refined textual-musical analyses of Schubert songs have also run into trouble. The one that has been most discussed is Professor T.G. Georgiades’s effort to plunge down into the Schlichten and show how Schubert works not with the dichterisch surface of German poetry but with the sprachlich essence beneath.3 In a famous close analysis of Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s “Über allen Gipfeln“—and in a notorious invidious comparison with the later setting of this poem by Schumann—Georgiades developed his thesis further: Schubert dissolves a poem in order to re-create its utterance as “natural” musical form, whereas later composers preserve the poem and seek merely to express the moods it releases, without touching on its speech-substance.

This latter idea, predictably, has met with stiff resistance, the more so when the meticulous and often brilliant detail of Georgiades’s technical writing gives way to cloudy historical theorizing. But even apart from such special pleading, close analysis, of whatever school, has to face a basic problem of decorum with material of this kind. Simple songs do not so much disintegrate under a formidable critical apparatus as float right through it; what seems appropriate to a song from Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten seems absurd when applied to Das Wandern, Die liebe Farbe, and other of the more transparent members of Die schöne Müllerin. These are songs that disarm, or should disarm, “analysis.”

To say this amounts to saying that our love for Schubert is an article of faith, and perhaps this in turn is a reflection of his own faith in his poets. Other song composers may have loved their poets more and read them more closely, but none gives the appearance of having believed in them as implicitly as Schubert. Several biographical circumstances help to explain this, no doubt. He started writing songs at the age of twelve, and by the time he reached the age when he might have attended the University—might have, but did not—his attitudes toward poetry were well fixed. Friendships meant everything to Schubert, and more of his friends were poets or amateur poets than musicians. He actually roomed with a poet for a period of years (the Censorship Bureau official Johann Mayrhofer, who wrote many texts especially for him). Was it, too, that his own phenomenal spontaneity as a creative artist predisposed him to take the work of other artists as absolutely natural and true? Schubert believed poems about the early violet who wilts while awaiting her bridegroom, poems about God’s trombones in the hurricane, about the limits of the human condition, about Ossian and Ganymede, green ribbons and red sunsets, carefree butterflies and ominous ravens. Only this boundless capacity for belief, obviously, enabled him to write songs in such numbers and of such variety; he was not only the most prolific of song writers but also by far the most various.

Schubert cannot make us believe all this poetry, but the power of his own belief is at the heart of his power as an artist. He can set down German sixth chords and parallel-major sonorities as innocently as his poet friends write of Blumenherzen and Liebestränen. In its freedom and simplicity, his career as a song writer contrasts with those of later figures such as Hugo Wolf, who never set the work of living poets and came to prefer foreign verse in translation, or Schumann, who after trying his hand at song composition as a boy shrank from it self-consciously for more than a decade, only to embrace it just as self-consciously in the year of his marriage. The elaborated piano parts of Schumann’s songs act as a barrier against directness; a new persona has been added to the song which often comments beautifully but from the outside and with the benefit of hindsight. According to Georgiades, the song no longer takes over the substance of the poem but becomes a “vehicle” for the poetic substance. As for Wolf, the nature of his accomplishment is well indicated by the praise he received in 1890 from the Goethe Society of Vienna for his explication (explizieren) of their hero. The late nineteenth century wanted very much to believe in Goethe, but this was no longer easy to do without some pretty strenuous interpretation.

Schubert’s own belief shines brightest, or seems to, when one of his songs in heard along with a later setting of the same poem. The later composer has always chosen his own ground, of course, and Schubert is generally made to look like a complete innocent. On one occasion Brahms went so far as to publish a song that is little more than a heavily blue-penciled version of a Schubert original. The poem, Goethe’s “Trost in Tränen” (Consolation in Tears), consists of four pairs of artless question-and-answer stanzas according to this pattern:

Wie kommts, dass du so traurig bist,
Da alles froh erscheint?
Man sieht dirs an den Augen an,
Gewiss, du hast geweint.

“Und hab ich einsam auch geweint,
So ists mein eigner Schmerz,
Und Tränen fliessen gar so süss,
Erleichtern mir das Herz.”…

How comes it you’re so sad
when all are glad?
One can see from your eyes,
to be sure, you’ve been weeping.

“If I have wept in solitude,
it is my own distress,
and tears so very sweetly flow,
lightening my heart.”…

Composed at the age of seventeen, on a day which also produced two other settings of Goethe poems, Schubert’s fragile little song seems hardly able to survive the comparison. The transitions and the declamation are Brahms’s most obvious improvements, as well as (one thinks at first) the modulatory scheme. How intelligent to save the main modulatory gestures of the piece for the stanzas spoken by the rather brash questioner, leaving the answerer’s music depressingly rooted in its single minor-mode tonality.

Yet in cases of this kind Schubert’s faith leads again and again to greater awareness. Brahms’s sophisticated descending chromatic sequence at line seven provides a climax of mournful intensity—for when the answerer says that tears lighten his sorrow Brahms does not, of course, believe him. Goethe must mean those lines ironically! Schubert does not know about irony. Though a little incredulous, he would not presume to disbelieve the poet, and this leads him to a condensed threefold setting: the first emotional, affirmative, and a little vainglorious (relative major), the second more depressed (tonic minor), the third calmer and more genuinely consolatory, but also tinged in a way that forecasts the characteristic effects of pathos in his later work (parallel major). When at the end of the fourth stanza-pair (“Verweinen lasst die Nächt mir, / Solang ich weinen mag“—“Let me weep the nights away / as long as I may weep”) the parallel-major articulation comes out on the word weinen, the final emphasis is not bluntly on weeping but rather on the ambiguity of weeping. Taking Goethe’s title seriously, Schubert responds to his sentiment more directly and also more richly than does the later composer.

In Schubert the questioner and answerer really address each other; in Brahms they seem to be taking part in some discreet public debate (this is owing largely to Brahms’s replacement of Schubert’s awkward fermatas at the ends of the two stanzas by perfectly tooled transitions). Schumann sings to Clara, Wolf sings to the Goethe-Verein, but Schubert sings mainly to himself, asking for no audience and making no effort to get people to share his beliefs. A consequence of this is that with Schubert one is never made to feel guilty of a rejection, as so often with Brahms—only embarrassed, sometimes, by one’s own auditeurism.

There is a sense in which Fischer-Dieskau’s comprehensive recording project serves to underline this quality. When the set was issued in 1970 it greatly impressed but also repelled many people. Critics did not know what to make of the “text” that was presented to them; typically a record or record set simulates an actual performance in the concert hall or opera house, but this set seemed to aspire to the condition of a definitive complete scholarly edition in the library. Several hundred unknown Schubert pearls proved to be something of a choker, and there was talk to the effect that Fischer-Dieskau might well have spent less time diving and more time polishing; even so serious a critic as David Hamilton complained of “performances untested by the experience of confrontation with an audience” and of the set’s “bulk and format resisting the kind of informal presentation and listening that should surround this literature.”4 In not many drawing rooms of today, however, is singing German songs at the piano treated as a more informal activity than turning on the hi-fi.

We always remark on the difference between the milieu for which these songs were conceived—the drawing room—and the modern concert hall, without really sensing the difference; and we still do not understand the characteristic musical milieu of our own time, the hi-fi den, and what it has done to our music. Fischer-Dieskau and Moore knew perfectly well that their record set would not and could not be played through to produce a surrogate song recital. Like Schubert, they seek no confrontation with an audience, and the very removal of their monumental project from the concert setting gives it a tranquillity that is curiously Schubertian.

To be sure, one hates to think of the songs being removed to the complete tranquillity of the library shelf. Perhaps Fischer-Dieskau’s book Schubert’s Songs is to be regarded as a kind of library resource, an information-retrieval tool to be used in conjunction with the recordings. It can be recommended to those who feel the need for a guide to the Schubert song repertory that is less flowery and “sensitive” than Richard Capell’s book, which was first published in England as long ago as 1928 (and republished in 1957 and 1973). Fischer-Dieskau opens no new windows on Schubert studies, and if there is a slightly disconnected, even distracted quality about the thought sequence at some points, that may be explained by a remark in the introduction to his book Wagner and Nietzsche, in which he thanks various people “who made it possible for me to work on this book between concerts.”5 But his fundamental control of the material is certainly very impressive indeed. The book contains much interesting and sensitive comment on individual songs, and a mass of information on poetry, personalia, and musicological matters.

As for The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder, that may be described as a library item par excellence, a collection of over 700 German song poems with translations—more than twice as many as in previous anthologies such as Philip Miller’s The Ring of Words or S.S. Prawer’s The Penguin Book of Lieder. There are nearly 200 songs each by Schubert and Wolf, and about a hundred by Brahms and Schumann. There are also more than a hundred by German and German-speaking song composers of a conservative cast who are seldom indeed to be heard in this country: Fortner, Knab, Marx, Pepping, Pfitzner, Reger, Reutter, Schoeck, Zillig, and others. The translations (one is cited above) are of varying quality, none poorer than that given to the author’s fifteen-page introductory essay on “German Song.”

  1. 1

    Schubert, Lieder, volumes 1-3. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, and Gerald Moore, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 2720 006, 2720 022, 2720 059.

  2. 2

    The Schubert Song Cycles (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1975), p. ix.

  3. 3

    Schubert, Musik und Lyrik (Göttingen, 1967); see Die Musikforschung xxiv (1971), p. 135f, 229f.

  4. 4

    Lieder by the Litre,” New Yorker, May 29, 1974, p. 125f.

  5. 5

    Seabury Press, 1976.

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