Follow the Lieder

Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert; drawing by David Levine

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…

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