Thirteen hundred years have passed since the birth of Western Europe’s great musical tradition. Gregorian chant, first heard in the eighth century, is mother to a miraculous offspring including motets, cantatas, sonatas, operas, concertos, and symphonies, but perhaps most miraculous, the most unlikely of all her children, is the 19th-century German “Lied,” translated literally, “song.” The life of her remarkable child spanned hardly more than a century; Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, and Richard Strauss, produced their songs and then fell silent, leaving no significant progeny.
Of course, people have been writing songs since writing came about, and people continue to do so. But the phenomenal outpouring of great music in this genre, songs generally for one voice with piano or occasionally orchestral accompaniment, is unprecedented, matchless, a miraculous phenomenon in our cultural history.
Perhaps the expanded role of the piano is its most remarkable characteristic. In earlier times, even with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Joseph Haydn, accompaniments were a relatively simple affair, hardly more than a few chords, as in folk songs. The accompaniments gave a harmonic outline to the vocal line. However, with Schubert, for example, the piano underwent a metamorphosis, becoming the hum of a spinning wheel, the rustling of a linden tree, or the chatter of a small brook.
The spiritual power of these songs lies in the concurring elements of great music, great poetry, profound subject matter, simplicity, and deep sincerity. When all these qualities were united, thoughts, visions, feelings that had seemed inexpressible, were given expression.
Songs at Their Summit
Hundreds of composers, many of them distinguished and celebrated, wrote in this idiom, but we shall consider only the greatest among them: the six Titans mentioned above. Of these, seven of their works approach the ideal of perfection, that mysterious Promised Land that no man is permitted to enter. These six composers produced approximately 3,000 songs, almost all of them set to the best German poetry, and addressing the issues that every thoughtful soul is drawn to address.
Schubert’s ‘God in Spring’
God is always present in them; he is either looking at his children, or his children are looking at—or for—him. He reveals himself in the beauty and power of nature, as one hears in Schubert’s “God in Spring.”
“In his shimmering garments, You have sent us the Spring and set a crown of roses ‘round his head.’” Its beauty fills the poet, makes God the more apparent to him: “I will raise my song to the author of creation as long as I have my being.”
Schubert’s beautiful melody is supported by an accompaniment reminiscent of a harp, evoking the spirit of the Greek poet Anacreon, whose style Uz greatly admired.
Beethoven’s ‘New Love, New Life’
God’s presence is even found in the awakening of love of a young man for his mate. If it is true love, it is born of the spirit. Goethe, in his autobiography “Poetry and Truth” writes:
“The first propensities of love in an uncorrupted youth take altogether a spiritual direction. Nature seems to desire that one sex may by the senses perceive goodness and beauty in the other.”
In Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s “New Love, New Life,” a youth asks himself, “Heart, my heart, are you in the bonds of this young blossom, her lovely form, her faithfulness, her goodness, so infinitely powerful?”
This rare confluence of genius in word and music makes palpable the power of love that has coursed through all of us, with its attendant fear, its exhilaration, and hope. It is as close a reflection of it as can be found in any work of art.
Robert Schumann’s ‘Silent Tears’
Just as in the extremes of joy, God is most apparent in the extremes of sorrow. One recalls Goethe’s phrase from in “Meister’s Apprenticeship”: “He who has not eaten his bread with tears, who has not sat weeping at his bed in the sorrowful night, knows you not, ye mighty powers.” One grasps this truth in Robert Schumann’s “Stille Thränen,” (“Silent Tears”).
The words of Justinus Kerner set to Schumann’s music unite the outer reaches of sorrow with the outer reaches of beauty.
“You have risen from sleep and wander through the fields; heaven, wondrous blue, lies over all the land. While you have slept, free of sorrow and care, the heavens, until morning, have poured out their tears. In the silence of night many have wept in pain, and in the morning say that all is well with their hearts.”
French baritone Stéphane Degout has performed the work in a live concert in Paris—a fortuitous and remarkable event. The artist is at his zenith just now, and this listener knows of no other at present that conveys such depth of feeling, technical mastery, and sheer humanity. If any singer today deserves the title “great,” it is Stéphane Degout.
Brahms’s ‘Moonlit Night’
Clarity comes when sheer happiness visits us as well; happiness is not always a matter of clamor or fanfare, nor is it limited to the transports of romance. Its roots lie deeper than that.
Brahms’s setting of Joseph von Eichendorff’s lyric “Moonlit Night” addresses a higher meaning. A man looks into the sky and absorbs its beauty and peace:
“It seems as if the heavens have quietly kissed the earth. … The air passes over the fields, the wheat fields gently move. Trees rustle quietly in the star-clear night … and my soul spread wide its wings, flew through the silent expanses as if it were flying home.”
Beauty and peace! Mankind is thirsty, starved for them, and when they come, they nourish him and direct him to a better, higher place—heaven—his home.
Wolf’s ‘On a Walk’
Perhaps the two emotional extremities, joy and sorrow, are superseded by another, still more profound element: the sense of wonder. “The highest that man can attain,” said Goethe in his autobiography, “is wonder; … if the primary Phenomenon causes this, let him be satisfied; more it cannot bring; and he should forbear to seek for anything further behind it: Here is the limit.”
Wonder often comes unbidden and unexpected. Under a confluence of circumstances the world, existence, seems to show itself in a marvelous light. Eichendorff describes such a beautiful moment, this time at sunset.
The singer is in a small village. The streets are bathed in light. He hears church bells and a beautiful voice singing from an open window; he sees an abundance of radiant flowers. “Long I stood, astonished, struck with joy. … Oh Muse! You have touched my heart with love’s gentle breath,” he wrote.
Perhaps these lines remind us that Homer evokes the Muse in the opening lines of the Odyssey, and it was Milton’s “heavenly Muse” that “sang to the sages.”
The End of an Era
With the exception of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” the Muse took her leave of the German Lied during the opening years of the 20th century. Inspiration had vanished. Poets foresaw what scholars and political figures were blind to: Western civilization was in crisis and deadly trials lay ahead, when science would take precedence over the human heart, and all spiritual virtues would be abandoned.
In “Dover Beach,” the English poet Matthew Arnold wrote:
“The Sea of Faith/ was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore/ lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear/ its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/ retreating, to the breath/ of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear/ and naked shingles of the world.”
Strauss’s ‘Winter Vow’
In the manner of a simple folk song, Richard Strauss set words by Karl Henckell, who felt the same foreboding. In his “Winter Vow,” Strauss offers the ageless, and only recourse humankind has ever had in times of trouble:
“In these winter days, now that the light has dimmed, let us bear in our hearts what fills us with inner light … let us say to one another in our solitude, day and night, we pledge blessed love.”
The historical winter Henckell and Arnold foresaw has come and passed. We are now in the midst of yet another winter with its storms of lies and violence, its denials of faith and tradition. Our recourse remains the same.
All translations, except those of Goethe, are by the author.