What is Schubert Lieder?
Lieder is the plural of lied, or “song” in German, and this term is used to describe the type of songs that were written mostly in the early 19th century by German composers. While individual songs – not parts of operas, oratorios or cantatas – had been written since the mid-18th century, it was only when Franz Schubert (January 31, 1797 – November 19, 1828) began composing his songs that the genre took form. The word “lieder” is often translated as “art song” in English, but these songs are anything but “arty.” If anything, they are closer to the folk traditions of their time.
Beyond the fact that these songs were for single voice (generally) and piano, they also bore certain characteristics. They were based on poems, and not on religious texts; they were written for domestic use, being sung in homes and salons; they were based on the idea of personal expressivity; and they often recalled folk melodies. (Some lieder would be performed with orchestra, but much later. Mahler’s lieder is a good example of this.)
The first collection of lieder was published in 1753 under the title Oden mit Melodien (Odes with Melodies). Composers such as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven composed a handful of lieder each, but never focussed much on the genre. Schubert was the first composer to take this form to its limits. There are many reasons for this, some of them social. Schubert’s Vienna was a period when music was performed in homes, in small, personal gatherings, and the lied was the ideal form for such venues. But Schubert also had an affinity with this form, and the songs flowed from his pen with astounding prolificacy. In Schubert’s lieder, the music is carefully matched to the lyrics, with some songs being strophic (where the music repeats with each verse) and others being through-composed (where the music changes for each verse).
Schubert’s first lied was written in 1810, and for the next few years, he wrote about two dozen songs. In 1814, however, the spigot opened, and he composed 24 songs in that year (remember, Schubert was only 17), an astounding 142 songs in 1815, and another 112 in 1816. His output would slow down after that, composing an average of about two dozen songs a year until his death in 1828. (The only exception was 1824, when he wrote only six songs.)
Schubert also pioneered the song cycle, a collection of songs meant to be performed in a certain order, that tells a story. His three song cycles – Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang – contain some of his finest lieder.
Because of this huge body of work – more than 600 songs for solo voice and piano, and many more for two, three or four voices – Schubert is the most important composer of lieder, though other composers would follow in his footsteps, notably Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, and Johannes Brahms. Lieder would remain an essentially German form; while other countries did have traditions of solo songs – notably France, and even England in the Elizabethan era (John Dowland, among others), the form seemed to fit the German language, the musical style of the time, and the themes that were popular in German Romanticism.