In this lesson, you’ll learn about Lieder, a genre of German songs originally designed for home entertainment.
You’ll learn about how the Lied developed, and who some of its greatest composers were.
Chamber Music & Lieder
Today, when people want to enjoy entertainment together at home, they generally gather around the TV to stream some Netflix or to catch a sports broadcast. In the 19th century, people used a different kind of technology for home entertainment: the piano.
With its large range of notes, a piano could produce a huge variety of music, and it was great for accompanying singers. People loved to use the piano and the voice to share stories as dramatic, enthralling, funny, or suspenseful as an episode of your favorite TV series.Because these songs were designed to be performed in small rooms rather than auditoriums, they are part of a musical genre called chamber music, or music to be performed by a small number of players in a small venue.
When chamber music is written for a singer and a pianist, it is called an art song. There was a great demand for art songs throughout Europe and the United States during the 19th century, and composers produced a vast repertoire for the flourishing home market.Because the art song gained extra popularity in German-speaking areas, we have a special name for a German-language art song.
We call it a Lied, which is simply a German word for ‘song,’ and its plural form is Lieder. Both words use a capital L because in German, all nouns are capitalized.
The genre of piano-and-voice Lieder began to develop with 18th-century composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though Mozart focused on concert works, like symphonies, for much of his career, he also wrote Lieder, like his delightful little song ‘The Violet’. It tells the goofy mock-tragic story of a flower who falls in love with a shepherdess, only to be accidentally stepped on; a reflection on how embarrassing an unrequited crush can be.Ludwig van Beethoven was a revolutionary composer who brought new dramatic power to old musical genres and helped usher in a new era in music, called the Romantic Era, which lasted from about 1815-1910. Romantic music emphasized personal emotion and dramatic storytelling, and the Lied would become a perfect vehicle for that kind of expression.
Beethoven helped jumpstart the Lied trend with his song cycle about a long-distance relationship, Of the Faraway Beloved. A song cycle is a series of art songs that are meant to be sung in a series, often creating a large-scale narrative. In other words, a Lied published by itself is like a recorded song released as a single and a song cycle is like an entire album.
After Beethoven showed the potential of song cycles with Of the Faraway Beloved, many 19th-century composers jumped on the bandwagon to tell deeper stories with Lieder.
The Master of Lieder: Franz Schubert
The composer most famous for writing Lieder is Franz Schubert. You might say that Schubert mastered the Lied the way Shakespeare mastered the sonnet.
Schubert wrote approximately 600 Lieder during his short lifetime, including song cycles as well as stand-alone songs.One of Schubert’s most famous Lieder is ‘The Elf King’. Using words by the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘The Elf King’ tells a terrifying story of a father riding desperately through the forest to bring his dying son to safety, while the Elf King tries to snatch the child away, whispering in a voice only the boy can hear.
In this song, Schubert uses vocal range and other techniques to express four separate characters through the voice of one singer, all the while maintaining the suspense of a desperate nighttime gallop through the driving piano accompaniment. ‘The Elf King’ packs the emotional punch of a fantasy film with just one singer and one piano.
Lied Composers of the Romantic Era
After Schubert’s career brought the Lied to new heights, many other composers added great works to the genre. Robert Schumann wrote the powerful song cycle A Poet’s Love to express his star-crossed feelings for the brilliant young pianist Clara Wieck. Clara and Robert struggled against the objections of Clara’s father before they were finally able to marry, and Clara Wieck Schumann also composed wonderful Lieder drawing on their experience.
Her ‘The Moon Rises Quietly’ expresses the thoughts of a lonely woman who looks longingly across the valley to glimpse the lights in her sweetheart’s window.Later Romantic Lied composers include Johannes Brahms, who is known for his serious, thoughtful settings of German poetry. While composers like Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler brought increasing intensity to Lieder by using more dissonant, complicated harmonies than earlier composers.
One result of their experimentation is that the Lied began to evolve from a genre written for home performances, to a challenging repertoire suitable for professional singers. Mahler even wrote song cycles for a singer and orchestra, like his famous ‘Song of the Earth’, a massive musical journey that brought the Lied far away from its origin as domestic music. From the 20th century to today, composers continue to write Lieder. But unlike the world of the 19th century, you are now more likely to hear Lieder in professional song recitals than in private homes.
A Lied is a German-language art song for voice and piano. Like all art songs, it’s a variety of chamber music, or music performed in intimate settings. The genre of Lieder is primarily associated with the 19th century and the Romantic Era, and it was originally intended as music for entertainment in the home. Composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mahler have contributed to the Lied repertoire, writing both stand-alone Lieder and groups of Lieder called song cycles.