Enchanted garden of song

A dozen of the best Schubert Lieder to take the listener beyond the three great song cycles

Music

Turning poems into precious music: Franz Schubert (1797-1828), in a lithograph by Josef Kriehuber

There is something lodged deep in the English spirit which resists the prospect of an evening spent listening to Schubert’s Lieder. Even for those who respond to the beauties of his music, the thought of all that “heavy German poetry”, combined with the generally low level of appreciation of the language itself, means that concertgoers are happier sloping off to a performance of the Unfinished Symphony or the Trout quintet than taking on board a selection of his 600 songs.

For those a little more venturesome than this, a paradoxical obstacle to full immersion in the canon is the existence of Schubert’s three song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang. It is no criticism of these marvellous works to observe that many of those who enjoy the cycles feel the need to go no further. Perhaps they know staples such as Erlkönig or Du bist die Ruh, but few individual songs beyond that.

They are missing out on a body of work to enter which is to open the low door in the wall that leads to an enchanted garden. Nowadays everyone with a computer can hear the songs on Spotify or YouTube, and the words of each poem are easily found in parallel translation on the web (at www.lieder.net). These are important, for Lieder are emphatically not an aural experience only: Schubert cared deeply about his texts, setting great poets (dozens of Goethe and Schiller settings), talented friends’ verse, and transforming baser compositions into precious music. In all cases, the listener needs to understand what each poem is saying, especially if not yet acquainted with the endearing preoccupations of German romantic poetry.

The question, however, is where to start. The companion guides, even Graham Johnson’s indispensable three-volume Wisden, don’t help here. To fill this gap, here are a dozen recommendations of songs which are wonderful in their own right, and knowledge of which might encourage further exploration. Deutsch catalogue numbers are given to avoid confusion where there are two or more songs with the same title.

Der Zwerg. It is hard to believe that this spine-chilling twilight song is not better known. The words tell a macabre story of a queen who is murdered at sea by her dwarf, for having betrayed him — with her own husband. As the dwarf strangles her with a length of red silk and then lowers her into the water, the tritones in the music give voice to the obsessive violence of his grief, self-hatred and jealousy.

Dass sie hier gewesen. This song begins in no discernible key and takes a tiny age to find its home in C major. The reason for this lies in the elusive sensuality of the words, as the poet, inspired by the model of Oriental verse, discerns the vanished presence of his beloved — from her scent on the East wind. The shifting discords suggest the elusive perfume which the poet longs to catch.

Ganymed. Out of the somewhat seedy myth of Zeus sending down an eagle to carry off the lovely Ganymede to act as his cup-bearer and so forth, Goethe fashions an exceptional poem conveying the human soul’s pantheistic longing for the divine, and Schubert captures the exultant mood of the text in a through-composed song, i.e. one where each verse is set to different music.
Die junge Nonne. This touching song describes a young nun listening to the storm outside her cell, and recalling the turmoil in her soul when she took her vows. As minor turns to major (an effect Schubert managed better than anyone), the flashes of lightning high in the piano become the tolling of the bell summoning her to prayer and to her beloved Saviour; her mind eases as she offers up rapt “Alleluias”.

Nacht und Träume
. This two-page miracle is pianissimo throughout, notoriously difficult to sing and in the unusual key of B major (with a characteristic and magical shift to a third lower, G major). It is an invocation (typical in German romanticism) of the night, and of the reality of the world of dreams to which the poet longs to return.

Die Sterne D939
. This relatively simple poem in praise of the stars sounds at first like nothing much, but the inner voices of the piano in the gently dactylic introduction are subtle and enchanting; Schubert avoids monotony by shifting every other verse into third-related keys.

An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht. A lengthy wander under the autumnal moonlit sky is promised by the sublime andante introduction, and Schubert matches the poet’s musings on his own mortality. Schumann it was who coined the reference to the older composer’s “heavenly lengths”, and this six-minute song could not without loss be a second shorter.

Der Winterabend. An old man sits indoors on a winter evening, and looks back with contentment on his life. Beautiful as the principal melody is, we learn at the end of this extended song — as his thoughts turn to his dead wife, whose presence is conjured by a descant in the piano mirroring the widower’s melodic line — that we have hitherto been listening only to half the story, which is now completed. 

Auflösung. There is something Wagnerian in this song’s ambition, a setting of a poem by Schubert’s friend Mayrhofer. The poet longs to leave the world behind and float in his exalted, ethereal vision. The climax of the song lasts only a few seconds, but seems to burst the boundaries of the possible.

Totengräbers Heimweh
. The musical trajectory described by this song is vast, as the gravedigger who longs for death confronts the strange and ecstatic transformation which it brings. The poem is third-rate at best, but Schubert redeems it utterly, conveying the protagonist’s final experiences with an irresistible immediacy.

Im Walde D708. This white-hot song is in some ways the most remarkable of all, impossible to play (and almost as hard to sing), harmonically astounding, and an inspired and unflagging setting of Schlegel’s urge to find the sources of poetic imagination in the world of nature. Real enthusiasts can download the score, through which to track the infinite and hair-raising modulations.

Wanderers Nachtlied D768.
The wonder here is how Schubert realises Goethe’s famous evening poem of matchless economy and willed resignation, to create “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything”.