The art song for voice and piano—Lied, mélodie, canzone—is the poor relation of opera and oratorio, at least as far as popularity is concerned. There are legions of classical music fans who can hum every bar of La Traviata from overture to last gasp and who make attendance at Messiah sing-along concerts part of their Christmastime ritual, yet rarely or never listen to the masterworks of this low-ceiling repertoire. Operatic spectacle and the sonic boom of the “Hallelujah” chorus offer elemental excitements that a lone singer and his or her accompanist on an otherwise empty stage cannot equal.
There are enclaves, however, where the art song receives the attention it deserves. Founded in 2002, the Oxford Lieder Festival last October devoted its entire fortnight to the songs of Franz Schubert. The Schubertiade (Song Salon), in its 40th year in the small town of Hohenems, Austria, runs from May to October and features some 30 vocal recitals in honor of the provider of the feast, although it is no longer all-Schubert-all-the-time, as it was during its early years. The Liederstube, an offshoot of Chicago’s own Schubertiade, features “an intimate evening of Lieder jamming” every other Friday all year long in the Windy City.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is the genius of the place wherever Lieder are sung, and the modern Schubert-iaden take their inspiration from the informal recitals that Schubert’s friends and admirers delighted in during his lifetime, especially when the finest vocalists in Vienna would sing to Schubert’s own accompaniment. Schubert composed nine symphonies, seven masses, gorgeous chamber music, and a handful of operas that failed to cause the sensation he so desired and only one or two of which are revived as curiosities these days. But it is as the author of some 600 songs that he stands apart, presiding over a comparatively obscure but resplendent kingdom.
Schubert set over 70 poems by Goethe to music, matching genius with genius, enriching texts that were invaluable to begin with. Among the other poetic masters Schubert served were Petrarch and Shakespeare (both in German translation) and Heinrich Heine, six of whose pungent lyrics are incorporated in Schwanengesang, literally Schubert’s Swan Song, less a proper cycle than an assortment of gems strung handsomely together.
But the two song cycles that Schubert composed to poems by a writer hardly famous then, and even less familiar today, have enshrined him as the nonpareil master of the art song: In Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Maid of the Mill) and Winterreise (Winter Journey), the poetry of Wilhelm Müller finds its perfect musical rendering and Schubert finds his perfect subject. As the most celebrated 20th-century Lieder singer, the late baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, declared in Schubert’s Songs: A Biographical Study (1976),
The unpretentiousness and simplicity of Müller’s poems are matched by the simplicity of Schubert’s musical textures. His sole interest is in the depth of feeling, not in psychological over-refinements. Regret and renunciation are his themes. Dreams are the lover’s torture. . . . [T]he agony is unending before insanity breaks in.
Schubert did not look the part of the agonized artist. In appearance, he resembled no one so much as Mr. Pickwick as pictured by Phiz: roly-poly, bespectacled, emphatically ordinary, genial but quite without the markings of genius that distinguished Beethoven and Goethe, and evidently content with such simple pleasures as happened to come his way
Looks, in Schubert’s case, could not have been more deceiving: Infected with syphilis in his early 20s, he lived out his brief blighted days in physical and mental anguish, cut off from hope of a woman’s love and believing himself the unhappiest of men. And yet he poured out song, much of it joyous, sweet, and celebratory, as though he were someone else when he made music. Die schöne Müllerin, however, ends with the millstream’s address to the suicidal jilted lover who finds rest in the waters that close forever over his head, and Winterreise burns with ineradicable pain, the fleeting moments of consolation overshadowed by the prevailing desolation. For the wanderer who will never see his beloved again—she is “a rich bride,” not for such as he—but who cannot stop tormenting himself with thoughts of her, the soundest available option is to die as soon as possible. But even death cannot come soon enough.