When Poetry Sings, and Composer Becomes Poet

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for a recital of German art songs by Beethoven and Schubert performed by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Mitsuko Uchida.

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It's often said that instrumental music holds the capacity to express the inexpressible. The truth of that maxim is undeniable — works like Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Bach's Chaconne for solo violin, and Barber's Adagio for Strings move listeners because they connect us to untold feelings of the sublime, the universal. But does this logic also imply that words lessen music’s emotional potency?

 

That was the debate brewing in Vienna at the dawn of the 19th century. Critics like Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann mused that while instrumental music lifts listeners to a cosmic plane of being, music for voice — since it’s inherently subordinate to its text — leaves us earthbound, tethered to the mundane experience of human emotions.

 

That musical hierarchy was about to undergo a massive change, however, thanks to two developments: the rapid proliferation of German poetry and the rise of domestic music making at the end of the 18th century. With composers running in the same social circles as poets, and the fire of artistic inspiration and collaboration heating the cafes and salons of Vienna, a new vision for German song emerged — one that saw the form’s distinctive ability to speak from the heart as its superpower.

 

And so the tradition of the folk song, or Volkslied — settings of simple strophic poetry in an unadorned musical style — was transformed into the German art song, or deutsches Kunstlied — an equal marriage of music and poetry that would ultimately attain pride of place alongside the symphony, sonata, and string quartet.

 

The program Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida present this afternoon shows just how quick that transformation was. Only twelve years separate Beethoven composing one of the first German song cycles, An die ferne Geliebte, and Schubert writing what would become the Schwanengesang, his final statement in the artform he brought to maturity.

Although Beethoven isn’t often thought of as a composer of song, he did work to leave his revolutionary mark on the lied. Many of those efforts are early songs that weren't blessed with an opus number, but there's no denying the elegant beauty of "An die Hoffnung" or "Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel," which quietly explore the same ideas of Fate and struggle he addressed in his instrumental works.

 

But in 1816, Beethoven changed course. Instead of working with individual songs, he assembled a set of poems centered around a single narrative he could weave throughout a larger work. Thus was born An die ferne Geliebte, the first notable Liederkreis (song cycle) in German music: six songs so interwoven in musical form and poetic setting as to make it impossible to extract any one of them from their brethren.

 

Beethoven's conduit for that integration was the piano, whose part he made far more complex than the simple accompaniment it usually provided in a folk song. It's those periods of connection between songs where the piano, alone, offers poignant moments of reflection.

 

In keeping with the poetic style of the Volkslied, An die ferne Geliebte doesn't showcase the work of Goethe or Schiller — the towering literary figures of the day, whose poems were regularly used for lieder settings (including Schubert’s legendary "Erlkönig" and "Gretchen am Spinnrade"). Beethoven instead chose to set the humble poetry of Alois Jeitteles, a Viennese physician who dabbled in writing. The words are simple and unadorned, centered on the early Romantic themes of distant longing and spiritual communion with nature.

 

An die ferne Geliebte was a testament to the possibilities of the song cycle, and it inspired Schubert immensely. Over the next decade, he would compose two cycles on the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, before embarking on the lieder that would form the Schwanengesang. Assembled by Schubert's brother and publisher after his death in 1828, Schwanengesang isn't one song cycle per se, but two: the first, a setting of seven poems by Ludwig Rellstab; and the second, featuring six by Heinrich Heine. One additional song with a text by Johann Gabriel Seidl, "Die Taubenpost," was tacked on at the end to provide musical symmetry. Together they form the Frankenstein's monster of German lieder.

Like Beethoven, Schubert didn’t limit himself to the titans of German poetry. Among those lesser-known writers Schubert explored was Rellstab, whose poems Beethoven had also once considered setting. In both character and story, Schubert's seven Rellstab songs occupy the same world of distant lovers as Beethoven's quintessentially Romantic cycle.

 

The six poems of Heine are far more turbulent, filled with the feverish obsession with loss, isolation, and love bitterly denied that would make Heine one of the most significant writers of his time. The psychological torment that runs through these poems triggered radical new musical ideas for Schubert — especially in his piano writing, in which he evokes everything from the hollow creep of a phantom figure in "Der Doppelgänger" to the heaven-storming wails of woe in "Der Atlas." 

 

It's in these Heine songs that we get a glimpse of where Schubert wanted to go next — paths ultimately left to future generations to travel. They look ahead to the amorphous, serpentine tonalities that would become the hallmark of late German Romanticism at the beginning of the 20th century, a through line formed between the primal screams in "Der Atlas" and "Der Doppelgänger" and the expressionist nightmares endured by the title characters in Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu, composed nearly 100 years later.

 

Though we'll never know what innovations Schubert would have brought to his songs had he not died so young, we can be eternally grateful for all Schubert did to advance the German lied — merging poetry and music to manifest an altogether new art form. One that, in the words of the famed lieder singer Lotte Lehmann, "[welds] words and music with equal feeling into one whole, so that the poet sings and the composer becomes poet, and two arts are born anew as one." 

 

And when those two arts act as one, as will happen this afternoon in Reinberger Chamber Hall, German lieder brings us closer to understanding the universal emotions of our shared human experience — not by reaching out towards the cosmos, but by looking within, to the workings of our own hearts.