The origins of the Lied

The establishment of the Lied as an autonomous musical form was by far the greatest achievement of Schubert's early years. In three years of unparalleled lyrical activity he laid the foundation of both his own greatness and a vast literature of Romantic song from Schumann to Richard Strauss. With hindsight it is tempting to see this development as the inevitable result of historic tendencies, as a kind of fusion of the new poetry, with its emphasis on subjective feeling, and the growth of domestic music-making. These things no doubt played their part: in the last resort, however, music history is made not by impersonal tendencies, but by individual composers; when all is said, it was Schubert's genius, under the stimulus of Goethe's poetry, which created 'Gretchen am Spinnrade', and which was responsible for the great outpouring of song which followed.

As we have seen, his first essays in the art of song were modelled on the extended ballads of Zumsteeg ( 1760-1802). Their appeal rested on the literary taste of the age, on the fascination which the macabre and the horrific held for poets like Bürger and Schiller; and they owed more to sophisticated operatic forms than to the vernacular Lied, for they relied upon alternating sections of recitative and arioso. With this essentially episodic form Schubert managed to achieve much more than Zumsteeg had done. At its best, as in 'Leichenfantasie', it can reveal an impressive power and unity of mood. The organic unity of 'Gretchen', however, is of a quite different order.

The earliest attempts at pure song, as distinct from the sophisticated Gesang, belong to 1812. The first strophic song, 'Klaglied' (Lament) D23, may have been written in the spring of that year. Significantly perhaps, its text, by the Leipzig critic and poet J. F. Rochlitz, expressed the sadness of the rejected lover in terms strongly reminiscent of Gretchen's monologue. In September of the same year Schubert set Schiller 'Der Jüngling am Bache', which we have already noticed (see Ex. 4). It is the first modified strophic song; the outer verses are set to the same Itallanate tune, but at the emotional heart of the song, at the words which express the depth of the lover's grief, the rhythmic flow is interrupted by a kind of declamation, neither true recitative nor true arioso.


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