Words and music in Germany and France
Few generalisations are safe, but the following one is perhaps more defensible than many others: the coming together of words and music is a Hydra-headed phenomenon, changeable from composer to composer, era to era, place to place, and it is always fraught with difficulties. Song is both natural, that is, an innate impulse (to heighten words by singing them precedes recorded history) and unnatural (words and music are two different sign-systems), and its agonistic tensions were the source of continuing debate in the later nineteenth century, especially given the commercial viability of the genre. Songs abounded: by the later decades of the century, the composer Peter Cornelius could rightly speak of an endless stream of Three Songs issuing from German music firms, while the immense girth of Ernst Challier's Grosser Lieder-Katalog (Great Song Catalogue) of 1885 testifies to the proliferation which prompted Cornelius's half-exasperated, half-rueful comment.1 He was, after all, a contributor to the floodtide, composing both song cycles (including Vater unser, Op. 2; Trauer und Trost, Op. 3; Rheinische Lieder, Op. 7; and the popular Weihnachtslieder, Op. 8) and individual songs. Whatever the assertions of singing 'as the birds sing' – so proclaims Goethe's Harper in 'Der Sänger' (The Minstrel), a ballad replete with ironies – or of folklike naïveté, the nineteenth-century lied was never unselfconscious, and by this point it had its own history to contend with as well.
In song, poetry loses its poetic structure but retains its meanings, imagistic associations, and literary pleasures and provocations, while music both insists on its self-sufficiency and is bent to poetic analogy. How these confluences and divergences were calibrated in late nineteenth-century lieder varied according to numerous factors, changeable from one composer to another. For example, song composition entails going outside a composer's bailiwick of music in order to find literary sources, and the choice of poetry speaks volumes about literary fashion and the composer's individual nature. What made so many composers from the 1820s on so attracted to Heinrich Heine's early poetry, for example? What convergence of political disillusionment, Romantic self-____________________