German Lied


German Lied:

The Foundation of German Romanticism


By Sara Hartley Llewellyn (nee. Frister)

March 2000



Romanticism and the poetry from which it sprang made possible the development of the great Leider of Schubert, Wolf, Mahler and the great song writers of their time.  Contributing factors to the development of this intimate musical genre include the more expressive capabilities f the piano and a particularly suitable social climate.  The result was an art form that could not have developed in any other setting, and influenced the direction in which Austrian and German music progressed fo ran entire century.

“Sehnsucht”, a yearning for God, nature, the infinite, and the beyond is the core German Romanticism.  This movement encompassed themes of escape, oneness with nature, a connection to the “common people”, and the exotic.  Drinking of opium became popular, an ideal of free will and individuality was stressed, and the uncontrolled, odd, insane, and irrational were praised.  In short, promoters of this movement were not afraid to touch the side of humanity that those in the Classical era would not.

This aesthetic philosophy that flourished in the nineteenth century can most easily be witnessed by comparing the visual art of the Classical era and that of nineteenth century Romanticism.  In the paintings of Jean-Honore Fragonard, who painted in the Classical style during the second half of the eighteenth century, we can see the very typical balance, proportion, and elegance that was so ingrained in the Classical aesthetic.[1] (fig 1 & 2)  In Fragonard’s paintings we can see the cultivated, tame side of humanity and nature in which people are central and in control.  Many artists of the nineteenth century, in contrast, broke away from these ideals.  The paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner, a prominent English painter of the Romantic era, depict a great shift in aesthetic importance from balance and human control to the power of nature with mankind at the mercy of powers greater than himself.[2] (fig 3 & 4)  In the Romantic we see a harsh, untamed beauty in which humans are no longer the focus, but objects of emotion and yearning, and victims of forces beyond their control.

The Romantic era began with the poetry of the the Sturm und Drang literary movement, which can be traced back to poets such as Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger and Gottlieb Klopstock as early as the middle of the eighteenth century.[3]  The Sturm und Drag movement, which translated literally means “Storm and Stress”, swept through Germany and Austria, and promoted identification with feeling and intuition over reason, order, and polished elegance.  Other poets who helped to encourage the movement include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Joseph von Eichendorff, Friedrich Ruchert, and Eduard Moricke.  They wrote to themes of nature, night, longing, moonlight, fantasy and magic.

Goethe was one of the most influential and prolific contributors to this poetic movement, and is often said to be the Shakespeare of German literature.  Like any great artist, many factors contributed to his extreme versatility and immense contribution to poetry and the world.  He was born a contemporary of Mozart, in Frankfurt, Germany, on August 28, 1749.  His father was a lawyer and state councilor, and his mother was only 18 when he was born.  Goethe and his sister were taught at home by their father and private tutors.

Goethe grew up in a time of great political change.[4]  The Seven Years’ War, which lasted from 1756 to 1763, established Prussian power and shook Europe.  In 1765, when he was sixteen, Goethe entered the University of Leipzig to study law.  I 1771, he was awarded a doctor of law degree from the University of Strasbourg.

In 1773 his drama Goetz von Berlichingen was published, and the following year he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther.  Both works were strongly influenced by the Sturm und Drang literary movement.  The Sorrows of Young Werther made Goethe well known throughout Europe.

In 1774 Goethe moved away from Literature for some time when he met the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, who wanted someone to restore order to his state affairs.  Goethe was made his minister of state, and for the next 11 years the writer focused on practical issues.  He became an expert in taxation, industrial management, farming and mining.  During his time with the duke Goethe wrote very little.  After just over a decade of this he wanted to return to literature so he asked the duke for a release.

Goethe left for Italy, where he stayed from 1786 to 1788, despite the duke’s order for him to remain in Weimar.  Goethe thought of his Italian trip as the most important time in his life.  Goethe eventually returned to live in Weimar, but only as an adviser to Karl August.  He later became the director of the duke’s court theatre. Goethe’s diverse interests helped to make Weimar the cultural and intellectual centre of Germany.

Goethe decided the Sturm und Drang movement had gone too far, and he found the order and restraint that guided his work for the rest of his life in the classic art and architecture of Italy.  He became conservative but never reactionary.  In fact, in his life Goethe embodied the true Renaissance man.  He was not only a lawyer and politician by profession, but also a botanist, zoologist, geologist, physicist, painter and actor, but of course a writer.

Although Goethe was not a musician himself, he had a profound influence on music.  His poetry was intended to be set to music, and he sought to create a perfect balance between music an poetry.  When writing he often used a parody method to create singable lines.  This meant putting new texts with old tunes.  For this he sed German foldsongs, Lutheran chorales, and parodied lyrics from English and Italian authors.  Regarding the Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1804 based on Reichardt’s setting of “Tu sei quell dolce fuoco”, Sciller, the esteemed critic once wrote, “Goethe wants to edit an almanac of songs…fashioned to well-known popular melodies… these lyrics are excellent…they elevate the melodies and fit them even better than the original texts”.[5]

Goethe was able to write very quickly, but this does not mean that the process was always quick and simple.  The first draft of his greatest work, Faust, was completed before his move to Weimar in 1775 at the age of 26.  The work was not truly completed, however, until 1831, when Goethe was 82 years old.  Part of the reason for his great delay may have been influenced by Mozart’s death.  Apparently the poet was very disappointed at the great composer’s demise, believing that only Mozart could have put Faust to music.

According to Goethe, his work is intensely autobiographical.[6]  He once stated that his writings are “fragments of a great confession”.  Goethe’s is an extensive confession.  Having written about 200 books including plays, novels poetry, science and travel documents, and his poetry having been set to music over 3000 times, there is little doubt that he is indeed the Shakespeare of German literature.

The form and dramatic content of the Sturm und Drang poetry, especially that of Goethe, lent itself perfectly to song.  The term ‘Lied’ (plural Lieder), which is most simply translated from German to mean “song”, takes on a stronger definition in the Romantic era.  The birthday of Lied is said to be October 14, 1814, the day Schubert composed Gretchen am Spinnrade.  Schubert’s Lieder revolutionized song composition, influencing German composers such as Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Mahler who shaped what came to be known as High Romantic Lied.

There are a number of contributing factors that made possible the evolution of this highly developed new song genre.  Poetry is the most obvious influence, but a particularly suitable social climate and the more expressive capabilities of the piano gave composers new tools with which to sharpen their craft.

By the end of the eighteenth century the piano had replaced the clavichord and harpsichord and, in Lieder, the piano assumed equal footing with the voice.  Consequently, the piano became a common item in the homes of a growing upper middle class, and a tradition of domestic music making was established.  Viennese women were encouraged to pursue cultural activities.  Singing, playing the piano, painting and drawing were seen as suitable activities for “cultured” young ladies.  More intimate musical performances developed, in which amateur musicians performed in intimate settings, such as the salon, for close acquaintances.  This trend opened up a broad and profitable market for printed keyboard music and song.

The musical world is fortunate not only because Franz Schubert lived in Austria at this time when conditions for creating his art were prime, but he also contained the insight and genius to create something fresh and new that composers after him couldn’t help but learn from.  Even in his early work, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Schubert portrays the spinning wheel figure in the piano, giving the song a dramatic unity.  Varying moods in the poetry are portrayed with astonishing vividness, and we can already see a wide and imaginative range f modulation, which became a marked feature throughout Schubert’s career.

Lied, as Schubert redefined it, was now fifty-percent lyrical poetry and fifty-percent music, with the piano playing an equal role to the singer.  Goethe had made a great impact on Schubert at the early age of eighteen, and Schubert used this poetry as a stringboard for the rest of his compositional life.  In this short life, Schubert wrote over 600 songs set to the poetry of about ninety poets.

In 1815, the year after composition of Gretchen am Spinnrade, Schubert set the greatest number of Goethe’s texts to song. This was a great year for composition for Schubert.  Among these settings was the Elkönig.  This text was put to music by many composers, although none as successfully as Schubert.  It is set easily due to a consistent rhyme scheme, and through composed couplets. (fig 5)

The drama of this narrative ballad poem by Goethe is built around the horseback ride of a father with his young son in his arms, traveling home through the forest.  They are accosted by the demonic Elf-king, a mythical fairy whom, although unseen by the father, tries to tempt the boy to the after-world.  The Elf-king succeeds in frightening the young boy to death and we are left with the sad regret of lost youth.  A narrator states the first and last of the eight stanzas, book-ending the drama.

Like Gretchen am Spinnrade, Schubert unified this narrative ballad with a figure that underlies the poem in the piano.  In the Elkönig this figure is a driving triplet figure that mimics the galloping of the horse.  The piano also provides a maniacal landler dance figure in the third stanza that accents the Elf-king’s sweet, sinister vocal phrases.

Although we generally view lyrical beauty as Schubert’s finest compositional quality, the most striking elements of his earlier songs are harmonic rather than melodic. (fig 6) This is particularly impressive because, although he was a pianist, at the time of the composition of this work he did not have access to a piano.  This entire Lied is in the key of E minor with a brief modulation to G major while the Elf-king lilts his tempting invitations.  A very convincing harmonic digression ensues during the boy’s struggle until the Elf-king’s inevitable victory in E minor.

The Fin de Siecle is a movement marked by pessimism that took place at the end of the nineteenth century.  Two German terms that personify the affect of this time are Uberdruss, meaning “over stress”, and Weltschmerz, “the pain of the world”.  Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler were born into this environment, and it materialized itself in distinct ways in their music.

Wolf composed about 250 songs in his lifetime.  He understood and was influenced by Wagner’s new declamatory style, but despite Wagner’s profound influence on his music, Wolf was one of the last composers of the Romantic era to compose in a smaller form most fitting to the intimate performance.  Wolf was interested in creating a sophisticated urban art song worthy of Wagner.  Hypersensitive to text, he referred to his songs as “poems of the voice and piano”.  The well known coach-pianist Martin Katz once stated that:

Wolf’s name on a program strikes simultaneous chords of joy and terror in an accompanist.  Joy, because of Wolf’s ability to synthesize music an text in a way that allows both to emerge, not merely uncorrupted, but enhanced.  Terror, because, if one is thorough, the technical execution of even his simplest measures is a formidable task…”[7]

Wolf composed most of his songs within a very brief time span, between 1888 and 1891.  His most prolific period, in 1888, is now referred to as his “year of song”.  Between February and October of this year he composed his set of fifty-three songs based on the texts of Eduard Moricke.  These Lieder, which contain some of his most well known songs, are known as the Morike Lieder.  Morike’s poems are based on images of nature, as well as contrasting darker side of character.  These texts provided Wolf with a wide range of subjects from which to draw.  Since he did not like to set poetry that had been set by composers before him, Wolf had much to work with in Morike’s poetry, which had been neglected by other Romantic composers.

One of the first written of these Morike Lieder is Nimmersatte Liebe (Unsatisfied Love).  It is based on the very “sehnsucht” proclamation of passionate appetite unsatisfied, “We bit our lip until they bled”. (fig 7)  It is organized into two strophes, to which Wolf added a playful student song, in the form of a third mini-strophe.  Morike’s text, like Goethe’s, is easily set to music due to a regular poetic rhyme scheme of ABABCCB in iambic tetrameter.  Wolf’s setting is syllabic, which is common in the German and Austrian Lieder of his time.

In an ABA’ form, Wolf used off beat chromaticism, sequencing of motives, syncopated suspensions, and augmented chords to paint this erotic text. (fig 8)  The chordal accompaniment is rhythmically syncopated against the vocal part to give us a sense of unsettled longing.  All of these effects succeed in playfully exploring the rich text.

Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler were born in the same year and, despite a mutual admiration for the music of Wagner and Bruckner, their music can be seen moving in distinctly different directions.  Mahler wrote considerably fewer Lieder than Schubert and Wolf, less than fifty songs, but they are important none the less.  Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) is one of the first orchestral song cycles to begin moving Lieder out of the intimate setting of the salon into the concert hall, although much of his earliest Lieder are written for just voice and piano.  His song writing periods fall rather neatly into three groups.  In the first, from about 1880 to 1885, Mahler wrote three books of Lieder und Gesange aus der Jungendzeit for voice and piano, as well as the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  In his second song period, 1889-1899, he wrote fourteen settings of Wunderhorn texts with orchestra.  His final song period featured his Kindertotenlieder for voice and orchestra and the Ruckert-Lieder.

Texts from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn anthology, which Mahler discovered when he was in his early twenties, became an important point of inspiration throughout most of his compositional career.  This famous collection of ballads and folk songs from about 1509 were collected by Ludwig Archim von Arnim and Klemens Brentano, and were published at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  He set a total of twenty-four of these texts, some of which proved to inspire his symphonic writing.

Mahler composed his songs from primarily two sides of his personality.  The first is of the Viennese Angst and Weltschmerz, revealing the dark, anxious side.  The second is the carefree, folksy style from which most of his Wunderhorn settings come.  “Mahler’s unique power as a composer lies in his ability to catch the essence of the sounds of man and nature, and to transmute it into purely musical terms.”[8]  He composed texts as though the belonged to the present moment, not as fold-tune quotations.

Ich ging mit Lust durch einen gurnen Wald is one of Mahler’s songs from his first set, Lieder und Gesange aus der Jugendzeit.  This Lied is from the carefree, gentler side that Mahler occasionally wrote.  “I walked, full of joy, through a green wood” is a narrative dialog set primarily syllabically, with some pneumatic passages. (fig 9)  It is told from the first person in a clever narrative style in four stanzas.

This “Traumerisch” lullaby is based on a very triadic melody in an AA’BA” form. (fig 10)  Mahler paints this nature text with great vividness with birdsong imitations after each phrase, a drone bass line, and a few appoggiaturas.  He also extends the musical line through text repetition, stressing more important text portrayals.

Mahler sets this text in a harmonically straightforward manner.  He often uses a common I-IV-V progression, with a IV9 chord at bar 18.  The song is in D major with the B section in G major, possibly intentionally (and maybe not so pointedly) in the IV that Mahler seems so fond of.  All of these aspects of the text and music result in an honest, intimate, completely unified depiction.

Lied declined as a genre in the twentieth century. After Mahler, composers began to explore vocal music within the context of other genres, and the many twentieth century ‘isms replaced old forms and musical classifications.  Even these new forms, however, were inevitably influenced by the developments of Schubert and the composers of the High Romantic Era.


[1] National Gallery of Art: The Collection, web page.

[2] Ibid, web page.

[3] Lorraine Gorrell, The Nineteenth-Century German Lied (Portland: Amdeus Press, 1995), pp. 37-38.

[4] Chris Nordhougen and Alan Wrozek, Goethe Central (50, 1999), web page.

[5] Ibid, web page.

[6] Ibid, web page.

[7] Carol Kimball, Song: A Guide to Style and Literature (Seattle: Pst…Inc., 1996), p.117.

[8] Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Teldec 244 923-2), CD notes.


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