Poem and Music in the German Lied from Gluck to Wolf by Jack M. Stein

Harvard University Press/Oxford



A famous aesthetician once said that in the lied form the poem as a poem is swallowed by the music and disappears into the song. If so, the present study tells the inside story. It is written from the point of view of the poem “in the conviction that this change of direction provides new insights”, as Jonah might have said to the whale. This is a previous conviction; first recorded in the Publications of the Modern Language Association (1962). Then as now, Mr Stein was a Professor of German. Hence perhaps his belief that lied composers can sensibly be put in the same class as students of literature; “interpreting” set poems, having their work examined and marked, and being awarded a degree of success - all on the thesis that successful interpretation of the poem is a significant criterion of the song­writer's art.

     The introduction offers the same ideas as before, often in the same words. There follow chapters on the problems of combining poem and music; the lied before Schubert; and on Schumann, Brahms and Wolf as well as Schubert himself. Of the total 200 pages; some 43 are occupied with admirably-presented musical illustrations. From the German chair, the lied appears at an unusual angle. Thus the successful candidate Gluck is highly commended for his Klopstock settings. Beethoven also showed promise; but the prizemen are Zelter and Reichardt. However, a linguistic analysis of the lied surely calls for more faculties than one. The philosopher already quoted, Mrs Susanne K. Langer, had arguably already demolished in 1953 (Feeling and Form, chap.x) the hypothesis constructed in 1962. Consultation at an earlier stage might have been useful. Similarly the Harvard musicians would hardly have, passed e.g. the description (p.38) of Reichardt's stereotyped flat supertonic in D minor as “an abrupt modulation to E flat major”, which is then hailed as “a striking parallel” to Mignon's “es schwindelt mir” [see ex., CSES].

     But at least such judgments prepare us for the wrath to come. It appears that the leaders of the lied may give us delight but won't take their DLitt. For a start, they all waste far too much time on verses which don't even offer a point of view from which to consider the song. The result is a study of the lied which dismisses (e.g.) Die Winterreise and ignores (e.g.) the Italienisches Liederbuch. Wilhelm Müller (Heine's admired master) and Paul Heyse (a Nobel laureate) are not required reading. This certainly reduces the book to modest proportions; but there is still in every sense a heavy price to pay. In the four substantive chapters on Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf about 300 songs are mentioned, some very briefly, out of a possible 1350; and only about 100 are given a place without any reservation. More precisely - of Schubert's 600+, less than 10% qualify for examination at all, and only about 3 % pass. Brahms (200) does better, with 25% and 5%. Joint winners are Schumann (250) and Wolf (300), each with 33 % and 10 %. The claim is that this approach can bring us “a good deal closer to experiencing 19th-century song as the composers intended”. But in this survey of the stars of song, the binoculars look more like blinkers.

     One typical observation can fairly illustrate the entire book. Der Tod und das Mädchen was thought by many to be among the highest flight of the lied, until Professor Stein gave it both barrels. The poem, he contends, contains erotic elements which Schubert failed to express. So “the song is in fact [sic] a superficial, one-dimensional reading of a poem that communicates various levels of meaning simultaneously”. This begs the same bookful of questions as in 1962. Do poems really have identifiable conceptual content of this kind? Can music not only express but communicate meaning on any level, let alone on several? But let us make these largish assumptions. Then Schubert stands charged in that he failed to interpret the poem properly, lo wit, improperly. One defence is that Schubert, of all people, never missed anything erotic. I expect he often wished he had, poor fellow. He was practically an erogenous zone in his own person, and a torrid one at that. Any hint of sensuality in a poem would natur­ally impregnate his music. And if Professor Stein could have brought himself to study songs with words by Müller, or Rellstab, or Seidl, one obvious example would have leapt instantly and pleasurably to his mind: namely the contentedly feline stretch and cori from D minor into D major in Gute Nacht, Ständchen or Sehnsucht as the music turns to thoughts of women and night and sleep. Perhaps we can infer from the analogous strains in Der Tod und das Mädchen. that easeful Death is himself already half in love. If so, then whose is the superficial; one-dimensional reading? Not Schubert's.

     It seems to me that many other similar criticisms could also be explained by a misunderstanding, though not of the poem by the composer. Another rejoinder to the charge of indifferent interpretation, e.g. in all Schubert's Heine settings and most of Schumann's, might be that music has no clear equivalent for irony. If so, we must either have Heine's heavy sentiment (the inevitable obverse) or nothing; and in almost all the 35 misinterpretations mooted, the music seems to me so toweringly superior to the poem that even in Professor Stein's own terms the criticism can hardly be said to arise. In any event I think there is an even more basic objection to the practice of dividing the lied into a tiny minority which can be appraised and praised in terms of the poem, and a vast majority which cannot. Self­evidently, it is not the lied as such that is being discussed and studied, but only an arbitrary and atypical sub-set.

     And that is a great pity; for in most ancillary respects the work is excellently done. In particular the bibliography and the general scholarship set a high standard. If only the texts of the songs could have been con­sidered simply as words, which they plainly are, and not as literature, which they equally plainly are not, we might well have had a very considerable critical achievement indeed. As it is, the new point of view looks to me more like an old blind spot; and one that is not merely misleading but lied-missing.


The Musical Times, Feb. 1973 (pp. 146-147) © the estate of eric sams