Art Songs

\begin{array}{l l} \text{Parlo d'amor vegliando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I am doing,} \\ \text{Parlo d'amor sognando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I'm pursuing,} \\ \text{All' acqua, all' ombra, ai monti,} & \text{In sunshine or in showers,} \\ \text{Ai fiori, all' erbe, ai fonti, ...} & \text{At home or midst the flowers, ...} \\ \text{All' ecco---all' aria---a venti,} & \text{I sigh---I pant---I languish,} \\ \text{Che il suon de vani accenti, ...} & \text{In bliss that throbs like anguish, ...} \\ \end{array}

Sung by the pubescent, flirtatious Cherubino (he’s played by a soprano), these words are notable for their arresting meter and rhyme, the heavenly beauty of their melody, and, well, their humor. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro—recently performed fantastically by the Peabody Opera Theater—presents such an explosive combination of theatricality, musicality, and hilarity as to make Mozart come across as a supernatural genius.

Only later did I learn that Mozart did not work alone [1]. The Felix Krull-esque French man-of-the-world Pierre Beaumarchais originally wrote the French play Le Mariage de Figaro in 1784; only then did Lorenzo Da Ponte, an equally fascinating Italian librettist, translate the play into Italian, excise a tirade against inherited nobility (thus making the play acceptable to the censors), and set certain of its passages to meter and rhyme. These developments, finally, prepared the way for Mozart to set music to the entire work, which premiered in 1786. The libretto’s rhymed passages became the opera’s arias.

This realization, in fact, placed Mozart into a long tradition within classical music.

Nowhere is this tradition better exemplified than in the world of Lieder, in which historic German poems are set anew to music featuring just a single voice and a single piano. Though Lieder has a long history, it thrived in the Romantic era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries [2]. Robert Schumann, in particular, emerged as a prolific composer of Lieder, and, though many poets appeared in his works, chief among them was the legendary Jewish German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine.

I’ve become especially interested in the Romanzen und Balladen of Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24., a collection of Lieder works composed using poems drawn from Heine’s Buch der Lieder, itself written in 1827. These include Die beiden Grenadiere, in which Schumann concludes Heine’s fiery tribute to French patriotism with a tongue-in-cheek musical quotation of La Marseillaise, as well as Belsatzar, in which Heine’s wrenching rendition of the Old Testament story from the Book of Daniel is made all the more haunting by Schumann’s sensitive musical touch. Also noteworthy are Abends am Strand, where fisherman gaze out to the sea and tell stories, and Die fiendlichen Brüder, a poignant tale of two feuding brothers.

*                *                *

“This kinda sucks,” Josh once told me, after I showed him a Lied set to orchestra. “It’s just not that pleasant to listen to.” While Lob des Hohen Verstandes may be, grantedly, more entertaining than pleasant, Josh has responded with similar encouragement to most of the Lieder I’ve shown him. I often find myself turning to the same response: You have to listen to it with the lyrics.

This exchange exhibits something important about Lieder, and brings us to the purpose of this essay.

Josh had heard just one element of Mahler’s goofy Lied—the music (and only a short bit of it)—and had missed its point. The value of this Lied, like that of the others, lies in its role as an interactive story, a communication protocol enriched with music and drama. I first heard this song upon the suggestion of a mathematician at Hopkins, Professor Zucker. The Lied’s humor—as conveyed by my personal acquaintance, and matching his quirky personality—remains its primary appeal.

I haven’t tried listening to Figaro separated from its visual staging, from the lilt of its rhymes, and the from meanings of its words—and I’m not particularly inclined to try. The opera, despite its separate parts and their disparate origins, is fundamentally one work of art. To deprive it of some or all of its parts would be a disservice.

No sidelong glance, indeed, can apprehend the pure exhilaration and hilarity afoot as Figaro proudly holds his guitar and sings, “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino, / Il chitarrino, le suonerò” (It you’re for dancing, trust me, good master, / I’ll to your prancing play up a tune), or as the sultry Marcellina demands Figaro’s hand in marriage through a contractual technicality, the judge having declared “È deciso la lite: o pagarla, o sposarla” (The dispute is thus settled: he must pay her, or wed her).

In Lieder, as well as in Opera, multiple parts (typically, again, from different sources) come together to yield the final work of art. I can name a few of these:

  1. The story. Though sometimes invented by the poet, the stories used in poems transformed into Lieder are often based on old folk stories, if not biblical ones. This appears to be true for all of the four Romanzen and Balladen listed above.
  2. The poetry. The poet—in our case, Heine—recasts these stories in immaculate and pleasing meter and rhyme. This talent of Heine’s is evident in all of his poems, not just those set to music; an interesting example is visible in Donna Clara.
  3. The music. The composer, for example Schumann, superimposes music, which itself comprises melody as well as subtler features like dynamics and tempo. These dynamic elements, by design, coincide with the poem’s dramatic twists and turns.
  4. The performance. The musicians who perform the work (like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, together with, for example, accompanist Gerald Moore) add still more to the above elements, rendering them artistically for the listener (or viewer). Notable here are the usual elements of musical performance, as well as elements more typically associated with acting.

It is the simultaneous combination of these many features, I contend, that makes Lieder exquisitely pleasing. Referring once more to the Marriage of Figaro, I’d like to isolate a final factor. This is the zen, or holistic factor: the inexplicable delight that arose through the combined totality of Figaro‘s components—the dancing, the costumes, the plot, the acting, the sets, and, of course, the music. Thus we have:

  1. The zen. A thrilling feeling of unity and harmony that arises when all of the above parts are combined.

The word Lieder is typically translated into English as Art Songs. No reduction to constituent parts can account for Lieder’s brilliance, however, and in this piece I have used only the original word.


  1. The Marriage of Figaro, Encyclopedia Brittanica
  2. Lied, Encyclopedia Brittanica

2 comments on “Art Songs

  1. Richard says:

    Nice topic, Ben. I should put my cards on the table again regarding Mozart: I remain convinced that no other human being has produced music of such quality (with maybe just one possible exception – whose identity I’m sure you can both guess). I sometimes have a hard time convincing others of this – though it’s usually easier to get people to admit that Mozart reigns supreme at least in vocal composition if not in general. But, at the very least, I hold that his Operas are the best ever composed.

    I do think there’s at least one way – already recognized by others – to reconcile the Josh-style reaction with the Ben-style reply. I take the Josh reaction to be, as stated, that the Lied you sent is just musically inferior. And as a matter of taste, the music does strike me as gimcrackery, to be honest; it’s a bit tinny, a bit contrived, a bit of a soundtrack for an amusing albeit worthy story more than anything else. The Ben-style reply speaks to this too: pay attention to the lyrics, recognize their role, forefront them, and you’ll enjoy it more than if you focus on the music. And this seems right to me. (Though, it might be worth mentioning, as an aside, that, if in a musical performance of any sort, Lied or not, one is advised to try and ignore part of the performance, it’s natural to ask: what’s the point of having it there in the first place?)

    These two reactions (Josh’s: I don’t like it because of this part; Ben’s: focus on the whole not the parts) can be reconciled by taking a leaf from the aesthetics of Arthur Schopenhauer. The crux of the idea is this: in mixed-media performances, like opera, there is, as Ben says, a holism of significance. The parts mutually inform one another in the overall work. But this mutuality doesn’t prohibit hierarchy. Some parts can still be more important than others. So, it may be that in Lieder, the music should be judged less important than the verse, but contrariwise in Opera.

    Before going on about Schopenhauer though, I’d like to say that, in general, I find aesthetics to be one of the most frustrating branches of philosophy, especially when it comes to music. This is probably because, on the one hand, the field appeals to me immensely, as I think that the importance of its subject matter is paramount. But, on the other hand, I’m often frustrated by the work I’ve actually been exposed to in the area – sometimes, as with Kant and his followers – I find their views on aesthetics to be tantalizingly close to saying something genuinely true and significant about what these sorts of experiences or judgments are about – but then I always find something not quite satisfying in how the theories apply to particular cases or how these philosophers interpret their theories themselves. There are recalcitrant philosophical difficulties here.

    Schopenhauer’s point specifically concerns hierarchy among all of the fine arts – they are hierarchical ordered in terms of their quality. For him, music reigns supreme in this regard, and he cites various reasons for this (most of which are given in Book III of Vol 1 of ‘The World as Will and Representation’, his magnum opus). In fact, Schopenhauer’s comments on music touch the very core of his philosophical system. To a certain extent, he inherits Kant’s (massively influential) views on aesthetics (aesthetic judgments are disinterested, universal, necessary), but he departs from Kant regarding music. So, Kant considered music of less value than other arts and, in my view, his views on music are probably among the weakest in his output on aesthetics. Basically, Kant thought that the aesthetic judgments elicited by music – specifically instrumental music – were insufficiently cognitive; they were trivial, failing to represent anything, devoid of determinate content or significance. Only in combination with verse, or text, does music achieve its highest possible aesthetic value, says Kant.

    On this point, however, Schopenhauer and I pointedly disagree with the Sage of Königsberg. We are proponents of what became known, in the 18th century, as ‘Absolute Music’, i.e. non-programmatic music. Now, somewhat ironically, the reasons for which Kant believed instrumental music inferior are the same reasons for which Schopenhauer took it to be superior (of course, vocal music can still be instrumental in this sense, what matters is the presence or absence of language or meaningful text). Music, on Schopenhauer’s view, conveys its meaning without vulgar recourse to mere words – mere signs and symbols. For him, music is the purest expression of the fundamental feature of the world, namely “Will”, which compels all things into being.

    The Will, in Schopenhauer’s sense, is an impersonal, non-specific force, or feature of reality, which drives it and all its parts (notably all living things) to preserve and maintain their existence in some form. Normally, we experience this “Will” only in individual and ego-bound ways (indeed egoistic appetites are its characteristic manifestation in individual organisms, particularly as witnessed in the appetite for sexual activity.) Now, according to Schopenhauer, all aesthetic experiences are characterized by their common tendency to dissolve or silence the Will as it manifests in the individual through the ego. (This matches Kant’s claim about aesthetic judgement being disinterested.)

    Aesthetic experiences, generated by beautiful things and works of art, are valuable to us because we feel that they lift us out of the particular and contingent and ‘upward’ towards the universal and the necessary (again, Kant would nod here). Such experiences offer us respite from the relentless wanting of things, the relentless burden of individual, ego-driven existence. And yet, even so, Schopenhauer observes that this effect is achieved even more effectively with music. For without attempting to represent the world at all, music achieves a level of success in producing this effect that other art forms achieve only through representation.

    But, you might ask: why get caught up on the issue of representation?

    Well, it’s one thing for a work of art – painting, statuary, poetry etc. – to bring us to appreciate the universal, and the necessary, by representing some object or other (as when a statue or painting moves us to consider the universal, the Platonic form, of the thing it depicts). It is another thing for a work of art to move us out of the particular and towards the universal without having to represent anything at all. This is a whole new level of universality, one that moves us past even the many timeless and universal denizens of “Platonic heaven” and towards a totally abstracted, totally universal and all encompassing … something. Again, for Schopenhauer, this ‘something’ is the Will, which is his interpretation of Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ – the fundamental reality which underlies and unifies all things as they are in themselves, as they are apart from particularities of subjective experience and thought. What Schopenhauer is telling us is that music dissolves individuality and ego so entirely that, through its contemplation, the subject of such aesthetic experiences is put in touch with the Absolute, with reality itself.

    By Kant and Schopenhauer’s standards, I think that music (and sometimes architecture, which Goethe famously called ‘frozen music’) is capable of success as an intrinsically abstract form of art to a degree usually lacking in the visual (and dramatic) arts. (Weirdly, Schopenhauer didn’t care nearly as much for architecture as for music, but I think he was merely careless in this.)
    A remark from one of Mozart’s letters to his dad in 1781 in pertinent here. I mentioned this to you, Ben, I think. The letter contains a famous quote, foreshadowing Schopenhauer, in which he says suggests that, in Opera, the poetry, i.e. the libretto, must indeed be subservient to the music:

    In Opera the poetry must necessarily be the obedient daughter of the music. Why do the Italian comic Operas everywhere please – with all their wretched poetry – even in Paris, where I myself witnessed the fact? Because music rules there supreme, and all else is forgotten. An Opera is certain to become popular when the plot is well worked out, the verse written expressly for the music, and not merely to suit some miserable rhyme (which never enhances the value of any theatrical performance, be it what it may, but rather detracts from it), bringing in words, or even entire verses, which completely ruin the whole ideas of the composer. Versification is, indeed, indispensable for music, but rhyme, solely for rhyming’s sake, most pernicious. Those gentlemen who set to work in this pedantic fashion will always insure the failure both of their book and of the music. It would be well if a good composer could be found who understood the stage, with talent enough to make suggestions, and combined with that true Phoenix – an intellectual poet. Then no misgivings would be entertained about the applause even of the unlearned. Poets seem to be somewhat like trumpeters with their mechanical tricks. If we musical composers were to adhere as faithfully to our rules (which were very good at a time when no one knew any better), we should compose music as worthless as their libretii.

    (Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 1769-71, Vol. II, Trans. Wallace, Longmans, Green, & Co. 1865)

    Returning to Lieder and the Josh-Ben controversy: In some contexts, we can and do pick up on where the artistic emphasis is intended, whereas in other contexts it’s not as clear. One place we might look for direction regarding this emphasis is simply in the facts/customs regarding credit for the performance. Who is the artist principally credited for a given Lied? Should it be the poet? Maybe. But who is the artist principally credited for an opera? The composer, of course. We go to Peabody and the Meyerhoff to hear Mozart and Handel, not to hear Da Ponte and Charles Jennens. So it may be that Lieder should be sold to newcomers primarily as poems set to music, not really as ‘songs’. Now, if the composer is to be given a free ticket regarding the quality of compositions because he is merely providing a soundtrack for a story/poem, then fine, let it be known in advance. But would we – for even an instant – consider referring to Mozart as “the guy who wrote the soundtrack to Le Nozze di Figaro”? Hardly! The Opera is his entirely, and no one else’s, and he knew this himself.

    So, maybe we can accommodate Josh’s complaint, on Ben’s terms, by saying that Josh mistook what is primarily a textual work for a musical work. Perhaps a Lied is only ever secondarily a musical work. But then, maybe we can strengthen Josh’s complaint here, by saying that music, though subordinate in Lieder (according to the intentions of the artist), is still essential to them, and that Lieder music can be, for this reason, somewhat inferior. By contrast, even if one doesn’t have much German or Italian, or whatever access is necessary to read the text of Mozart’s libretto, one can nonetheless definitely, and easily, contemplate the beauty and value of Mozart’s work in a state of due rapture. (Just listen to Joan Sutherland’s performance of Martern aller Arten from Mozart’s ‘Abduction from the Seraglio’. She could be singing names and business listings from a cold-war era German phonebook and it’d still be sublime.)

    Indeed, following Schopenhauer, we might go even further and say that Josh is simply giving air to the view that, in any mixed media in which music features as prominently as it does in Lieder, the natural hierarchy of the fine arts emerges and demands that the music not be neglected for sake of an inferior artform. This could mean that Lieder are fundamentally different to Opera as an artform, with different standards of success. But if they are not fundamentally different in this way, and are not to be judged by different standards, then proponents of a Schopenhauer-style aesthetics, like myself (and maybe Josh), are wont to conclude that Lieder are simply inferior: an evening spent listening to La Nozze di Figaro is aesthetically superior to one spent listening to Lieder – no matter one’s access to the relevant texts.

    • Ben says:

      There’s clearly a lot going on here, so I’ll just attempt to make a few remarks.

      Who is the artist principally credited for a given Lied?

      This is an interesting question—and a crucial one to hone in upon. While my instinct leans towards the composer, the answer here is certainly more nuanced than in the case of opera (where, as you correctly point out, the credit given to the composer is near-absolute).

      Indeed, one interesting difference here is that a German poem alone often attains universal renown, before subsequently evolving into a hub around which many distinct composers compose Lieds (observe how many composers have set music to Belsatzar). Of course, in each finished product, credit is given to both composer and musician—and often more to the musician. But the fact that the poet is even mentioned (and that the composer is non-unique) says something. (In In einem kühlen Grunde, the composer barely gets a mention.)

      Yet even if we were to assume that the answer to your question were “the composer”, and that “[Lieder] are not fundamentally different in this way”—and thus make applicable your final claim—this claim would still seem to talk past the central (tacit) heft of my argument, namely that Josh’s dislike resulted not from any intrinsic musical inferiority of Lieder to Mozart but rather from an undue neglect of certain of Lieder’s components, to which the listener of Figaro was not subjected (there were subtitles).

      If we compare Lieder to Mozart, then either neither or both of them should enjoy the benefits of completeness. (Neither: “I haven’t tried listening to Mozart’s Figaro separated from its visual staging, from the lilt of its rhymes, and the from meanings of its words—but I’m not particularly inclined to try.” Both: “It is the simultaneous combination of these many features, I contend, that makes Lieder exquisitely pleasing.”)

      The content of my claim, of course, was that Lieder fares the same as Mozart, so long as we compare apples to apples.

      Of course, you could go on to argue that Mozart is superior to Lieder, even when both are presented alone (or completely). Essentially, this is what you do, focusing (if I understand correctly) on the alone, or neither, tack. (“By contrast, even if one doesn’t have much German or Italian, or whatever access is necessary to read the text of Mozart’s libretto, one can nonetheless definitely, and easily, contemplate the beauty and value of Mozart’s work in a state of due rapture.”)

      The debate, then, comes down to a simple one: Is “an evening spent listening to La Nozze di Figaro is aesthetically superior to one spent listening to Lieder – no matter one’s access to the relevant texts”? I said no, and now you say yes. We have a battle of taste. On the other hand—I wouldn’t lose much in conceding this battle to you.

      Yet what if focusing on neither is the problem here? What if conceding that Lieder should in fact be judged on different grounds (in which music doesn’t feature so prominently)—and, à la Schopenhauer, risking relegating Lieder to an inferior position among the art forms—is exactly what we should do? Perhaps this debate becomes more interesting when don’t attempt to throw Schumann into Mozart’s ring. Indeed, given the fact of Lieder’s enduring popularity, it is perhaps you—and Schopenhauer—who must be missing something when you set the terms of the debate in such a way that Mozart can’t help but win at the outset. We, or the Germans, at least, like Lieder for something. Maybe just what that is eludes you yet. (Clue: Heine is much more famous than Da Ponte.)

      The remarks at the beginning of this comment justify this move. Let’s change the answer to your question from “the composer” to “it’s complicated”.

      This gets us back to the battle of tastes: Are Schumann’s Lieder as good as Mozart’s opere? The fact that this is even a question worth asking suggests that Schopenhauer might have been wrong.

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