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 . 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 . 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.
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“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.