Tuesday, September 9, 2014

One More Big Music Project

Turns out that I forgot about one of the biggest music projects of all. I have written quite a few songs at various times, but I don't do a huge amount of listening to vocal music. That's the only excuse I can think of for missing one of the greatest Big Music Projects in my post of yesterday.

Who and what am I thinking of? The six hundred some lieder (songs) of Franz Schubert that somehow he found time to write even while writing loads of symphonies, quartets, piano sonatas and other things. And still dying at thirty-one years of age! How does one write a thousand pieces of music from age seventeen to age thirty-one? Not even Mozart did that. So let's have a brief look at some of those songs.

Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)

Here is the Wikipedia entry for Franz Schubert. Here is a website that has all the texts, original languages plus translations when available for all Schubert's lieder. In addition to myriads of individual songs and small groups of songs, Schubert wrote three major song cycles that not only created the form, but essentially established Schubert as the inventor of what we now call the "art song". The only challenger to this title is Beethoven who wrote one song cycleAn die ferne Geliebte (To the distant Beloved) just a bit before. But frankly, the voice was really not Beethoven's ideal medium and the ones by Schubert are much better.

The three song cycles composed by Schubert are Die Schöne Müllerin, Die Winterreise, and Schwanengesang, but only the first two were intended by Schubert as cycles. The third, "Swansong" was assembled after his death. Die Schöne Müllerin was written when Schubert was twenty-six on poems by Wilhelm Müller. There are twenty songs in total and a performance takes a bit more than an hour. The cycle is a narrative of a young man falling in love with a miller's daughter. Though the ending is ambiguous, the implication is that the young man despairs of attaining his love and drowns himself in the stream. There are many recordings, of course. But this one, dating from 1961 with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, includes the score. There is a brief prologue by the poet that is read before the music starts.

Schubert's second great cycle, Die Winterreise, is also on poems by Wilhelm Müller. There are twenty-four songs in two sections. The two sections were composed in 1827, the year before Schubert's death. This is a darker cycle than the previous one, a dramatic monologue on disappointed love set in a bleak, winter landscape. The Wikipedia article I linked to above has a summary of the text of each song.

Here is a 1962 recording, with the score, also by Fischer-Dieskau and Moore:

So this is the crême de la crême of the enormous body of lieder by Franz Schubert. If you are inspired to listen to all of his lieder, Fischer-Dieskau and Moore recorded them all and they are available from Amazon. Six hundred songs for under $100 seems a pretty good deal.


Craig said...

My goodness, I do love Schubert's songs. There are so many jewels in that collection.

A slight correction though: Fischer-Dieskau didn't record all of the lieder; I believe he limited himself (sensibly enough) to those songs suitable for a solo, baritone voice. His collection runs to roughly 20 CDs. If you want to hear all of the songs, you probably have to turn to the big recording project on the Hyperion label: 40 CDs. Now there's a listening project if I ever saw one!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the correction, Craig! I was relying on very old memories. Way back in the early 70s when I was starting to purchase classical records, I recall a German fellow who worked in the music store telling me that Fischer-Dieskau had recorded "all the Schubert lieder". The idle thought did cross my mind of how did they get 600 lieder on only 20 discs? Here is the link to the Hyperion collection at Amazon: