Schubert’s body of work includes over 600 songs for voice and piano. That number alone is vastly impressive – many composers fail to reach that number of compositions in their entire output, let alone in a single genre. But it isn’t just the quantity that’s remarkable: Schubert consistently, and frequently, wrote songs of such beauty and quality that composers such as Schumann, Wolf and Brahms all credited him with reinventing, invigorating and bringing greater seriousness to a previously dilletante musical form.
Here, we take a look at six of the best Schubert Lieder. Our list, though, certainly isn’t meant to be definitive – tell us your favourites in the comments section below.
Der Erlkönig, D328 (1815)
Setting text by Goethe to music was not easy for Schubert: he wrote three other versions before resting on this final setting.
Der Erlkönig – which tells the story of a doomed child being carried home on horseback by his father – features a fiendishly difficult piano part, not necessarily in terms of technicality, but in the swift, repetitive chords of the right hand that must be sustained over several minutes.
Nor is the vocal part let off lightly – with four different characters to portray and a wide range, this song is not for the faint-hearted.
Nacht und Träume, D827 (1825)
A decidedly slower and calmer affair than Erlkönig, this setting of Nacht und Träume (‘Night and Dreams’) is challenging for other reasons.
The breath control and ability to sustain are enough to ward off any nervous recitalist – there is no room for error. When sung well, such as in this recording by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the tune flows beautifully.
Ich wollt, ich wär ein Fisch, D558 (1817)
Here’s a lesser known gem. Ich wollt, ich wär ein Fisch is another setting of Goethe, this time representing someone who wishes to change to be more suitable to their loved one.
Various performers pick and choose the verses involved – some want to be a horse, some a bear, some just a penny in a pocket – but invariably, the fish remains. The poem ends with a verse that more or less says, ‘I am what I am…take it or leave it’.
We couldn’t really pick the whole of Schubert‘s song-cycle Winterreise, so here’s the opening movement to set the mood. Originally written for tenor, this performance has transposed the song to suit the voice – a precedent set by Schubert himself.
Winterreise is a setting of poems by Thomas Müller detailing the story of a man who leaves town in the middle of night in winter. In ‘Gute Nacht’, the singer explains how he had hoped to marry a young woman but failed, and now departs a stranger.
You may also be interested to watch this unique performance by Ambrož Bajec-Lapajne as he sings ‘Gute Nacht’ during brain surgery – things get really interesting around 2:40 (don’t worry – you won’t see any blood).
Licht und Liebe, D352 (1816?)
A duet for tenor and soprano, Licht und Liebe (‘Light and Love’) produces challenges in interesting ways. Relatively simple in melodic line, the singers often match notes from an end of one phrase to the start of the next, and spend extended phrases in intervals that are easy to stretch one way or another.
To keep together, and in tune, requires skill. The effect is lovely, however – it’s just a shame that Schubert didn’t write more duets.
Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118 (1814)
Drawing text from Goethe’s Faust, Schubert wrote this song at the tender age of 17. The whole piece follows the circle of a spinning wheel, from the looping right hand figure to the modulations which venture through numerous keys before returning to the home key of D minor.
The vocal line even imitates a circle, often centred on A, B flat and D. At moments of climax the voice soars upwards, before coming back down in resignation to repeat the opening lines once again: ‘Mein Ruh’ ist hin / Mein herz ist schwer’ (‘My peace is gone / My heart is heavy’). It almost feels as if Gretchen is doomed to sing this song forever, and we are catching just a glimpse of her eternal pain.