What are Lieder?

Who wrote the best Lieder? Where did they come from? Read on to find out more...

What are Lieder in music?

What are Lieder?

A Lied (plural: Lieder) is a German song that sets poetry to music, performed by a single vocalist and piano. Though songs generally place the spotlight on their vocalists, Lieder are more equal affairs: responsibility for expressing the song’s poetic nature is shared evenly between both musicians, creating a polyphonic interaction. Musically, Lieder are recognised for their rich, dark harmonies, poetic imagery and frequent modulations.

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The German term ‘Lieder’ sometimes encompasses the Minnesang tradition of German songs which originate as far back as the 12th century. However,  ‘Lieder’ most often refers to the specific musical settings of Romantic poetry; both music and lyrics composed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Romanticism was predominantly concerned with love and feeling, as well as the sublime beauty of nature and man’s place on earth. Lieder sought to express these concepts through music.

While Lieder are strictly separate from any wider theatrical work, they can be grouped into a song cycle, usually connected by the same poetic text or literary writer. Each Lied contributes to the telling of a story or the expression of a common theme.

What is a song cycle?

The song cycle was mainly established by Franz Schubert, most notably in his seminal cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise from the 1820s. However, two of the earliest examples of Lieder song cycles came from Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber in 1816.

What is the difference between Lieder and art songs?

As the literal translation of ‘Lieder’ is ‘songs’, the term is used interchangeably with ‘art songs’. The concept of Lieder, born in Germany, quickly migrated into other European countries, all of whom adapted it for their own. Therefore, both ‘Lieder’ and ‘art songs’ can be umbrella terms, encompassing international variants.

More specifically, ‘Lieder’ remains the label for art songs in the German vernacular, just as ‘mélodie’ refers to French art songs. Regardless of language, all art songs are defined by their simple voice-piano partnership and the literary subject that inspires the work.

What are the different forms of Lieder?

Two different forms of Lieder exist: strophic form and through-composed form. Lieder composed in the 18th century tend to conform to a strophic form, meaning that different stanzas of poetry are set to the same repeated verse of music. A Lied with ‘modified strophic’ form repeats the same vocal line but varies the piano part with each verse.

The other form of Lied is one that is through-composed, meaning that each stanza of poetry is set to different music. Schubert’s first song cycle Die schöne Müllerin features both strophic and through-composed Lieder. A particularly important example of through-composed Lieder is Schubert’s Erlkönig (top image), in which the vocalist performs four different characters, each of whom have a distinct harmonic and melodic style.

Who are the best composers of Lieder?

The greatest Lieder composer is undoubtedly Schubert, who wrote over 600 songs in his lifetime, on top of a prolific anthology of compositions in numerous other genres. Schubert’s Lieder have defined and shaped this particular form of song. Click here to find out which six we named as the best of Schubert’s lieder.

The earliest champions of Lieder were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but it was the influence of Schubert that kept lieder on the musical map for so long. Schubert’s successors include Robert Schumann, Brahms and Wolf in the 19th century, but the tradition continued into the 20th century with Richard Strauss, Mahler and Pfitzner.

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Top image credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images