It was not until the following century when the artistic value of the song was perceived to be at the same level as those of the symphony, grand opera, oratorio, and string quartet. Early Romantic composers such as Schubert and Mendelssohn realized the potential of this medium, and transformed it from a genre intended for the middle-class amateurs into a vehicle for expressing the sublime. The musical qualities that distinguish the serious art song from the popular recreational song of the time include the unity of the music and the text, the equality of the vocal and piano parts, and the grouping of multiple songs together into a coherent cycle for expressing an idea. The three sets of songs by Debussy, Wolf, and Schumann we present this evening are good examples illustrating these hallmarks of the Romantic song, one of the greatest musical achievements of the 19th century.
Unity of Music and Text: Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées
One ideal the Romantic song composer strives for is to write music that perfectly embodies the images and feelings suggested by the poem. Music functions not only to enhance the emotions expressed by the poet, but also to clarify any details or implied meanings behind the words. This ideal of song composition, obvious as it may seem to us, is a milestone in the history of song given that in many songs composed in the 18th century, the relationship between music and text could be very shallow, if not entirely absent. This is especially so for strophic songs in which successive stanzas portraying different imageries could be set to the same music. The lyric poets of the time such as Goethe and Heine in Germany wrote verses of sufficient emotional depth that became the perfect raw materials for the talented composers for their musical creations.
In France, Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) was one of the fin-de-siècle poets who became a champion of the Symbolist movement. The symbolist poets never explicitly or precisely describe a scene or an image, but design verses with “symbols” (i.e., the words) meant to subtly elicit moods or feelings. They believe that a poem should represent truths that can only be led to indirectly through metaphors, or even just the sound of the words. The suggestive power of the symbolist poems naturally makes them the ideal texts to be set to music by composers like Debussy, who was adept in creating musical colors by manipulating harmony, rhythm, texture, and scale. In his setting of six Verlaine poems in the song cycle Ariettes Oubliées, Debussy achieves perfect unity of music and text through musical nuances that magnify the evocative power of Verlaine’s words. For instance, in the first song, C’est l’extase langoureuse, subtle shades of harmony brings the listener to the world of sensuality and languor, while in the second song, Il pleure dans mon cœur, the monotonous note patterns in the piano, played with mute throughout, imparts perfectly the melancholic mood felt under a grey sky with constant drizzle. Here, Debussy’s music is as fluid, sensuous, and hypnotizing as Verlaine’s poetry.
Equality of the Voice and Piano: Songs by Hugo Wolf
In the 19th-century song repertory, the nature of the piano accompaniment sets the serious, artistic songs for connoisseurs apart from the simpler songs intended for the amateurs. The popular songs consisted mostly of simple, sometimes rigid, accompanimental patterns serving only to provide a harmonic foundation to the vocal melody. The art songs, by contrast, gave the piano an expressive weight equivalent to that of the voice. By this time, the piano was equipped with the mechanisms for producing more resonant and legato tones within a much wider dynamic range, so that it could mimic orchestral sound effects in addition to providing guitar-like accompaniment. It was also becoming a popular household instrument in the emerging middle class. It was thus sensible for composers to exploit this convenient yet flexible instrument (instead of, for instance, a string quartet that requires four accomplished players) to serve their artistic need of writing music adequately expressive for their chosen texts.
One recurring theme in lyric Romantic poems is the portrayal of how the feelings and emotions of a protagonist are affected by powerful external forces from nature, history or society. Naturally, in a song, the singer is often responsible for conveying personal feelings while the piano supplies music illustrative of the surroundings. Wolf, the late-Romantic pro-Wagnerian lieder composer, derives much of his expressive power in his songs from his dense keyboard writing. In Sie blasen zum Abmarsch from the Spanish Songbook, a village girl is saddened by the departure of her lover, presumably for a military mission. The piano part not only depicts the context of the story with sounds of trumpet calls and drums, but also clarifies the girl’s pain with a chromatic interlude supported by low notes. In the justly famous In dem Schatten meiner Locken, also from the Spanish Songbook, the constant Bolero rhythm in the piano part is essential not only in setting up a somewhat amusing mood for the mischievous protagonist to wonder whether she should wake her lover up, but also in spicing the whole song up with an exotic flavor. In Storchenbotschaft from Mörike Lieder, Wolf even inserts an extended bravura passage for the piano as a postlude to depict how the storks merrily fly away after delivering the message to the poor shepherd that his wife gave birth to twins, ironically reminding the listener, through the storks’ apparent oblivion to the shepherd’s feeling, of how perplexed he must be by this news.
Expressing an Idea through a Cycle: Schumann’s Liederkreis
Grouping multiple songs together into a single set was not a new idea in the 19th century. Song collections have a history probably as long as that of the song itself. But before Beethoven and Schubert, who pioneered the concept of composing song cycles, songs published within a set often have little relationship with each other besides originating from the same composer or the same poet. The early Romantic composers realized how the lowly genre of song could be made a medium for expressing the sublime by concatenating interrelated songs together. The songs can have the same protagonist, or have the same poetic theme behind the text, or have a loose narrative structure so that when sung together, they approximate a coherent story. In the ideal Romantic song cycle, however, this grouping of songs is different from a multi-movement symphony, sonata, or string quartet, in that each song can still function as an independent musical entity. In the words of Charles Rosen,
The song cycle is the embodiment of a Romantic ideal: to find – or to create – a natural unity out of a collection of different objects without compromising the independence or the disparity of each member. By a “natural” unity I mean one which is not imposed in advance by convention or tradition: the large form must appear to grow directly from the smaller forms, and this preserves their individuality (The Romantic Generation, p. 212).
Schumann clearly understood this principle. In his cherished song cycle Liederkreis (literally meaning “circle of songs”) based on poems by Eichendorff, each song, despite its brevity, can be readily appreciated and performed individually. In fact, during Schumann’s lifetime the Liederkreis was almost never performed together as a whole. But the twelve songs in the cycle nonetheless share the same theme of expressing a sentiment of distance and longing through the words of a wanderer in the forest. Schumann also took pain to cohere the songs further with a careful tonal scheme. The cycle begins with the elegiac In der Fremde in F-sharp minor, then progresses to the exciting sixth song Schöne Fremde in B major, and ending with the ecstatic Frühlingsnacht in F-sharp major. According to Graham Johnson, Schumann himself realized the possibility of constructing a unified cycle from these songs only after he composed them individually (liner notes for The Songs of Robert Schumann – 10, p. 7). The fact that the Liederkreis was a result of an “after-the-fact imposition of wishful symphonic thinking on to the Lied” probably explains why each individual song in the cycle still sounds musically satisfying and convincing.
- Vincent C. K. Cheung