Lieder is a serious leap into song literature

Music review

When one thinks of singing Schubert, the realization almost immediately comes to mind that he (she) is about to take a serious leap into the depth of song literature. In this case it is a special kind of vocal-piano music called Lieder, the special word that designates a kind of dramatic symmetry between voice, piano and poetry always sung in German. Some composers use the word “Gesang” which also means song, as Brahms did in his Vier Ernste Gesangen (“Four Serious Songs”). What is the difference between “Lieder” and “Gesang”? Harvard Dictionary of Music (HDM) simply says that Gesang means song. Under its definition of Lieder lay a long history dating from the Minnesingers and Meistersingers (ca. 1250-1550) and covering a broad range of approaches until it arrives in the genius mind of Franz Schubert (1797-1828). HDM calls this the beginning of the greatest period of the German Lied. Schubert opened this “new era” with his “Gretchen am Spinnrade”(1814), (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”), followed closely by “Erlkönig” (1815) (Erlking), “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (1817), (Death and the Maiden), “Der Wanderer” (1819) (the Wanderer),

We come now to Schubert’s first great masterpiece of song literature — the Song Cycle, a series of songs for voice, piano and poetry in a balanced relationship to each other that tells a story, usually about love between two people as in Die Schone Mullerin (“The Beautiful Miller Maiden”), or it may tell of a lone traveler on a long, lonely journey, cold and bleak with an occasional black crow as companion as in Winterreise. (1827). Mastersinger Leroy Bynum Jr. presented the first one on Sunday evening, 10 March, at the Albany Museum of Art’s small Harry and Jane Willson Auditorium. Both are set to the poetry of Wilhelm Muller (1794-1827). The young master finished this latter work in 1827, then dies the next year at the age of 31.

Other composers have followed the song cycle tradition laid down by Schubert. The form projected by the thrust of Schubert landed in the 19th century in the hands of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in Kindertotenlieder (1901- 1904) (“songs on the death of Children”), Lieder uber eines Wanderer (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883-85;1891-96) (“Songs of a traveling Companion”), to mention only 3 of Mahler’s output in this genre. All of the poetry here is by Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866).

Die schöne Mullerin tells us about a young traveler who comes upon a Brook it banks decorated by beautiful flowers.

Doubtlessly Schubert was smitten by the poetry he read. The young traveler is also smitten by the attractive daughter of the mill’s owner who repays his entreaties to her in uneven measure, then indifference when a more handsome and interesting man comes along.

Here is Muller’s “story” poetry in 5 acts: Act I — A happy wanderer comes across a lovely Brook. He eventually stumbles upon a flour mill whose wheels turn by the water’s energy. The owner has a beautiful daughter who at once attracts his attention. In Act II he in vain tries to get her attention. In Act III he finds himself sitting beside the maiden by the Brook. He cannot imagine his good fortune, surrounded by this human and natural beauty. In act IV the Miller imagines finding himself with competition as a virile Hunter dressed in green comes upon the scene. Jealousy sets in. The Miller in order to soothe himself imagines that he likes the color green. Here we have a kind of smorgasbord of colors: that of the maiden’s beautiful blue eyes, the plethora of colors in the flowers on the banks of the brook, the white that covers the Miller since he got work at the mill to be near the owner’s lovely daughter; and now the color green worn by the hunter who flirtatiously gives the Maiden a ribbon from his jacket or shirt. In Act V, the poor miller, most upset by the perceived loss of his girlfriend to the more manly hunter, drowns himself in the Brook. Schubert, eschewing the interruption of his flow of romantic ideas, omits this tragic event and goes directly to a lullaby, perceivably sung by the flow of the peaceable waters of the brook - “Des Baches Wiegenlied” (The Brook’s lullaby”).

Here, the essence of 19th century romantic poetry meets a kindred spirit in Franz Schubert.

Obviously Bynum understands this material, has imbibed not only this work but all the Lieder he sings. His study in Germany with the great progenitor of the genre, the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) has, no doubt, increased his perception of this material. We sincerely thank him for bringing so much of it to ours ears. We must also thank professor emeritus of languages, retired, ASU, Dr. Paul King for his helping this writer’s attempt to make certain that, despite the adequate program translation, the linguistics from German to English did not go too far astray. Gina Lawhon of the music faculty at ABAC gave adequate support at the piano. She and Bynum have worked together before. Kudos to both of them.

James Marquis is emeritus professor of music, retired, at Albany State University.