Austrian composer Franz Schubert completed over 600 secular vocal works - most of which were Lieder (pronounced like "leader"). The word "Lieder" is simply the German word for "songs". These particular types of songs are in German, and are usually in the form of poems set for solo voice and piano.
The term can be used to describe songs from as early as the 13th century, but is usually used to refer to songs of the Romantic era (18th and 19th centuries). Some well-known examples of Lieder composers include: Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Hugo Wolf.
We've selected a few of Schubert's Lieder for you below, with brief explanations of the stories, English translations of the texts, and recordings. Let us know which is your favourite, either from our selections or from Schubert's other Lieder works!
Note: Schubert's works are catalogued by using the letter D (for Deutsch) followed by a number. The numbers are assigned to the works chronologically.
All translations © Richard Wigmore, author of Schubert: The Complete Song Texts, published by Schirmer Books, provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk).
Erlkönig (The Erlking), D.328
“Erlkönig” (also called “Der Erlkönig“) is a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Be prepared: this is a horror poem, so some readers may like to skip this one!
The poem was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 work called Die Fischerin. The text depicts the death of a child assailed by a supernatural being - the Erlking. The Erlking is a mythical elf, probably originating from Danish folklore, who is said to linger in the woods to kill children who stay there too long. He is also known as the king of the fairies.
Summary: An anxious young boy is being carried home at night by his father on horseback. He sees the Erlking and his daughters, hears the Erlking's voice speaking softly to him, and is finally attacked. Meanwhile, the father does not experience any of this, and puts it down to natural explanations - fog, rustling leaves, willow trees. The poem ends with the death of the child.
Dramatic soprano Jessye Norman's voice and face are so expressive, offering a real glimpse into the emotions experienced by the characters (both human and mythical).
Listen to the textures of bass-baritone Bryn Terfel's voice and his expressive use of text as he alternates between characters.
Who rides so late through the night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy in his arms;
he holds him safely, he keeps him warm.
‘My son, why do you hide your face in fear?’
‘Father, can you not see the Erlking?
The Erlking with his crown and tail?’
‘My son, it is a streak of mist.’
‘Sweet child, come with me.
I’ll play wonderful games with you.
Many a pretty flower grows on the shore;
my mother has many a golden robe.’
‘Father, father, do you not hear
what the Erlking softly promises me?’
‘Calm, be calm, my child:
the wind is rustling in the withered leaves.’
‘Won’t you come with me, my fine lad?
My daughters shall wait upon you;
my daughters lead the nightly dance,
and will rock you, and dance, and sing you to sleep.’
‘Father, father, can you not see
Erlking’s daughters there in the darkness?’
‘My son, my son, I can see clearly:
it is the old grey willows gleaming.’
‘I love you, your fair form allures me,
and if you don’t come willingly, I’ll use force.’
‘Father, father, now he’s seizing me!
The Erlking has hurt me!’
The father shudders, he rides swiftly,
he holds the moaning child in his arms;
with one last effort he reaches home;
the child lay dead in his arms.
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Frühlingsglaube (Faith In Spring), D. 686
After the intensity of Erlkönig, we thought something lighter might be in order! "Frühlingsglaube" is about the change that comes with the spring, both literally (literal seasons) and figuratively (the winter endured by the protagonist's heart is coming to an end, whether they are ready for it or not). In German Romantic music and poetry, it is common to compare and contrast nature with the experiences of a protagonist.
The light lyric qualities of tenor Ian Bostridge's voice and his academic knowledge give this recording (and other performances) an intelligent and refined touch.
Soprano Renée Fleming skilfully weaves the vocal melody, playing with weight and colour of voice as tools of expression.
Faith In Spring
Balmy breezes are awakened;
they stir and whisper day and night,
O fresh scents, O new sounds!
Now, poor heart, do not be afraid.
Now all must change.
The world grows fairer each day;
we cannot know what is still to come;
the flowering knows no end.
The deepest, most distant valley is in flower.
Now, poor heart, forget your torment.
Now all must change.
Des Fischers Liebesglück
(The fisherman's luck in love), D.933
In September 1827, Schubert was visiting some friends in Graz. His friend Maria showed him some poems by her poet friend Karl Gottfried von Lieder. Schubert was inspired by these poems to compose six Lieder, including Des Fischers Liebesglück.
"Des Fischers Liebesglück" tells about a fisherman meeting with his lover one night. From his boat, he sees a light in the window of his beloved. He fetches her, and together they go back to the lake to spend time together, hidden away by the evening mists. Schubert's setting is quiet melancholic, and achingly beautiful.
This version for voice and guitar, featuring singer Philippe Sly and guitarist John Charles Britton is a very delicate and tender take on the music and text.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of the most important Lieder interpreters. His version explores the exciting and youthful sides of this work.
The fisherman's luck in love
Yonder light gleams
through the willows,
and a pale
beckons to me
from the bedroom
of my sweetheart.
like a will-o’-the-wisp,
and its reflection
in the circle
of the undulating lake.
into the blue
of the waves,
to the oar,
from her little room,
hastens to me
in the boat.
Then the breezes
out into the lake
from the elder tree
on the shore.
from prying onlookers.
And as we exchange
to foil eavesdroppers.
in the far distance
below the course
of the gliding boat.
So we drift on
in the midst
we have soared free
of the earth,
and are already up above,
on another shore.