Classical Music: The Elements of a Lieder

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

No classical music discussion is complete without the Lieder. In German, the word Lied (pronounced “leed”) means song; Lieder means songs or art songs. In the 1800s especially, Lieder came to great prominence, particularly in private salon concerts.

In classical-music discussions, salon doesn’t refer to hairstyling emporiums. It actually means “living rooms of the rich and famous, hundreds of years ago.”

Art songs are usually based on famous poetry, such as the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Many great German poets lived in that period, so you shouldn’t be surprised to find many great German composers of Lieder.

Here, you can read about some of classical music’s most famous songwriters — and the structure of some of their beautiful creations.

Leader of the Lieder

Chief among these Lieder composers is Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Even though he’s the composer of the Unfinished Symphony, Schubert had no trouble finishing more than 600 songs. From the age of 18, he was composing songs of great depth and passion, such as Erlkönig (Forest King), a heart-wrenching account of a little boy in the arms of his father, galloping on horseback through the woods, who imagines (correctly, as things turn out) that he’s being violently abducted by the Forest King.

Schubert grouped many of his songs into song cycles (thematically grouped clumps), including Winterreise (The Winter Journey) and Schwanengesang (Swan Song). Song cycles are usually based on poetry cycles — that is, the composer takes a group of poems that belong together and creates a song cycle from them.

What made Schubert such a great song composer was that he had a seemingly unending flow of melody. People never complained that they couldn’t hum his tunes.

Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Hugo Wolf (1860–1903), and Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) were three other great German Romantic composers of art songs. They were no doubt influenced by Schubert’s mastery of the genre. They were the followers, and Schubert was their Lieder.

Song forms

Songs fall into many different kinds of forms. But to make a long story short, they’re usually either in verse form or throughcomposed.

  • Verses in art songs are just like verses in popular music today. Each verse of the poem is set to the same music. You can find hundreds of examples of this format in today’s tunes. Almost every rock song on the radio today is made up of several verses.

  • Throughcomposed, on the other hand, means that the music is constantly changing to follow the action of the words, from beginning to end, and doesn’t necessarily repeat any particular section. Schubert’s Erlkönig is an example of a through-composed song. So are Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the song “My Boy Bill” from the musical Carousel.

If you’re interested in hearing art songs in live performance, check out the local university or conservatory. Most voice students give several recitals of art songs as a requirement for graduation, and they’re often both absolutely wonderful and woefully under-attended.

Added incentive: These recitals are always followed by receptions where the food is not only good but extremely plentiful, thanks to the eternally springing hope of the recitalist that more people may show up.