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Lieder: Definition, Composers & Music

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  • 0:01 Chamber Music & Lieder
  • 1:31 Early Lieder
  • 3:02 The Master of Lieder:…
  • 4:05 Lied Composers of the…
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Lieder, a genre of German songs originally designed for home entertainment. You'll learn about how the Lied developed, and who some of its greatest composers were.

Chamber Music & Lieder

Today, when people want to enjoy entertainment together at home, they generally gather around the TV to stream some Netflix or to catch a sports broadcast. In the 19th century, people used a different kind of technology for home entertainment: the piano. With its large range of notes, a piano could produce a huge variety of music, and it was great for accompanying singers. People loved to use the piano and the voice to share stories as dramatic, enthralling, funny, or suspenseful as an episode of your favorite TV series.

Because these songs were designed to be performed in small rooms rather than auditoriums, they are part of a musical genre called chamber music, or music to be performed by a small number of players in a small venue. When chamber music is written for a singer and a pianist, it is called an art song. There was a great demand for art songs throughout Europe and the United States during the 19th century, and composers produced a vast repertoire for the flourishing home market.

Because the art song gained extra popularity in German-speaking areas, we have a special name for a German-language art song. We call it a Lied, which is simply a German word for 'song,' and its plural form is Lieder. Both words use a capital L because in German, all nouns are capitalized.

Early Lieder

The genre of piano-and-voice Lieder began to develop with 18th-century composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though Mozart focused on concert works, like symphonies, for much of his career, he also wrote Lieder, like his delightful little song 'The Violet'. It tells the goofy mock-tragic story of a flower who falls in love with a shepherdess, only to be accidentally stepped on; a reflection on how embarrassing an unrequited crush can be.

Ludwig van Beethoven was a revolutionary composer who brought new dramatic power to old musical genres and helped usher in a new era in music, called the Romantic Era, which lasted from about 1815-1910. Romantic music emphasized personal emotion and dramatic storytelling, and the Lied would become a perfect vehicle for that kind of expression.

Beethoven helped jumpstart the Lied trend with his song cycle about a long-distance relationship, Of the Faraway Beloved. A song cycle is a series of art songs that are meant to be sung in a series, often creating a large-scale narrative. In other words, a Lied published by itself is like a recorded song released as a single and a song cycle is like an entire album. After Beethoven showed the potential of song cycles with Of the Faraway Beloved, many 19th-century composers jumped on the bandwagon to tell deeper stories with Lieder.

The Master of Lieder: Franz Schubert

The composer most famous for writing Lieder is Franz Schubert. You might say that Schubert mastered the Lied the way Shakespeare mastered the sonnet. Schubert wrote approximately 600 Lieder during his short lifetime, including song cycles as well as stand-alone songs.

One of Schubert's most famous Lieder is 'The Elf King'. Using words by the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 'The Elf King' tells a terrifying story of a father riding desperately through the forest to bring his dying son to safety, while the Elf King tries to snatch the child away, whispering in a voice only the boy can hear. In this song, Schubert uses vocal range and other techniques to express four separate characters through the voice of one singer, all the while maintaining the suspense of a desperate nighttime gallop through the driving piano accompaniment. 'The Elf King' packs the emotional punch of a fantasy film with just one singer and one piano.

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