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The German «Lied» after Hugo Wolf

From Hans Pfitzner to Anton Webern


Lesley-Ann Brown

Following the development of the German Lied after the nineteenth century – when it was widely known as the setting of Romantic poetry to music – this book explores the changing artistic scene in the early twentieth century, as rapid social, economic and environmental changes affected German cultural production. The Lied then faced not only a crisis of identity, but also a threat to its survival. This book considers the literary and musical ideas that both challenged and complemented each other as new directions in songwriting were developed across the modern period.
The composers selected for their relevance in Lieder composition during this time illustrate not only the diversity of their musical thought but also a changing approach to the relationship between the poetic text and its musical counterpart. Hans Pfitzner represents the determination to maintain established tradition; subsequently, a chronological progression through the individuality of Paul Hindemith and social integrity of Hanns Eisler leads to the point where transformation of the genre can be said to have begun, with Arnold Schönberg. With the Lieder of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, the genre arrived at a point of convergence with the ideals of German modernism. This study offers new insights into the cultural significance of German songwriting in the first part of the twentieth century.
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The roots of the German Lied lie in the eighteenth century, although it is intrinsically most strongly connected with the nineteenth, during which it developed, in often very distinct and individual styles, into an art form which occupied a contemporary and vital position in both musical culture and social consciousness. Musicologists have made extensive studies of the prolific nineteenth-century Lieder repertoire, but from the start of the twentieth century the analytical and critical landscape becomes much less effusive and clearly documented. The resulting impression is that the Lied then became more or less obsolete, in part through lack of cultural and social relevance in the new century. What appears to be lack of research interest not only overlooks the Lieder written by Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and countless other prolific composers of lesser renown, but also suggests, or strongly implies, that there was little or no possibility of further development or musical achievement in the field.

J.W. Smeed’s claim that the twentieth century saw melody sacrificed in an attempt to avoid too much overt or facile lyricism and that ‘a less embarrassed attitude towards melodiousness and lyricism may have to come about if art-song is not to become a hopelessly esoteric genre,’1 highlights the challenges that changing perceptions of melody and tonal identity imposed on performers and listeners used to the received practice of tonality and more familiar approaches to harmony and accepted modulations, as well as the lyric conventions of phrase...

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