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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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Research into the early twentieth-century German Lied has been greatly overshadowed by extensive critical and musicological investigation of the repertoire of the previous century, and the challenge of researching musical and literary changes beyond that fertile period and into the early years of the twentieth century has, so far, not been addressed in equivalent detail. Lieder recitals today still favour the established composers of the nineteenth century, and largely ignore German creativity beyond Hugo Wolf, which would seem to confirm the claim of musicologist Jack Stein:

The production of that extremely intimate chamber form known as the German Lied, which at its most exalted moments achieves so close a rapport between poem and music as to approach a union, came to an end when Hugo Wolf’s last songs were written.1

While it is acknowledged that no historical period has a defined beginning and ending, and that any artistic genre waxes and wanes in its developmental stages, the implication is that Hugo Wolf’s final compositions in the form, written during the last decade of the nineteenth century, brought the Lied to a point where its unique partnership of poetry and music could develop no further. This investigation will bring to light that this was not the case, uncovering the years after Wolf’s death, in 1903, during which inspiring contributions to the Lieder repertoire came into being, culminating in the achievements of Anton Webern some twenty years later. These offered not only opportunities for enriching the...

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