Some Romantic composers preferred intimate forms with delicate textures such as art song, piano solo and chamber music. These works were performed in the homes of the wealthy or in exclusive salons for highly cultured audiences.
The Rose, or the Artist's Journey 1846-47 | Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871) | Alte Nationalgalerie | The artist Moritz von Schwind was a close friend of Franz Schubert.
An art song is a piece for a single voice with solo instrumental accompaniment, usually piano. It is written within the classical music tradition—i.e., is not popular or folk music—and contains a setting of a poem or other text. The German art song tradition is the most prominent in the solo song repertoire and, thus, the German term, lied or lieder (plural), is often used instead of art song.
The art song legacy reaches back to the lute song of the Renaissance, long before pianos were invented. While most nineteenth century art songs were written for piano and voice, sometimes guitar or harp were used instead of piano. For example, the great French composer Hector Berlioz wrote Twenty-Five Romances for voice and guitar.
Born in Vienna and the son of a schoolmaster, Franz Schubert (1797–1828) studied piano and violin from the age of eight. At eleven he entered the Imperial Seminary and jointed the boy choir in the Imperial Chapel. After a few years he became first violin of the chapel orchestra, sometimes taking on conducting duties and writing music for the ensemble. At fourteen, the composer Antonio Salieri (1750–1825) heard the boy's music and tutored Schubert in music theory and composition for years. Schubert's First Symphony and first three string quartets were written in 1813, when he was only sixteen years old.
Franz Schubert | Wilhelm August Rieder (1796-1880) | Wikimedia Commons
Schubert's mature period of composition dates from his eighteenth birthday and is marked by his songs Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Heidenröslein and Erlkönig, and by his second and third symphonies (1815). From this time an almost steady stream of masterpieces continued until his death at the age of thirty-one. It was a agonizing death caused by typhus complicated by an advanced stage of syphilis.
Although he briefly worked as a teacher as his father's school, Schubert spend most of his life living on casual income and “gifts” from his friends and brother. He enjoyed a bohemian existence of composing and socializing with his artist friends. He did not mingle with aristocrats but often performed in cultivated middle class homes.
Schubert was almost unknown as a composer until after his death. His now famous Unfinished Symphony was not performed until 1865, thirty-seven years after his death. Much of his output was unpublished during his lifetime; of the few published works, he was often only paid a small sum.
At the center of Schubert’s music are his art songs. More than 600 of them testify to his spontaneous response to early romantic poetry. When Beethoven was on his deathbed, a friend gave him some of Schubert's songs to look at. Beethoven was astonished at what he saw, stating that "truly in Schubert there is the divine spark" (Duncan, Edmondstoune, Schubert. J.M. Dent & Co: p. 60). Schubert created these divine art song masterpieces using preexisting poetry, whatever caught his eye as a composer (he didn’t write lyrics). Most of these songs were conceived for solo voice with piano accompaniment. However, some songs were published with guitar accompaniment.
Schubert's best known song, Der Erlkönig (The Elf King), was composed when he was only eighteen. Instead of the usual strophic form, it is through-composed. Strophic form refers to songs in which all verses of the text are sung to the same music. For example, Silent Night and 99 bottles of Beer on the Wall are in strophic form because the same melody is sung with each verse. In contrast, through-composed means a song has different music for each stanza of lyrics. Through-composed songs often create a sense of unity with repeating motives or accompaniment patterns.
Erlkönig | Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871) | Alte Nationalgalerie | This is why I never ride my horse through the woods at night.
Der Erlkönig's text is a poem written by the eminent German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [gur-tah] (1749-1832). The poem tells the story of a young boy being carried home at night by his father on horseback. As they gallop through the mists, the Elf King, a supernatural being, tries to entice the boy and steal his soul. When the ride is done, the boy is dead. A narrator and three characters in the poem are depicted by the vocalist by using different registers of his voice: Elf King, father (low register) and the dying boy (higher register).
Schubert's piano accompaniment of triplet octaves and dark bass motives manages to both unify the song and add a fourth character, the galloping horse:
Der Erlkönig Autograph Manuscript 1815 | Franz Schubert | The Morgan Library and Museum
Here's a translation of Der Erlkönig's German lyrics:
Who rides so late through the windy night?
It is the father and his child.
He holds the boy,
Warm and safe.
Son, why do you hide your face in fear?
Father, do you not see the Elf King?
With his crown and train?
Son, it's just the mist.
Come with me, lovely child
We'll play games
There are flowers on the beach and
My mother has golden clothes
Father, can't you hear
What the Elf King is promising me?
Be calm, my boy—
It's only the wind in the leaves.
Lovely boy, will you come with me?
My daughters will wait on you
My daughters will sing and dance for you
and rock you to sleep.
Father, do you not see
The Elf King's daughters there?
Son, it's the old willows shining
In the moonlight.
I love you— I'm aroused by your beautiful form
And if you won't come, I will take you by force
Father, father, he has grabbed me.
The Elf King has hurt me.
The father shudders. He rides fast,
the groaning boy in his arms,
Anxious, he reaches the farm.
In his arms, the boy is dead.