Although Franz Schubert died at the age of 31, he left behind a remarkably extensive oeuvre, including around 600 Lieder, sometimes composing as many as seven songs a day. Five of his Goethe settings (including the masterpieces Heidenröslein and An den Mond) were written on 19th August 1815 alone! His mastery of giving each of his poets an unmistakable musical voice is unsurpassed, and so is the overwhelming number of his settings dealing with death and his longing for finding eternal peace, most famously reflected in his two song cycles Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin. “My compositions spring from my sorrows. Those that give the world the greatest delight were born of my deepest griefs.”

1Gretchen am Spinnrade (Goethe), D.118

Gretchen am Spinnrade is Schubert’s first (of over 70) settings of a poem by Goethe, taken from his Urfaust. Gretchen is recalling an earlier meeting with Faust, “his proud bearing, his noble form”. It is not so much a coherent poem as it is a collection of restless thoughts: “Meine Ruh ist hin, Mein Herz ist schwer, ich finde sie nimmer, Und nimmermehr.” (My peace is gone, My heart is heavy; I shall never, Ever find peace again). Her remembrance of Faust’s kiss is musically depicted in an almost unbearable break of passion and tension; and while the piano (spinning wheel) resumes, Gretchen’s longing for Faust intensifies. Schubert uses “Mein Busen drängt sich nach ihm hin” (My bosom longs for him), however, Goethe's original lines were slightly more passionate (“My womb longs for him”), culminating in Gretchen's orgasmic wish to “perish in his kisses”. [Elisabeth]

2Erlkönig (Goethe), D.328

Schubert was obsessed with Goethe, a feeling that wasn’t necessarily shared by the German poet. In 1816 Schubert had a parcel of 16 Lieder, including Erlkönig, sent to Goethe, yet he never replied and the songs were sent back without acknowledgment. Goethe can be considered a conservative when it comes to Lieder, mainly influenced by Carl Friedrich von Zelter in Weimar, and did not approve of a piano accompaniment seeking to illustrate the imagery of a poem: “The purest and noblest form of painting in music is the one which you also practise – it’s a question of transporting the listener into the mood of the poem. To depict sounds by sounds: to thunder, warble, ripple and splash is abominable.” I think it’s fair to say that the piano thunders quite a bit in Erlkönig… [Elisabeth]

3Winterreise (Müller), D.911: Der Leiermann

Winterreise is quite possibly the finest song cycle ever composed. Set to 24 of Wilhelm Müller’s poems, it is almost a monodrama, following our grief-stricken protagonist who leaves the town in which his beloved lives, heart-broken because she is to marry another. Everything he encounters on his frozen travels seems to remind him of her, as he fixates on death as the only release. In the final song, though, he encounters a hurdy-gurdy player who grinds away on his wheezy instrument with numb fingers, even though nobody stops to listen. Our poet decides he should join him, so he can accompany his sad songs with the instrument’s bitter drone. [Mark]

4Die schöne Müllerin (Müller), D.795: Des Baches Wiegenlied

In Die schöne Müllerin, our poet is once again faced with unreciprocated love. He follows a small stream that leads him to a mill where he starts as an apprentice and falls in love with the miller’s daughter. After discovering that she turns towards the hunter (who wears green!), the only way to escape from his sorrows seems to drown himself in the stream. In the last song of the cycle, Des Baches Wiegenlied, the stream sings a lullaby for the poet, “Rest well, rest well! Close your eyes! Weary wanderer, you are home.” Schubert only set 20 of Müller’s 25 poems, but both Ian Bostridge and Christian Gerhaher included the remaining five poems on their recordings, narrated by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerhaher himself respectively. [Elisabeth]

5Schwanengesang (Heine), D.957: Der Doppelgänger

Schwanengesang is a collection of 14 Lieder – not a cycle – published posthumously by Tobias Haslinger. The penultimate song, set to a Heinrich Heine poem without a title, was given the appellation Der Doppelgänger. In the sad key of B minor, the piano largely tolls the same pattern of four chords as our poet finds himself standing outside the house where his beloved used to live. He sees another man standing there, wringing his hands, overcome with grief and realises he is watching him ghostly self years before... the ultimate Schubertian out-of-body experience. [Mark]

6Im Frühling (Schulze), D.882

Im Frühling is one of my favourite Schubert songs, admittedly because of the piano accompanied. The poem is part of Ernst Schulze’s Poetisches Tagebuch (Poetic Diary), published after the death of his sweetheart Cäcilie Tychsen. Schulze – a bit of a ladies’ man in his youth – idealises his lost bride-to-be, despite having already transferred his affections to Cäcilie’s sister, Adelheid, who he had previously described as having an “Affengesicht” (a monkey’s face) – but apparently that didn’t seem to matter anymore… In Im Frühling, the poet sits “silently on the hillside”, looking back at the blissful days with his beloved. Everything – the flowers, the sun, the stream – is still the same, but she is no longer here with him. [Elisabeth]

7Auf der Donau (Mayrhofer), D.553

I grew up in a small village next to the Danube, and although the old castle referenced in one of the better known poems by Mayrhofer might not be the ruin in my back garden – it is indeed a very small village! – and the waves are merely a metaphor for time which “threaten destruction”, the song transports me back to my childhood, playing in the “traurige Gestrüppe” on the riverside. [Elisabeth]

8Mignon “Kennst du das Land” (Goethe), D.321

Goethe’s poem Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn (Do you know the land where the lemons blossom) has been set by very many composers, including Liszt, Beethoven and even Tchaikovsky. Mignon, an Italian girl, longs to return to her native Italy (having been abducted years before). In three simple verses, she describes the countryside, the house in which she lived and the mountain with its cloudy path, longing to escape there with a man, Wilhelm Meister, whom she describes as her lover, protector and father. [Mark]

9Du bist die Ruh (Rückert), D.776

Du bist die Ruh is one of Schubert’s best-loved songs, a setting of Friedrich Rückert in which the poet addresses his beloved, “You are repose, And gentle peace”. It is an incredibly tender song, almost like a prayer (the poet even refers to “this temple of my eyes”) expressed in long, rapt vocal lines to the softest, undulating piano accompaniment. [Mark]

10Die Forelle (Schubart), D.550

After nine songs of pain and heartbreak – admittedly, the usual fare for many Schubert Lieder – we end on a (relatively) upbeat note. The jolly melody of Die Forelle (The Trout) is known even to non-Lieder aficionados due to Schubert’s deployment of it in the fourth movement (a set of variations) of his famous piano quintet. Its three verses describe the poet watching a “capricious” trout frisking around in the stream while an angler attempts to hook him with his rod, seemingly to no avail. But in the third verse the angler muddies the waters and catches the fish, the poet much irritated by such bad sportsmanship. [Mark]

Lieder that narrowly missed the cut: Ganymed, Der Tod und das Mädchen, Wandrers Nachtlied II, Fischerweise, An den Mond, Heidenröslein.