“Lieder recitals are slowly becoming epidemic. Everything that sings and sounds, and doesn’t sound, wants to warble and crow from the platform.” Hugo Wolf, the great late Romantic Lieder composer, wrote this in 1887, in his capacity as music critic. The song recital, which had sprung up in the middle of the 19th century, was then a recent phenomenon. In 1856 baritone Julius Stockhausen became the first singer to give a complete public performance of Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Maid of the Mill). Before then, Lieder recitals were private affairs in middle-class drawing rooms, the most famous being the Viennese Schubertiades during which Schubert’s songs were first heard. As was customary, Stockhausen performed with an assisting artist, such as a pianist soloist. At the time Wolf expressed his mild vexation at the proliferation of Lieder evenings, the tenor Gustav Walter had just popularised the Lieder recital as we know it – a programme of song, usually performed by a soloist accompanied by a pianist.

Schubertiade © Julius Schmid
Schubertiade
© Julius Schmid

Of all vocal classical formats, song recitals seem to be the least popular. While venues with international cachet, such as Wigmore Hall, retain their devoted audiences, there is concern about the future of this seemingly genteel formula, with its old-lace, highbrow aura. It certainly seems to get the least publicity. With arts coverage dwindling in print media, Lieder regularly lose out to opera and choral works, unless the poster boasts a big name or two. One possible reason is that it is not easy to write a meaty recital review while avoiding checking off songs as in a “to do” list. Many classical singing fans have reservations about the understated nature of Lieder. How can one singer with piano accompaniment set the pulse racing? And what about having to take in reams of foreign language text? I would argue that the very characteristics that can make concertgoers shy away from song recitals are their greatest strengths. Given the right performers, a song recital can be as memorable as a night at the opera or the symphony.

Franz Schubert © Wilhelm August Rieder
Franz Schubert
© Wilhelm August Rieder
Before we go any further, let us demystify the jargon. “Lieder” is the German word for “songs” and refers to poems set to music, or “art songs”. The French call them "mélodies”, as opposed to “chansons”, which are popular or folk songs. Strictly speaking, a Lieder recital is a programme of art songs in German, but programmes are frequently multilingual, and “Lieder” also loosely refers to art songs in general. People have always composed songs – to celebrate, tell stories, mourn, woo, console and entertain. Art songs are simply classical music’s contribution to this sea of sung expression. Mozart and Beethoven wrote the first Lieder in the established repertoire. In the 19th century, Franz Schubert elevated the art song to its artistic peak with his settings of Romantic poems. Schubert also made the accompanying pianist the singer’s equal partner. In his songs and those of his successors the pianist often has as much to say as the vocalist. Stringed together, a group of songs can form a poetic and musical narrative, called a song cycle. Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) is an early example. When Schubert set poems by Wilhelm Müller into that dark night of the soul, Winterreise (Winter Journey), he set up the biggest song cycle challenge a singer can ever take up. Schumann, Brahms and Wolf also wrote Lieder of astounding emotional depth and sophistication. Later on came songs scored for full orchestra, such as those by Gustav Mahler, but we are concentrating on songs for voice and piano. The art song also flourished outside Austria and Germany and the repertoire is now rich with songs in French, Russian, Spanish, English and other languages.

So what makes art songs so wonderful? First of all, the words. Although there are arrangements of traditional folk songs, many songs are inspired by some of the best lines ever written. Petrarch, Shakespeare, Goethe and Baudelaire have all been given the art song treatment. Secondly, some of the most enchanting classical melodies are art songs. Even if you are not an aficionado, you will probably recognise Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song or Leoncavallo’s Mattinata (Morning). If you love great poetry and great music, art songs are for you. Another plus is that during song recitals you get to observe fantastic pianists up-close. The best accompanists perform a kind of illusionist act, slipping in and out of the limelight as necessary, and the most fascinating singer-pianist collaborations resemble a stationary, tightly choreographed dance. Finally, art songs are as varied as life itself. The versatility of moods, musical styles and cultural savours mean that there are songs for everyone at any time. Themes range from silly to profound, and many songs can be enjoyed on several levels, from straightforward melodic satisfaction to poignant existential resonance.

The song recital is the simplest and cheapest form of vocal concert to organise, but artistically the most exigent. The intimate set-up enables performers to communicate with subtle shading that is not possible elsewhere. Emotional openness and genuineness are obligatory. Not every singer is a Lieder singer. Excellent opera singers can lack the required fine interpretative brush. In certain narrative songs, such as Schubert’s gothic Erlköning (The Erlking), singers need to breathe life into different characters with only a couple of lines. There are no costumes and scenery to help and no orchestral colours to create atmosphere – the voice must do it all. Masterful technique is a requirement, because every crackle and pop are exposed. However, good singing and a beautiful voice are not enough. For a wholly worthwhile experience the audience needs to be stirred by the singer’s expressive powers. The best song interpreters draw us with their intensity, allowing us a glimpse into their psyche through their appropriation of the text. The very greatest peel back fresh layers of meaning when tackling familiar works. Paradoxically, song recitals are economically ideal for singers just starting out, but they may not yet have the artistic maturity to carry a full-length programme. On the other hand, great recitalists at the height of their popularity often perform in large venues where the level of intimacy is diminished. Fortunately, the wellspring of art songs is so deep that there are songs to suit every stage of artistic ripeness and voice type. Unlike many opera roles, art songs can be transposed up or down to fit a singer’s vocal range. Even relatively inexperienced singers can give a successful song recitals, given that they have a talent for it and make the right programme choices.

Relatively cheap to organise, wide-ranging and boasting the best texts and some of the best tunes in the business – you would think these qualities would be enough to secure the popularity of song recitals. At a time when entertainment choices are legion and classical venues constantly re-assess their strategies for retaining and replenishing audiences, it is essential that art songs are not forgotten in promotional and educational programmes. The fact that the genre continues to thrive in German-speaking countries, which served as the Lieder incubator, is probably related to the fact that their school choirs continue to sink their teeth into assorted arrangements of Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree).

Of course, once you entice new visitors into the recital hall, you need to convince them to return. Besides the quality of the performance, recitalists and organisers should keep the following in mind:

Variety

Both seasons and concerts need to be varied. Although Schubert’s 600 songs offer enough diversity for a whole season, audiences love to hear less obvious repertoire. For example, both Georges Bizet and Frederick Delius wrote songs for single voice and piano. Contemporary composers keep adding to the catalogue. Whether a programme is single-composer, multi-composer or theme-driven, the selections should vary in rhythm and spirit.

Anna Prohaska © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Anna Prohaska
© Harald Hoffmann | DG
A whole evening of mournful songs at a funereal pace, however brilliantly performed, will send everyone away in a state of depression. Some of the most satisfying recitals connect songs and composers by poet, location, or a timeline. Invariably, something that all good recitals have in common is that they take the listener on a journey, and a journey without changing scenery is monotonous. One of my most memorable recital evenings featured soprano Anna Prohaska. Her songs were all themed around Ophelia, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in a kaleidoscopic array of languages and musical idioms. The evening flew by. New variations on the standard format keep the song recital fresh and possibly reel in audiences from other art forms. These include staged song cycles, singing and film, recital and lecture pairings, or, going back to the times of Julius Stockhausen, a mix of Lieder and chamber music.

Off book, if possible 

A score is a barrier, however flimsy, between singer and audience. Many song recitals are one-off performances and Lieder tours in multiple cities are only viable for the most successful performers. It might not be reasonable to expect a singer to learn a whole programme by heart for a single recital, but singers communicate much more freely without a score. They should try to memorise most of the material.

Going native

The art song canon is world heritage and any performer who masters it, linguistically and musically, can lay claim to it. However, less familiar songs in atypical languages can be equally interesting, especially when sung by native speakers. In a genre where the words are crucial, native speaker cadence and style are to be treasured. It is very likely that songs from a singer’s homeland will pulse with very personal meaning. Singers from countries with unusual repertoire, give us your native songs, composers and poets!

Talk Is Not For Everyone

These days it is increasingly probable that a singer will address the audience between numbers. This creates an informal rapport, but is strictly for performers with an effortless stage manner. Sharing something personal about a composition, if done well, can enhance the audience’s receptivity. Ultimately, though, the song is the message and a well-chosen programme should not need much elucidation.

Translate!

Venues should provide free, or very cheap, text translations in the local language/s. Legible print is a must. Texts and translations should be checked for errors and the translator credited. I have seen uncredited translations lifted verbatim from The LiederNet Archive, typos included. Once a translator stood up during the break to inform us that the organisers had forgotten to put his name in the programme.

Never forget the newbies

Recital organisers should always assume the audience includes first-time concertgoers. Instructions, written or announced, should summarise conventions about clapping, turning programme pages, and so on. Leaving first-timers at the mercy of dagger-eyed recital pros will not make them feel like repeating the experience.

If you are not that familiar with song recitals and are curious to explore, here are some recommendations:

Buy a ticket

Unless they are megastar events, song recitals tend to be cheaper than other vocal concerts. It should be easy to find an affordable recital nearby. Many young singers and pianists perform in churches and community centres. Look for a small-to-medium-sized venue. Up-close and personal is what song recitals are all about.

Prepare only if you enjoy it

A Lieder recital is entertainment, not a lit crit exam. You do not have to put in hours of homework. If you feel like reading ahead, it will enrich your listening experience. For example, in Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), the piano mimics the whirring of the wheel, as well as Gretchen’s obsessive thoughts. Also, the rising phrase ending in her cry on “Kuss” indicates that she is dreaming of more than just kissing Faust, with whom she is infatuated. Your admiration for Schubert will increase when you learn that he composed this gem when he was just seventeen years old. However, you do not need to know more than what the words mean. A good singer and pianist will convey the song’s urgency and the music will work its subliminal magic. There are many entry points to appreciating art songs. On repeated listening, the immortal ones will reveal their complexity in new and surprising ways.

Take note of the rules, then relax

This is the behaviour code I think recital venues should make clear at each concert:

1. Songs are usually grouped in sets, as indicated in the programme. Clap at the end of the set, not after each individual song.

2. Suppress coughing and sneezing until the last song in a group. During long song cycles, suppression needs to take on Olympian dimensions. Violent hacking between songs kill whatever mood the artists are trying to create. You can cough to your heart’s content after Winterreise is over. (By the way, the convention is that no encores are given after this particular song cycle. It is assumed that once you climb Everest, anything else will feel like an anticlimactic hillock.)

3. Do not turn programme pages during songs. The rustling is distracting to performers and fellow patrons alike.

4. Obviously, check that your phone is switched off. If you are lucky enough to be hearing the exceptional Matthias Goerne, check twice. He is known to send out phone-flashing culprits. I have seen him do it – it is worse than an irate headmaster telling you off during school assembly.

Read, then look up and listen

Get to the venue in time to read texts and translations before the concert starts. Do not follow the text on the page during the performance. Fix your attention on the performers, or you will miss much of what they transmit across the stage. Glance at the text briefly before each song to refresh your memory about its central idea. You do not need to know the exact meaning of each word, but you do need to be receptive to the frame of mind the song should put you in.

Choose your Lieder

Art songs come in a myriad flavours. Try listening to different composers and singers to discover what you like best. If your favourite opera singers also do art songs, start by exploring those. Maybe passionate Russian songs are your thing, or Italian songs, many of which have the instant appeal of popular arias. Experienced fans can be adamant about the “best” and “greatest” recordings and interpreters. If you like a song or a voice, do not let any dismissive comments dampen your enjoyment. Record reviews will point you to many fantastic recordings, but you are the only one who can determine whether a song or a singer speaks to you. Referring to interpreter par excellence Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone Thomas Quasthoff, himself a great Lieder singer, once exclaimed during a discussion: “Not Fischer-Dieskau again! Why do we always have to bring him up?” Naturally, Quasthoff was not questioning Fischer-Dieskau’s place in the Lieder pantheon, but pointing out there is more than one way to skin a lieder-loving cat.

Hum/sing your favourites around the house

If you catch yourself doing this, congratulations! You are now a bona fide Lieder fan.