Top 10 Kunstlieder

Ah yes – the Kunstlied. One of the most popular genres in classical music. Often associated with the Romantic period, their lyrical, contemplative nature is ideal to brood over the beginning of Autumn. Here are my top 10.

A Kunstlied (German for ‘Artistic song’) is a poem set to classical music. Unlike the traditional Lied – which often has roots in folk music and lyrical ballads – it is particular in that it is ‘artistic’, i.e. it has a definite composer to it and is often artistically more complex in nature. A traditional Lied, on the other hand, would be passed on orally throughout the centuries (the lyrics, the melody, or both).

Especially the 19th century and the Romantic period popularised the Kunstlied. Consequently a lot of the typical themes depicted in them are pastoral or romantic in nature. Composers continued to create Kunstlieder well into the 20th century.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 Lieder!

Mondnacht (Moonlit Night) – Robert Schumann

Based on the renowned German Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff’s ‘Mondnacht’, this Lied is a perfect example of the Romantic spirit in Germany. The lyrics depict a speaker yearning for some form of transcendental beauty evoked in the world of nature. Watching the sky widening he compares and projects his own life and feelings into the scenery. Schumann’s music similarly captures the dream-like feeling and gently increases the intensity as the speaker gets more involved.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Ständchen (Love Song) – Franz Schubert

You can’t really have a top 10 list of Lieder without at least one Schubert in it. Here’s my first. This one is another prime example of Romanticism, although the poem itself is less well-known than Eichendorff’s. It’s quite a simple love song, actually, in which the speaker again evokes nature and begs his lover to fulfil him. Slightly old-fashioned, certainly, and the lyrics wouldn’t be significant if it weren’t for the sheer gorgeous music that Schubert presents, bringing Ludwig Rellstab’s poem to life. Just listen for yourself – it’s absolutely delightful.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Peter Schreier:

Tagebuch eines Verschollenen (Diary of one who disappeared) – Leoš Janáček

Perhaps my most unusual entry, and it’s actually a cycle, rather than an individual lied, Tagebuch eines Verschollenen is based on a text by Josef Kalda, composed in 1917-1919. It’s more dramatic than lyrical, containing a plot in which a rich farmer’s son falls in love with a gypsy. Ostracised by society, he begins a new life with her in nature; his family disowns him. Several days after he disappears they find a chamber with his poetry which confesses his doings. The music is conservative in comparison with the composer’s operas, but nevertheless very successful.

No English lyrics available, though the section titles can be found here.

Here performed by John Heuzenroeder, Adriana Bastidas Gamboa, Justyna Samborska, Judith Thielsen, and Maarja Purga:

Die Uhr (The Clock) – Carl Loewe

Based on a little-known poem by the little-known poet Johann Gabriel Seidl, Carl Loewe’s ‘Die Uhr’ is a general contemplation about time and how we measure it using a watch. Loewe isn’t one of the most-beloved Lied-composers, but in this one he displays a finesse in changing the mood quickly from regular and ongoing, via more dramatical elements when talking about the death of the speaker’s father and jubilant when contemplating the birth of his child. During his lifetime Loewe was more beloved than he is now, having popularised many ballads as a sub-form of the Kunstlied.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Hermann Prey:

In der Fremde (In the Strange Land) – Robert Schumann

Another composition based on Eichendorff, Schumann’s ‘In der Fremde’ is a beautiful musical rendition of explorations relating to abandonment, solitude and meaninglessness. It’s a lot bleaker than ‘Mondnacht’ both in its themes and musical presentation. Here we have an abundance of minor keys and a generally pessimistic take on the Romantic sensibility, giving you an overall feeling of what it would be like to be hopelessly abandoned  in this world. Even the second stanza, which seems, at first, to be calmer in nature, ultimately represents a longing for death rather than a way out of the situation.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) – Franz Schubert

Another Schubert, and this one is actually composed to the lyrics from Goethe’s Faust, when Gretchen contemplates her never-ending love for the titular hero. This one is particularly brilliant: the piano accompaniment mirrors the ‘rolling’ sound one would imagine on a spinning wheel. It is fast-paced and dramatical more than lyrical and provides a perfect sense of the desperation Gretchen feels at this time, realising that she can no longer live without Faust. Knowing of her tragic outcome provides us with a particular sense of mournfulness.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Jessye Norman:

Wesendonck Lieder (Songs of Wesendonck) – Richard Wagner

While Wagner is definitely more at home in the world of opera than that of the Kunstlied, his Wesendock Lieder are nevertheless beautiful to listen to. He wrote them while working on Tristan und Isolde, so he was already very accomplished at this point in his career. They are based on the poems of his friend – and part-time muse – Mathilde Wiesendonck. Altogether, they invoke a sense of unfulfilled love and Wagner’s skill in dramatical renditions of music – all things he was simultaneously building into Tristan und Isolde, of course.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Waltraud Meier:

Les illuminations (The Illuminations) – Benjamin Britten

The newest entry on this list, Britten’s Les illuminations are based on part of Arthur Rimbaud’s collection of the same name. The poems – published in the 1870s – can be considered a dreamlike precursor to surrealism in their hallucination-like evocation of their themes, tackling many different subjects throughout the collection. Britten’s music is particularly efficient in highlighting that, managing to capture a range of moods within the roughly 20 minutes of runtime. Always eerie and powerful, curious and beautiful, they are definitely worth checking out.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Ian Bostridge:

Der Erlkönig (The Erl King)– Franz Schubert

Final one by Schubert, I promise! Very popular in general, it nevertheless needs to be said that this is very unusual for a Kunstlied in that it is entirely dramatic in its telling of a single narrative. It’s based on Goethe’s ballad of the same name which tells the story of a father trying to bring his sick and hallucinating child to the doctor in the middle of a stormy night. The brilliance of the music is undeniable; it always feels urgent and tragic and moves seamlessly between the four different characters in evoking different moods (the narrator, the sombre father, the terrified child, the tempting hallucination of the Erlkönig).

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Das Trunklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow) – Gustav Mahler

Alright – yes, I’ve written about this one before. But I just can’t help myself. Since it was composed at an important point in the history of art at the emergence of Modernism, Mahler’s Kunstlied captures the general Zeitgeist perfectly in a rendition which is extremely effective, pessimistic, and dramatic in its music. However, there’s little I can do here to capture the general magnificence of this Lied after having written so extensively about it elsewhere – so just go and listen to it, or else read my other post should you think it worth your time.

Find the translated lyrics here.

Here performed by René Kollo:

Closing words

Can you think of other Lieder I might have missed? Or are there some item on here you absolutely detest? Then why not leave a comment in the comments section below and we can have a chat about it. Or, if you liked this post, why not share it on social media? Then please click on one of the tender buttons below.