Why we need Lieder

By Roger Mills

For Thomas Hampson, Lieder’s coupling of music and poetry makes it one of the greatest of all art forms. But while opera’s popularity soars, Lieder is still the preserve of a tiny minority. In an exclusive and forthright interview Hampson explains why Lieder is great, and looks at the forces that are preventing it from reaching a broader public.

“I would love to invite people into the world of Lieder. I would love to convince them that in Lieder there is a world of refuge and reflection that is exhilarating, terribly entertaining terribly valid, terribly beautiful – all the things that people are looking for. This is what keeps me going in the Lieder world.”

The speaker is American baritone Thomas Hampson, whose latest Lieder recording, a collection of songs by various composers recorded live at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, is released by EMI this month. The missionary quality of the statement is typical. Though Hampson sings and records a lot of opera, it is about Lieder that he gets most passionate. While opera is enjoying something of a vogue and has got through to huge, and decidedly non-specialist publics over recent years, Lieder, in Hampson’s book, is under threat: it is the domain of a small public of aficionados who often do it more harm than good in the way they approach it.

This to Hampson, is a desperate waste. He sees Lieder as potentially one of the most accessible and stimulating forms of music available. What is more he sees it as something that is peculiarly relevant and necessary for people in the late twentieth century.

But why does Hampson see Lieder as so significant? How does it work? How can songs by Beethoven or Schumann or Grieg, written in the nineteenth century have anything to say to us now? Hampson’s starting point is the poetry. Lieder, if one can come up with a catch-all definition at all, is the setting of poetry to music. The meeting of a poet and a composer. For Hampson the poetry is vital “I see life as a journey,” he argues, “and I see poetry as a notebook of that journey. Every poem that was ever written is about the articulation of the human condition in one way or another.”

Developing from here Hampson sees the central job of Lieder as the telling of a story. The ‘story’ of a piece of poetry can be one in the most conventional sense – the sequential narrative in a Loewe ballad for example. Or it can be the description of a reflective moment like “Die süsse Dirn von Inverness”, one of the Robert Franz songs from the Edinburgh recital where the young girl reflects on what has happened to all her loved ones, and this illuminates the universal truth of the grave ills which are done to innocent people by someone else’s aggression. Or the poem can just simply reflect a mood like that in the Grieg song “Dereinst, Gedanke mein”. “Poetic expression is always extremely economical, but it is always about narration, relating a story or something illuminating human experience.”

The poetry, then, is vital. The music that embodies the verse takes it into a new dimension. Hampson, interestingly, dwells less on the music than on the words when discussing Lieder. This is largely because he feels that the expressive content of song the way it deals with life experiences, tends to get sidelined by commentators and because he reckons people are far too ready to go to a Lieder evening and treat it as an abstract, purely sonic experience. But he is equally passionate about the transforming effect of the music on the poetry. “Human experience can be floodlit through the literary context, or through the musical context. We should never lose sight of the fact that the whole of a song is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.”

But why does Lieder work now?

Hampson’s views on poetry, however, beg some important questions. How can verse written in the nineteenth century, expressing nineteenth century situations and concerns have anything to do with us now? He answers by referring to his basic philosophical understanding of life. “For me,” says Hampson, “human experience and human expression are essentially the same, whether it be 100 years ago, 400 years ago or now. People still love and hate and fear and all the other parts of emotional life in the same way. The only thing that changes is the context in which it all transpires. To me the existence of a life is only the lighted part of a greater existence. It is my time to be. So I think that the things that have happened in the past, regardless of how long ago, are parts of the human existence that I am part of. If you accept that human experience is basically the same and part of a continuum of living, then every literary expression of any particular time is valid.”

Going on from here, it is the universality and timelessness of human experience that for Hampson is the reason why art works. “I feel that the point of art is the re-creation of experience for the re-inspiring of our existence. I think that’s what happens in visual art and in poetry and in music. Cone vital reason why art re-inspires our existence is that it floodlights experience. It allows us to reflect on experience and shows us what we think and feel in a way that we can’t when we are caught up in the moment-to-moment treadmill of normal living.”

This ability of art, and of song to show us life is something Hampson sees as a particularly pressing need in the modern world. “The whole business of song and poetry is so incredibly important because today’s world does not invite you to think about what you are doing. It only invites you to think about how to do it. We’ve become so progressively goal-orientated that work is seen as the only serious part of life and people only want to switch off when they’re not working. But they are missing the fulfillment that comes from real reflection. And I’m sure people are looking for a venue for reflection. The two biggest classical sellers in the last years have been the Górecki Symphony No. 3 and Gregorian Chant. Now what does that tell you? I think it shows people want to find a venue for reflection, and for self-reflection.”

So what’s the problem?

Hampson’s views on Lieder are passionately held, but he knows that one faces an uphill struggle to invite a broader public into the world of Lieder. Lieder’s accessibility is beset with problems. Firstly there’s the obvious linguistic one. Every European language has its song repertoire, but most of Lieder’s pinnacles, the songs of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf for example, are in German and German is little understood outside Germany and Austria. But language for the most part can be seen simply as the prism or context of these human experiences found in song. “Obviously we can’t beg enough for proper translations and proper notes so people can follow the text. But you cannot believe how many concert presenters find it a troublesome annoyance and burdensome expense to print the texts. It’s crazy!”

The nature of contemporary pop music is, Hampson reckons, another major obstacle to making Lieder converts. “It seems to me,” he argues, “that in this rather loud, raucous and electronic world we’re losing the acoustical and even emotional sensitivity that is so necessary to respond to someone reflecting life through song. “It’s not really about pop or jazz or musical theatre per se but about the medium that is becoming the norm.”

The modem world, or more to the point modem behavioural attitude becomes a hindrance. “People, while trying to be balanced in their activities, seem to equate intellectual and emotional effort with work or even stress. But we’re seldom invited into a fulfilling or even relaxing state through effort that is intellectually stimulating and certainly based in some form of self-education. If only people understood that there’s actually nothing more relaxing than something that is intellectually stimulating. It’s just like exercise You feel infinitely more alive when you have done it.”

The understanding of the world of Lieder then faces a stack of problems. But the most difficult of them all to understand comes from precisely the people who ought to be drawing listeners into the world of song – “the industry of observation”. Hampson is not a man who has been given a rough ride by the press, and his views on this subject cannot be called sour grapes. But he sees the way critics handle writing about Lieder as a particularly major block to its becoming more accessible. “There is such an atmosphere of arbitrary, rather dismissive criticism today based more on artificial notions of style and rather monolithic models of performance tradition than on any dialogue with or about the experience of the songs themselves or their relation to reality. And certainly there is the very least credit given to an individual artist’s experience in recreating the song. Yes, analysis is important, but to abrogate a performance of some artist because, for instance, one might disagree with the articualtion of duple over triple in a Schubert song or the dimension of piano to forte in another song is a very sad neglect, even hindrance, to the visceral response one wants one’s public to have. We are forever confronted with categories: “the best”, “the most sincere”, “the only” ad infinitum. But where is the dialogue about the thought processes that created the poem, music or its re-creation . on any level? The problem of obsessive categorizing of both the literature and performances is that you don’t allow the moment of song to stand in its own worth. It’s not up to me to decide for listeners what, say, a setting of a Burns poem means for them. I can decide for myself. Otherwise it would be a random performance. But what happens to you when you hear it – whether you’re entertained, whether you’re moved, whether it has some association or relevance for you – is your business. Define, categorise, rate, analyse, analyse – we must stop robbing people of their own emotional and intellectual response to song. It is a refuge for us all on any level of awareness.”

Mills, Roger, Getting into Lieder with Thomas Hampson, in CLASSIC CD, August 1994.