A Look at Mozart’s Lieder

The songs of Mozart are a very mixed bag. They differ from one another in genre, language, and ambition. “Abendempfindung,” for instance, is an imposing little masterpiece that would grace any recital program. On the other hand, for the narrative of “Die kleine Spinnerin” to make any sense, one would have to sing verse after verse of text to a very modest piece of music. This song is not really suitable for public performance, especially to an audience that doesn’t speak German. Nonetheless, even the most casual of Mozart’s songs offer something of interest. Within this brief article, I look at both familiar and unfamiliar examples with the aim of inspiring the reader to investigate—or re-investigate—these songs.

There is no surer way to turn people against something than to tell them it is good for them. So let me word this very carefully: Mozart songs allow the young singer to indulge in the emotions of the Mozart opera characters but are less vocally taxing than opera arias—especially since songs, unlike arias, can be sung in whatever key proves comfortable. Furthermore, many of the songs, like “Dans un bois solitaire” and “Das Veilchen” for example, offer the pleasure of a sophisticated interchange between voice and piano.

Too often the world seems to worsen in many ways. Happily, in some respects it demonstrably improves. Take musical editions, for example. The Bärenreiter new Mozart edition of the Complete Songs is so superior to earlier editions of the songs that using anything else would be a mistake. The text incorporates recent scholarship and is free of unacknowledged editorial marks that blemish older editions. In addition, the collection contains some songs not found elsewhere, and presents the songs in chronological order. The typography is attractive, and the volume is not even madly expensive. Current printings include an appendix with literal English translations.

The original songs are in high keys, but Bärenreiter has also brought out a volume of medium voice transpositions. Here I must express a reservation. I understand the editor’s argument that some keys should be avoided as atypical of Mozart, or as unsuited to the mood of an individual song; nevertheless, to transpose a song like “Dans un bois solitaire” down an entire fourth and call it medium is ludicrous! In short, mezzos and baritones will find themselves in the familiar predicament: a song will be too high in one of the volumes, too low in another. The only answer, alas, is to write the thing out in the key that really fits, unless the pianist in question can prepare a mental transposition.

One tiny matter should be cleared up. For several of the songs, the notes in small type are identified in a footnote as “emendations” by the editor. This is a mistranslation: the notes are not corrections but rather editorial completions of piano parts where Mozart has given only a bass line, expecting the player to fill in an accompaniment.

Even Mozart’s very first song, composed at age twelve, deserves consideration. While the setting of “An die Freude” is modest, the tune is quite unusual: there is enough repetition of rhythm and contour to perceive the melody as coherent, yet no phrase is a repetition of an earlier one. In all strophic songs, where several verses of text are set to the same music, the singer must choose how many and which verses to sing. However, this song is long enough that it can be performed with a single verse.

To oblige a friend, Mozart composed two ariettas in French. The game of trying to identify musical influence is a dangerous one, but I find that the flexible form, sudden changes in tempo, and orchestral-sounding accompaniment patterns in the adorable “Dans un bois solitaire” are reminiscent of Gluck, who by the date of this song had produced most of his operas. In what seems to me a spirit of affectionate parody, Mozart treats his fanciful subject in a grandly operatic manner. (The speaker awakes Cupid, who revenges himself by condemning the man to love a girl he had sworn to forget.) Following the highly dramatic central allegro and presto, Cupid expresses his “revenge” with the sweet, gentle strains of the song’s opening—surely, the expression of this passage is playful.

“Sei du mein Trost” is a mere thirteen bars of music, but they are bars of great intensity and variety. Can you think of another work from this era beginning with a diminished seventh chord? I certainly can’t! (Nor is this a case where, in practice, one might begin the song by using the postlude as prelude—there is no postlude.) The short opening phrase, with this astonishing beginning, has the character of an exclamation. Initially, the piano seems a mere support to the voice, but the two part ways at bar 6, the piano continuing the previous melodic idea, and the voice interrupting with a new one. This song looks so simple on paper that it is easy to overlook its originality. “Ich würd’auf meinem Pfad,” composed at about the same time, is notable for its passion and harmonic intensity. As in Constanze’s “Traurigkeit” and Pamina’s aria, the dissonances of its many nonharmonic tones are highly expressive—and not easy to hear and sing correctly. This pair of tiny contrasting songs might well be programmed together.

Mozart lends an air of informality and spontaneity to the easy-going “Die Zufriedenheit,” K. 473 (the later of the two with this title) by allowing the phrases to unfold in unequal lengths—five bars followed by four until the postlude closes with a three-bar phrase.

“Das Veilchen” is often referred to as the first real Lied. But by what definition is it a “real” Lied and the previous ones … unreal? Because it is through-composed, rather than strophic? Hmmm—are not the strophic songs that begin and end Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin “real” Lieder? Musical definitions just don’t work in real life! Nevertheless, it is true that among Mozart’s German songs, “Das Veilchen” does mark a new development—the piano part is incomparably richer and more independent than before. In the piano’s prelude, the pause and sudden forte establish the importance of the phrase that will frame the song, “es war ein herzigs Veilchen.” The piano enacts the light tread of the shepherdess and, in an interlude, her carefree singing. Through a change of key and an accent, it is the piano that describes the little tragedy—the shepherdess inadvertently killing the flower. The arpeggiated chord in bar 61 breaks the tempo, helping to suggest that “das arme Veilchen!” is a spontaneous exclamation. (To me, the repellent masochism of the poem is redeemed only by the light touch of Mozart’s setting.)

On May 26, 1787, Mozart composed “Das Lied der Trennung (Song of Parting),” in which a man begs his lover not to forget him during a separation. A mere three days later, Mozart wrote “Als Luise,” in which a woman burns the letters of an unfaithful lover. I can’t help noticing that, although the texts are by different poets, the earlier song is addressed to Luise, and the later is sung by Luise. Was the second song possibly composed as a bitter sequel to the first in which Luise discovers that the protestations of her lover in “Das Lied der Trennung”—written to her in letters—are lies? Was the brief text of “Als Luise” concocted on the spot for Mozart?

In any case, this dramatic little scena encapsulates the dilemma of Elvira in Don Giovanni: She knows he is a betrayer but finds it hard to let go of him. A young singer who is not suited to or not ready for Elvira can ringingly denounce a two-timing boyfriend in this song. In bar 4, since the dotted rhythm of “geht zu Grunde!” echoes the rhythm in the left hand of the piano, the rhythm of the voice part must be equally strong. Here, better that the rhythm be exaggerated—the dotted sixteenth be too long and the thirty-second too short—than that it be too loose. (The passage recalls the pulse of Elvira’s “Ah, fuggi.”) Again, the immediate juxtaposition of raging (“Ihr danket”) and yielding to tenderness (“Denn, ach! … Doch ach!”) is exactly like that of “mi tradí” and “ma tradita” in Elvira’s “Mi tradí.”

“Abendempfindung” is exceptional, and not just within the body of Mozart songs. Many instrumental pieces in the classical era were composed to sound like an improvisation; for example, Mozart’s own piano fantasies. The free-flowing form of “Abendempfindung,” however, makes it a fascinating anomaly—a song that creates the illusion of improvisation. Mozart, in setting the poem’s mood and meaning (it is a meditation where death is anticipated without fear or regret), totally subverts its meter, as well as its verse structure.

Instead of a poem, we hear a loose chain of associations. We customarily regard recitative and cantabile as separate entities. The first favors the words over lyricism and legato, the second, lyricism over the articulation of words. “Abendempfindung” encourages us to explore the shades in between. For instance, the setting of the initial words, “Abend ist’s,” suggests a simple statement of fact and can be more in the direction of speech, whereas “und der Mond,” a sweeping phrase expressing a poetic image, invites more vocal intensity. In the ecstatic climax beginning in bar 84, “O sie wird,” the exalted sentiment demands full legato, as confirmed by the melismas of Mozart’s setting (melisma necessarily tends to sacrifice words to vocalism). The more full and cantabile the singing, the harder to understand the words, and thus we find here for the first time in this song repetitions of text.

There is a strong erotic component in Mozart’s music—in fact, a movement of an early piano sonata bears the unusual marking “andante amoroso”! The arias for the characters Tamino, Belmonte, and Cherubino all express longing. Whatever the author’s intention for the strange complete poem, “An Chloe” (the meaning of which I confess escapes me—I’m not even sure I want to understand it), the stanzas Mozart chose to set become simply an ardent love song filled with musical gestures that the composer associates with passion. Notice that dotted rhythms appear only once—to imitate the beating of the speaker’s heart. The kiss mentioned in bar 18 takes the speaker’s breath away, and the piano is left to continue the melody. The phrase where love has left the speaker “weak” is broken into three-note fragments bound together by echoes in the piano, but the phrase where he declares himself to be blissful next to his beloved is long and sweeping. Convention, of course, allows women to sing male texts. When a woman chooses to sing this song, she should remember that mother was right—all men are beasts!

I draw attention to two dangers: It is easy to overlook and flatten out the difference between half and whole steps in the melisma in bar 35, especially since the next melisma consists of only half-steps. Also, Mozart has set the word “ermattet” with the final syllable as the highest, so one must take care to stress the second, accented syllable. What is the dark cloud overshadowing the lover’s happiness in the passage beginning in bar 41? Whatever it may mean in the complete poem, in the context of the Mozart song it can be taken to be merely the fear that such great happiness may not last. In the phrase in question (“den berauschten Blick”), since the purpose of the rests seems clearly to convey breathless anxiety, I believe that they ought not be given with arithmetic exactitude—that the line should seem to be involuntarily interrupted.

The Bärenreiter volume contains an interesting curiosity. Of Mozart’s “concert arias” for soprano, one of the best known is the elaborate, expressive, and vocally sensational “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!,” composed for Mozart’s sister-in-law to interpolate in an opera, Il curioso indiscreto by one Pasquale Anfossi. Another version, “Ah, spiegarti, oh Dio,” exists only in Mozart’s piano score (a reduction or a sketch?) and is given in an appendix. Even though it’s not as interesting as “Vorrei,” it would allow a soprano to show off her high range at the end of a group of Mozart songs. Since there is no orchestration and the piano rendering is by the composer, no one (not even me!) could object that, as an aria, it would be better heard with orchestra and therefore doesn’t belong on a recital.

The familiar “Ridente la calma” is likewise relegated to the appendix. As it turns out, it is only arranged by Mozart. (According to New Grove, the original is by Josef Myslivecek.) Did Mozart recall this graceful melody when he composed Ferrando’s “Un’aura amorosa” about twenty years later? There is no quotation but there certainly is a general resemblance. The singer should observe that in the third bar the thirty-second notes on the syllable -nell begin on the second half of the second beat. If they enter the least bit late, they must be rushed—not in the character of “calma.”

And now, I can start regretting the songs I did not get around to discussing…

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.