Apart from the Matthew Passion and Nina Hagen (yet more unlikely bedfellows), here are further compelling reasons to learn German. While I’ve never been drawn to the mainstream lieder scene, yet again I owe my enchantment by these song cycles to Boulez (cf. Mahler’s Rückert lieder, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade).

First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Here’s Janet Baker with Reggie Goodall in 1971:

Anne Sofie von Otter is just as wonderful:

Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs (which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom)—here’s Jessye Norman with Boulez (with helpful Japanese subtitles):

and his (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls)—fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku? Here’s Margaret Price with Abbado in 1970:

The third song is haunting:

Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus
Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus!
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus


After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word), find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!

See also Strauss’s Four last songs. A spellbinding recent addition to the canon is Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, for the great Barbara Hannigan. Sgt Pepper and Abbey road also rank alongside these orchestral song-cycles.

11 thoughts on “Lieder

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